Ichiro Being Ichiro
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.