Ichiro Being Ichiro

Dave · May 8, 2012 at 10:24 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Ichiro Suzuki, 2012: .298/.343/.411, .334 wOBA
Ichiro Suzuki, 2001-2011: .326/.370/.421, .348 wOBA

If you look at Ichiro’s performance this year in comparison to the first 11 years of his career, you can see some signs of age-related decline. His batting average is down 28 points, his on base percentage is down 27 points, and his slugging percentage is down 10 points compared to his career averages prior to 2012. As the season goes on and the question of whether or not to re-sign Ichiro becomes more frequent, you’re almost certainly going to have people pointing out numbers just like the ones above.

Only, there’s one serious problem with those numbers – they don’t adjust for the changing offensive performances in baseball over the last decade. When Ichiro broke into the Majors, the average American Leaguer hit .267/.334/.428 and the average team scored 4.86 runs per game. In 2012, the average American Leaguer is hitting .250/.317/.406, and the average team is scoring 4.34 runs per game. Offense has been trending downwards for several years, and the pattern has continued again this season with offensive levels reaching their lowest point since 1989.

That’s why players should be evaluated by their performance relative to the context they’re playing in, and why park and league adjusted metrics such as wRC+ are so useful to compare performances over time. wRC+ puts everything on the same scale, where 100 is league average, and each point above or below that represents how far from average a player has performed offensively.

So far this year, Ichiro’s wRC+ is 116. From 2001-2011, Ichiro’s wRC+ was 116. He’s had five seasons where he’s posted a wRC+ over 116, and six seasons where he’s posted a wRC+ lower than 116. This season is both the average and the median. In other words, he’s performing in a way that fits in perfectly with his career up to this point.

Given his age, you’d actually expect him to be performing a little worse than his career averages, and his more recent performances (113 in 2010, 82 last year) suggest that he might not keep this up all year. However, if you thought 2011 represented the end of Ichiro as a productive big leaguer, his start to 2012 should have convinced you that it may have been more fluke than significant loss of skills.


30 Responses to “Ichiro Being Ichiro”

  1. built2crash on May 8th, 2012 10:44 am

    Dave, what type of a contract extension would you offer Ichiro right now if you were the M’s? Obviously it would be a significant pay cut but what are your thoughts?

  2. maqman on May 8th, 2012 10:47 am

    If they resign him I hope it’s for less than $18MM and not for more than two years, he still seems to have value but he’s still human and age and gravity bend for no man.

  3. Mariners35 on May 8th, 2012 10:57 am

    What is the best equivalent stat or set of stats for figuring out how his defense is in 2012, relative to the rest of his career? I.e. is he close to a point at which he should be primarily a DH? I don’t know one way or the other.

  4. Paul B on May 8th, 2012 11:09 am

    I’m pretty sure it’s too early to draw any conclusions from 2012 fielding stats.

    His range factor/9 (on Baseball-reference) is down a tick from his career, but still above league average for RF’ers. That seems about right to me, but like I said, early days.

    OTOH, his UZR/150 (on fangraphs) is actually above his career average this year, after having been negative last year.

  5. Typical Idiot Fan on May 8th, 2012 11:12 am

    As the season goes on and the question of whether or not to re-sign Ichiro becomes more frequent, you’re almost certainly going to have people pointing out numbers just like the ones above.

    As Blowers / Sims have pointed out a couple of times, the people who’ll criticize Ichiro will only do it relative to Ichiro’s previous numbers, not the league. So when people are criticizing a person still hitting .290 and above, it seems a bit petty and callous. Most players would love to sit in that range.

    Naturally, we look at other stats besides just batting average, but the general masses don’t. It thus proves their hypocrisy. Certain stats they adore are only meaningful when they want them to be.

  6. Westside guy on May 8th, 2012 11:18 am

    Last year I thought age was finally catching up to Ichiro, and maybe it is; but this year the Ichiro! I remember seems to have reappeared. Maybe he feels like he has something to prove to all these kids that are now on the team… or maybe it’s simply not as wearing when you’re not on a bad team with a bunch of over-the-hill veterans.

    I don’t think there’s any danger of Ichiro! being resigned for anything near what he’s earning now. I just hope he’s still around and playing well when this team is fighting for a pennant in the next couple of years. He’s put up with a lot of crap, both on and off the field, over the last several years – and he’s never publicly complained. The dude is simply awesome.

  7. msfanmike on May 8th, 2012 11:22 am

    Thanks Dave, that was very informative. I have a better contextual understanding of how wRC+ works – and it makes perfect sense to me now.

