Acknowledging Ichiro’s Greatness
This isn’t my crazy long post about Ichiro either. The more I work on it, the more things I want to write, but not everything fits into one post. So, this Ichiro tribute might just turn into a series of kinda related ideas. Anyway, this morning, we did the fun memory. Now, I want to spend a second and talk about just how good Ichiro really was.
I’ve read a bunch of stuff this morning trying to reframe the idea of what Ichiro was. For instance, the normally solid Art Thiel wrote this:
But the Mariners have been swimming in mediocrity for years, incapable of building a team around him that would allow Ichiro to be a complementary contributor, as he was in his rookie year of 2001, instead of a veteran leader and primary run producer.
That word “complementary” keeps coming up, as we’re reminded that the team thrived when Ichiro had great players around him and struggled when his teammates were less talented. To which I reply “congratulations, you’ve just figured out that any one player cannot make a team win.” Most of us figured this out a long time ago, and use that understanding to avoid placing blame on the best player on a bad team, but that’s a lesson that hasn’t filtered down to a bunch of beat writers yet. It’s a better story if the hero carries the team on his back, and it’s just as easy to point at the star player when the team isn’t winning. But, in reality both of those stories choose narrative over fact.
If you think Ichiro was a “complementary player”, you’re out of your mind. In 2001, when he was surrounded by such big time superstars as Mark McLemore, Stan Javier, David Bell, Al Martin, and the bad version of Carlos Guillen, Ichiro hit .350/.381/.457 with gold glove defense, earning both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Yes, Bret Boone was probably the more valuable player in that season, but the writers who covered that team at the time were convinced that Ichiro — not Boone, not Edgar, not Olerud — was the guy who made that team go. And now, 12 years later, they want to act like he was a role player on a team full of superstars? Give me a break.
But, still, the story persists – it was the other guys who allowed Ichiro to relax and just fill in as another guy. He didn’t have to be the team’s best hitter, so he could really thrive without all the pressure. Which, of course, is completely at odds with the reality of 2004.
Edgar, Olerud, and Boone all collapsed, each posting a wRC+ between 92 and 95. They were all below average hitters, with Olerud and Edgar losing their power while Boone lost everything except the home runs. That year, the Mariners had four players who accumulated 100 plate appearances and hit at a rate above the league average: Bucky Jacobsen (176 second half PAs, 119 wRC+), Raul Ibanez (115 wRC+), and Randy Winn (107 wRC+). That was Ichiro’s quality supporting cast in 2004. And all he did that year was set the Major League record for hits in a season while having the best season of his career.
262 hits. A .372/.414/.455 line that equaled a 134 wRC+. +7.2 WAR. It was quintessential Ichiro, and the season he will be most remembered for. And he did it with a cast of teammates that were absolutely awful. That team went 63-99 despite the best year of his career because everyone else on the roster was old and bad. In the middle of that collapse, Ichiro shined the brightest.
For the organization, it was all down hill from there, as the team got bad and has stayed bad ever since. For Ichiro, it’s been somewhat downhill as well, as he’s never again matched his 2004 performance. But that was his age 30 season – not too many guys match their career best seasons in their thirties. In both 2007 and 2009, Ichiro managed again to hit .350+, and in 2006 and 2008 he combined to steal 88 bases and get thrown out just six times. Even decline phase Ichiro was really good, as he posted at least +4.6 WAR in every season from 2006-2010. While the Mariners surrounded him with crap, he was terrific. They lost games in spite of Ichiro, not because of him.
For the first 10 years of his Major League career, Ichiro hit .331/.376/.430 and was worth +52.7 WAR, the fourth highest total in baseball during that 2001-2010 span. The only players to post a better mark during those 10 years? Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds.
A 10 year run as a +5 win player is a Hall of Fame peak. For comparison, Edgar Martinez‘s 10 year run from 1990-1999 resulted in +54.0 WAR. Ichiro at his best was as good as Edgar at his best. Anyone want to call Edgar Martinez a “complementary player”?
Do not let the local media’s misunderstanding of Ichiro and of baseball alter the reality of what Ichiro was – one of the very best players in the game for the first decade he got here. They might not have liked his style of play or his personality, but the facts are the facts — Ichiro was a consistently great player who was more than capable of being a star on a winning team. When the Mariners put talent around him, they won. When they didn’t, they lost. That’s baseball, that’s not Ichiro.
Ichiro was great. Ichiro was worthy of the exclamation mark. Ichiro was a superstar. Anyone who tries to tell you differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.