Ichiro The Underrated
If you’ve read any of the comment threads lately, you know there’s a significant portion of the fan base that wants the Mariners to trade Ichiro this summer before he becomes a free agent. Tacoma News Tribune columnist John McGrath has been beating this drum for years. And last night, Geoff Baker threw out the following comments on his blog:
To settle a debate starting up in the previous post’s comments thread, I will not be re-evaluating my stance on Ichiro anytime soon. I like him at his current contract numbers, but not at what they will likely inflate to next season. He is having a great May, no doubt, but was invisible through too much of April. He has to do more than go on a great three-week run to change my mind. That’s a lot of coin he’s looking for. This is a .500 team (after tonight) he’s playing on. Maybe if he helps lead them to the postseason the way Shannon Stewart did the Minnesota Twins a couple of years back (or the way Ichiro did it in 2001) then I’ll start believing. But right now, for $15 million to $20 million, I don’t think he brings enough. Even with his stellar defense. That .800 OPS is not the same as some of those other center fielders bring in the power and RBI departments. Speed is his big threat and I still think he has to use it more.
I think a large and growing part of the Mariner fanbase agrees with Geoff on this. When the conversation of Ichiro comes up in a crowd, invariably, half of them will talk about his unwillingness to be a leader, his lack of power, the frustrating slumps he goes into, his selection of when to steal bases, and his lower OPS compared to other players who are considered stars. There are a lot of people who view Ichiro as a good-but-not-great player, a uniquely talented singles hitter who doesn’t do enough other things to help a team win. I’m betting that a lot of you guys reading this post feel that way.
In fact, I think this viewpoint has become so commonly accepted among fans that Ichiro is now one of the most underrated players in baseball. I’m not one who thought he was really the MVP in his 2001 season where the baseball writers went nuts over the guy, and I spent his first few years in Seattle calling him overrated. Now, the pendulum has swung too far the other. Ichiro is now better than people believe.
Skeptical? Name the center fielders in baseball you’d rather have than Ichiro.
That’s it. That’s my list. You might have been able to make a case for Andruw Jones before this year began, but if you’re worried about Ichiro declining as he ages, you should be frightened by what has happened to Andruw this year, hitting .216 and striking out in 33% of his plate appearances. Vernon Wells continues to settle in as a productive non-star with his age 27 season of last year looking more and more like a career year. Torii Hunter, likewise, is an above average player who simply isn’t in Ichiro’s league.
Ichiro is pretty clearly the third best center fielder in baseball, and there’s a pretty big gap between him and whoever you think #4 might be. The third best player in the game at an up the middle position, and people aren’t convinced that he’s really a great player?
Let’s look at those knocks against him again.
Career .813 OPS is underwhelming.
An .813 OPS while playing half your games in Safeco Field is a lot more valuable than an .813 OPS in other parks. The average OPS for a player in Ichiro’s context would be .746, meaning he’s been 19 percent better than the league average hitter during his time in Seattle. His OPS+ of 119, for comparison, is higher than Andruw Jones’ career mark (117). Johnny Damon has exactly one season where he posted an OPS+ of higher than 119 – that was 120, last year. His career mark is 104. Vernon Wells – 112. Torii Hunter – 104.
OPS also ignores two other things that are quite valuable parts of Ichiro’s game – baserunning and health. Ichiro’s among the very best baserunners in the game, adding 4 to 5 runs a year just with his legs. It might seem like a minor deal, but it separates him even further from the pack.
But health is the big key here. In his 6 1/2 years in Seattle, Ichiro has played in 999 of a possible 1,014 games. He’s played 98.5% of all Mariner games since he joined the team. He’s the most durable player going today, a guy who simply does not get hurt thanks to his insane stretching routines. He doesn’t take days off due to back spasms. His hamstrings don’t tighten up. He just doesn’t get hurt. He shows up to the park, every day, and plays at 100%.
No rate statistic, one that boils everything down to production per at-bat, is going to properly value Ichiro’s remarkable endurance. Not only does he play at a high level, but he plays every single day.
He doesn’t run enough.
Last year, Ichiro stole 45 bases and was caught twice. If you want him to run more, what you’re really saying is you want him to get thrown out more. Ichiro understands better than anyone watching at home when the probabilties of him taking the bag are in his favor. He could be a more aggressive basestealer, picking up 60-70 steals a year if he ran more often. Jose Reyes stole 64 bases last year, for instance, but it took him 81 tries to do it. Ichiro was 45 for 47. Are those 19 extra steals worth 15 extra outs? No way.
Ichiro doesn’t run as often as other basestealers. And that is why he gets thrown out at a far reduced rate, making his baserunning even more valuable than if he ran like a wreckless maniac. Ichiro’s one of the two or three best baserunners in baseball today. Complaining about how he handles himself once he gets on first base is like complaining about Albert Pujols’ home run trot.
He’s not a leader – He only cares about himself and his numbers – He’s aloof.
Pick your criticism of Ichiro’s personality, because there are certianly enough to go around. It’s no secret that most of the guys who cover the Mariners on a daily basis don’t like Ichiro. He doesn’t give good interviews even though he clearly speaks very good English, the quotes come through a translator and often don’t make a lot of sense, he dresses funny, he does his own pre-game routine, and he’s nothing like the stereotypical caucasion “leader” guy who calls team meetings, pumps his fist when the team wins, and gives quotes that makes the media’s job easy.
But you know what? There’s simply no evidence – none, whatsoever – that Ichiro’s unique personality has a negative effect on his teammates performance. He was just as quirky from 2001 to 2003 when the Mariners were winning 90+ games a year. Now that he’s surrounded by bad players instead of good players, it’s apparently his fault for not turning himself into an American Leader and making Horacio Ramirez not suck at pitching.
Give me a break. Every negative thing that fans believe about Ichiro’s personality is the direct result of an article written by a member of the media. We’re supposed to not like Ichiro because they don’t like Ichiro.
I’m a Mariner fan, not a beat writer fan. I don’t particularly care if Ichiro is a good quote or not. And I’m not going to let the personal views of a few 50-year-old white men color my opinion of Ichiro’s value to the team. He’s a great player, and the fact that he’s not beatwriter friendly doesn’t change that at all.
Ichiro is one of the very best players in the game. He’s a true star, a guy who is worth 5 wins a year over an average center fielder. He’s nearly impossible to replace, and he’s the main reason the Mariners are a .500 team despite some pretty bad teammates.
He’s going to be paid like a star this winter because he is a star. He’s an elite player at a premium position who never gets hurt and shows no signs of aging. The knocks on him are vastly overstated, and it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve come so far that we now have to write a post about how underrated Ichiro is among Mariner fans. But he is, and he shouldn’t be.
Also, we’re going to ask you to refrain from turning comment threads into sounding boards for your personal trade suggestions. It’s just not good content, and we’ll be proactive about deleting comments that head in that direction.