  8. onetreehugger on May 8th, 2012 11:22 am

    Part of the answer here is who could they replace him with that would contribute more wins than he does? I wouldn’t bet on a in-house replacement based on some young player’s potential rather than his proven performance at the major league level. Maybe someone will show that by the end of the year.

    I’m really leary of trying to fill his position by trade or free agent signing because we’ve had so many past experiences of proven batters not being able to hit here no matter how much success they’ve had elsewhere. So I hope one of the young players can show that he can play here, as a Mariner, and still hit well, and play some good defense since we may end up with a right fielder who isn’t much defensively (like a lot of other teams).

    If not, I’d keep Iciro if he would sign for less than he’s making now, but it seems like most veterans aren’t into pay cuts (maybe it reminds them too much of the ‘real world’ outside sports). I might go for 36 million for three years structured as 13, 12, 11, though that’s guessing without knowing what other players with his WAR are getting. His value may be more like 8 mil/year.

    Dave, or anyone, if a wRC+ is 100 for the average player, about where would an equivalent of the Mendoza line be on that scale?

  9. nadingo on May 8th, 2012 12:15 pm

    In my mind, Ichiro will forever be associated with the number 116.

  10. Paul B on May 8th, 2012 12:26 pm

    I use WAR as the Mendoza line, in other words, a zero WAR, which is replacement level.

  11. MissouriMariner on May 8th, 2012 12:42 pm

    I think it would be wise to see if he maintains his production and try to sign him after the season. I love Ichiro but think it would be wise to not be sentimental on him. If he maintains production, I could see a 2 year deal but would hate to see anything longer than that.

  12. Johnny Slick on May 8th, 2012 12:59 pm

    If Ichiro(!) is worth 3 wins this season (he’s on pace for 4.5 but that would also constitute his best season in several years), a contract of $36M over 3 years is a little tiny bit of a bad deal if you assume he’ll fall off by half a win per season. I’m not entirely sure one can be confident that that’s all he’ll fall off; the guy is 38 after all. OTOH there’s the issue that if he can stay up at 180-200 hits over that entire period he could eclipse the 3,000 mark in the USA. I don’t know how much extra income that would mean to the team but it’s bound to mean something.

  13. Hooligan on May 8th, 2012 1:01 pm

    To everyone who thinks of contracts in terms of length only, ask yourselves this: Would you rather have Ichiro for 2 years and 18 million, or 3 years and 18 million?

    People seem hopeful that Ichiro will sign a two-year extension instead of a three year, but in reality what matters is the cost of the extra year. This is usually where the team gets a bargain (and the player gains security), not the opposite.

    A more common example would be a player offered 2 years/18 million or 3 years/21 million. The team should benefit from the 3 year deal more often than not. But the fans will complain about a 3 year deal for an aging player, ignoring the extra value by assuming that a two year deal would have knocked 33% off the cost. That isn’t how it works.

  14. MrZDevotee on May 8th, 2012 1:05 pm


    nuff said.

  15. CCW on May 8th, 2012 1:16 pm

    I understand that looking at the offensive environment in which a player plays is necessary to understand how good he is relative to other current players. This makes sense for evaluating a player’s salary, certainly. However, I’m not sure it tells us so much about how good he is relative to himself in previous years. That is, I’m not sure it counters the argument that Ichiro has been declining. Yes, pitching may have improved, and there also has been an increased focus on defense. However, I suspect (and I’m sure I’m not alone), that the main source of offensive decline over the past six or seven years has been the transition out of the steroid era, and of course I wouldn’t expect that transition to impact Ichiro very much.

  16. collage on May 8th, 2012 1:21 pm

    Any contract the ownership gives to Ichiro will probably be considered too much by most people. I do know this: Mr. Y will be involved or determine himself what the terms of that contract will be and it WON’T be based on sabermetrics, or for that matter traditional metrics either.

  17. Ibuprofen on May 8th, 2012 1:32 pm

    I expect to see a ROOT sports graphic about this tonight during the game.

  18. G-Man on May 8th, 2012 2:46 pm

    collage, you are a wise person.

    I wish they’d just let him go and screw the consequences. But they’ll probably give him an extension that’s a suboptimal use of scarce payroll dollars.

    My hope for the Y-san factor is that Ichiro will suddenly and mysteriously retire when he isn’t producing any more, like Sasaki and Johjima before him.

  19. robbbbbb on May 8th, 2012 3:10 pm

    I was about to come here and make a comment about mechanisms, but CCW beat me to it. I, too, would really like to delve into the “why” of Ichiro’s (modest) decline. If it’s that the rest of the league is getting worse, how does that impact Ichiro? Or has Ichiro had a skill-related decline?

