Ichiro is, again, smarter than his manager and the press covering him
I know, our fanatical Ichiro devotion here at USSM taints our judgment of all things Ichiro. But I want to take a second and point something out.
McLaren is the manager of the Mariners. He made a comment about Ichiro being capable of stealing 80 bases, and his meaning was kind of hazy, but it appears he’s trying to put the idea in Ichiro’s brain. From mlb.com’s story:
“He has done everything so well in his career, winning batting battles and Gold Gloves, that the bar is set high for him,” McLaren said. “He’s a numbers guy, and I just like him and others to think, ‘I am capable of doing this.’ That  was a number I pulled out of a hat.”
Batting battles? Titles?
Great motivation there, McLaren. You’re doing a heckuvajob.
When asked if McLaren’s forecast was possible, Ichiro said, “I could steal 80 bases … if I would get thrown out 70 times. When you run that much, there is a risk involved.”
Good point there, Ichiro. Ichiro’s a smart player, he knows it doesn’t make sense to run 200 times and get thrown out 150. He knows when he can take advantage of the battery to take an extra base successfully, and there are situations when it’s worth more risk. He’s awesome, is my point.
So. Jim Street goes on to talk to Harold Reynolds, who thinks that the running game puts pressure on the defense (sigh)…
The success rate during Ichiro’s seven-year MLB career is 81 percent (272-for-338), and his base-stealing percentage has been better the past three seasons (86 percent) than it was in his first four seasons (77 percent). That is a clear indication that he reads pitcher’s pickoff moves better now than earlier in his career.
His base-stealing rate last season was essentially the same as his first year, when it’s reasonable to assume he was a hair faster, but he attempted 70 steals that year — he found a lot more chances he liked and went for it. Today, he’s picking his spots with the same success, but not running as often. That doesn’t say “better at reading pitchers” to me. That says “continued awesomeness at knowing what his abilities are.”
Over the course of last year’s season, Ichiro ran 37 times and was thrown out 8 times, which is an 80% rate. It’s about his career average of 80%. 80%’s sweet. Above 75% is unquestionably a positive, and there are all kinds of stats and studies you can look up that put the break-even there.
Given permission to largely run whenever he wants, Ichiro’s picking his spots, he’s productive, contributing to the team’s success, and he’s shown season after season that his judgment is pretty outstanding. He’s not doing it as often as, say, Carl Crawford (50 SB/10 CS) or Juan Pierre (64/15), but Juan Uribe was thrown out 9 times and stole successfully once. Willy Taveras was 33/9. My point is, Ichiro’s fine. He knows what he’s doing.
Here’s a rough measure of Ichiro’s selection. He was on base 284 times (232 non-HR hits, 49 walks, 3 HBP) not counting fielders choices where he made it to first but the runner on first got thrown out (GDP? 7 all year). Of all the times he was on base, all the pitches he saw he could have taken off on, he carefully selected 45 times to take off where a play could have been made on him (so we’re not counting “took off, ball fouled off”). His careful selection resulted in a high success rate and a contribution to the team.
What if he ran every time — really, every pitch thrown where he was on base, he attempted to steal. He’d be thrown out all the time. They’d pitch out and even the Kendall/Estrada types would nail him more often (I have a whole other rant about that, but that’s for another time).
So unless you believe that Ichiro’s judgment isn’t good and that being way more aggressive about when to run would improve his judgment, that’s our range of possible outcomes:
Ichiro uses his superior baseball intellect: 80% success
Ichiro runs every pitch: let’s call it 15%. Instead of 37-8 he goes 42-240.
His 80% success rate gives the team a couple runs a year easily, and that’s a larger impact than it seems when I write it that way.
A 15% success rate and running every pitch would entirely destroy the value of his hitting. He’d be the worst offensive player in baseball.
Within that range, the actual success rate is going to vary a lot. If he picked the next best ten times to run, and they were 70% chances, he’d have been at 44-11 (+7, +3), which is still nice. Figure that each additional ten, the percentage goes down 5% again (and this certainly isn’t meant to be representational of the actual probabilities, I’m just working my way to a point). You can get Ichiro to go 57-19 on the season, a nice 75% success rate, and that certainly looks a lot more impressive.
The problem is that it’s not. Those extra 30 attempts have a success rate of 65% — he’s not actually helping the team by taking those, unless you believe putting the game in motion (and so on and so forth). Each of those thirty new attempts are counter-productive.
And to return to Ichiro’s quote, if you start the counter at 75% and drop the success rate 3.5% for every extra five attempts, Ichiro can get 80 stolen bases… but he gets thrown out 70 times, too (79-71, a 56% rate)
In a way, it’s like criticizing him for his defense. Ichiro made 424 put-outs last year. The franchise record for an outfielder is Mike Cameron’s ridiculous 485 in 2003. With Ichiro’s speed and good glove, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to break that. He just needs to charge at every fly ball hit anywhere, fair or foul, sprinting full-out, and knock other fielders out of the way to get there. It would certainly increase his putout numbers, and he could certainly break the franchise record… what could go wrong? (And how different would it be than than the 2008 outfield defense anyway?)
Ichiro’s right to shrug off the standard pre-season blather about running more, or better, or how awesome the Angels are. Unless you believe that by taking more chances Ichiro’s going to suddenly uncover a set of outstanding base-stealing chances that he was previously blind to, we should put our trust in him and continue to enjoy his play, rather than stretch to find areas of improvement where he is already doing an fine job.