    Yes, he’s still better than an average MLB hitter, and that has value. But if he has had skill decline, then where does it get to be a problem? (And I do note that none of the projection systems ever understand Ichiro very well.)

  20. Westside guy on May 8th, 2012 3:15 pm

    I expect to see a ROOT sports graphic about this tonight during the game.

    And there will be nothing wrong with that – I think it’s great.

  21. furlong on May 8th, 2012 3:23 pm

    I believe he is hitting the ball better so far, pulling to right and walking more. His fielding has been better so far this year. He has lost a step going to first. Having Montero and Seager batting behind him means he is getting better pitches to hit.Having said that he is not worth 18 Mil. Maybe half of that.

  22. philosofool on May 8th, 2012 3:24 pm

    If they resign him I hope it’s for less than $18MM and not for more than two years, he still seems to have value but he’s still human and age and gravity bend for no man.

    Man? Believe whatever you want.

  23. PackBob on May 8th, 2012 4:50 pm

    It seemed to me last year that much of what was attributed to Ichiro’s decline was according to the “eyeball” test with the caveat that it “explained” his decline. You get what you look for.

    The defensive metric still has a long way to go, good in some respects, not in others. Player positioning may have a lot to do whether a player gets to a ball in the zone. I remember a line drive that handcuffed Ichiro last year, which was a negative to the UZR rating. But no one knows how hard that ball really was to catch, or if most outfielders would have caught it. With some knuckle ball-like late movement, maybe no outfielder would have caught it, but it is still a negative for UZR.

    Loss of skills certainly comes with age, but I don’t believe we are at the point yet where single-season declines can be attributed to age with any certainty. It can make sense, but mostly because it seems to fit the observed result.

  24. Sportszilla on May 8th, 2012 4:56 pm

    CCW: I think the biggest unknown in the whole discussion is what are the root causes behind the decline in offense. I tend to think it’s a fallacy to say that it’s because of increased steroid testing, after all as many pitchers have been busted as hitters. There may be something to it, but I think it has more to do with some of the new stadiums, possible changes in the baseball, and a ton of other minor changes that would of course have an impact on Ichiro.

    In the end, I think if you brought 2004 Barry Bonds into the present day I don’t know that he’d post the exact same statline (unadjusted), but he’d definitely still dominate the league.

  25. TherzAlwaysHope on May 8th, 2012 5:06 pm

    My own theory, guess, etc. is that Ichi was knocked off his stride by the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. He is just now getting back on board.

    Also, I am also thinking that his move to 3rd in the order is just what the doctor ordered. He is now supposed to square up the ball. It is his role, his duty. He is not supposed to swing pitches 6″ outside and 2″ off the ground.

    For FWIW.

  26. Johnny Slick on May 8th, 2012 5:07 pm

    If he’s actually worth 4 wins this year (which again he’s on pace to do, he’s worth *more* than 18M (around 20M). To be worth “half that”, he’d need to more or less split the difference between his current start and his performance last season.

  27. Breadbaker on May 8th, 2012 5:37 pm

    Those are great stats, Dave. Of course, an average Ichiro is still a great player and of course the M’s count on a better than average Ichiro, which isn’t fair or realistic. All the seasons cannot be above average, Lake Wobegon notwithstanding.

    I get the sense he’s a lot less frustrated this season, and having more fun.

  28. georgmi on May 8th, 2012 5:40 pm

    Also remember that while Ichiro is aging, the league (more or less) is not, so if Ichiro continues to post a wRC+ around his career average, that means his overall skill package is remaining stable.

  29. bookbook on May 8th, 2012 5:59 pm

    Is it possible that this is the classic age 37 miracle comeback last hurrah season? the kind of thing you can only know for sure in retrospect?

  30. samregens on May 10th, 2012 5:04 pm

    No way. Players on their last legs usually aren’t able to radically change their styles on purpose/by design and have success as Ichiro looks to be having.

    I think we can see now that Ichiro took the “relatively weak contact and beat out an infield hit” style, not because it was the only thing he could do, but by design, and because it was enormously successful. Now after one bad year and switching from leadoff, it looks like he has purposely went about radically changing his style at age 37.
    Ichiro looks in complete control of the change in styles and he’s hitting the ball well with a high line-drive rate, he’s an amazing ballplayer.

    With his great defense, it looks like he can keep doing this for several years (and then reinvent himself again if necessary). Awesome.

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