Acknowledging Ichiro’s Greatness

Dave · July 24, 2012 at 1:18 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Comments

35 Responses to “Acknowledging Ichiro’s Greatness”

  1. greentunic on July 24th, 2012 1:27 pm

    Had the players around him been better, Ichiro would have probably gotten more praise, not less. Ironic really.

    He is one of the shining beacons of a generally miserable M’s decade.

    Now watch the HOF put a Yankee hat on him! haha

  2. don52656 on July 24th, 2012 1:28 pm

    Amen. It’s too bad that so many of those who don’t know what they are talking about are paid to be those “subject matter experts” on the radio or in the newspaper. I have never understand the antipathy towards Ichiro, and attribute it to the manner in which he chose to deal with the press.

    I feel very privileged to have had the chance to see one of the greatest players in our time for so long, and will miss him, even though the talents which made him a superstar are diminished.

    I wish our good players didn’t have to always be traded to other teams in order to have a chance to make the playoffs. In an effective organization, Ichiro’s diminishing skills would have been surrounded by a supporting cast which would have allowed him to have a chance to make the playoffs in this city.

  3. MX on July 24th, 2012 1:38 pm

    Great article as always, Dave. Look forward to the rest of the Ichiro series.

  4. rsrobinson on July 24th, 2012 1:46 pm

    Great post, Dave. Right on the money. Ichiro in his prime was both great and unique and I’m glad I got the chance to see him play.

  5. vetted_coach on July 24th, 2012 1:59 pm

    My comment isn’t necessarily about Ichiro. It’s about claiming that people who don’t agree “don’t know what they’re talking about.”. Pretty emotional stuff – understandable considering the scope of Ichiro’s following and the relative suddenness of his departure. Still, it’s an irrational conclusion to draw, and obviously it’s not necessarily true.

    Some people who do not swoon at the mention of Ichiro’s name nor pile on the accolades in nothing but glowing technicolor terms certainly do know something. To say you “don’t understand” that POV means exactly that: you don’t understand.

  6. MrZDevotee on July 24th, 2012 2:05 pm

    Dave,
    you’ve got the thesis of a great sabermetrics book here– “Edgar Martinez & Ichiro Suzuki: Value Misunderstood”

    How cool would it be to see them both be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same year (hopefully the crowd will have come around about the DH thing by then).

  7. eponymous coward on July 24th, 2012 2:09 pm

    My comment isn’t necessarily about Ichiro. It’s about claiming that people who don’t agree “don’t know what they’re talking about.”.

    OK, so we have someone who, on a pretty solid sabremetric measure of value, is in a class with A-Rod, Pujols and Bonds.

    So, are they “complementary contributors” as well? Or do they get a pass because DINGERS!!11!11!! and a World Series ring?

    Note that A-Rod didn’t help bad Texas teams win anything, either. The years he won? He had good players with him, n the M’s and on the Yankees. That seems to reinforce Dave’s point: the problem wasn’t that Ichiro wasn’t a HOF player, but only a “complementary one”, but that you can surround ANY HOF player with bad players (Ted Williams on the late 50′s Red Sox, or any other number of great players on bad teams), and they aren’t winning anything.

  8. MrZDevotee on July 24th, 2012 2:09 pm

    Vetted-
    Thank you for being man enough to say, in quite a few words, that you don’t understand what Dave’s talking about. Message received. And I commend you for keeping your heart out of your opinion.

    (Not really, I’ve always thought the poor African woman who runs down the street screaming and beating herself in the head over a dead child is more in touch with the real world than an American dad who sits stoicly through the trial of his child’s killer. But maybe it’s ME that just doesn’t understand?)

  9. gwangung on July 24th, 2012 2:09 pm

    If you can’t articulate your argument…maybe you really DON’T know what you’re talking about.

    Just saying “it’s an irrational conclusion” is, in itself, irrational. And it certainly doesn’t articulate an argument.

  10. Brantid on July 24th, 2012 2:19 pm

    All I know is that there was a good long period where when I looked at the box score, Ichiro had 2+ hits…M’s win….Ichiro had an off night, M’s lose.

    I don’t know how else you can define an engine of the team….Ichiro was the M’s (offensively).

  11. Westside guy on July 24th, 2012 2:26 pm

    If you want to disagree regarding Ichiro’s greatness – you need to provide some supporting evidence. The rest of the team sucking does not qualify as supporting evidence.

    Look at Cliff Lee in 2011 and 2012. Last year, he was 17-8. This year, so far he’s 1-6. Has his pitching suddenly gone downhill? No, by any standard we can measure he’s still pitching quite well – but the performance of the team around him has tanked.

    To measure the greatness of a player, you really need to only look at those factors that individual can mostly control. That doesn’t include wins (heck, ask Felix about that), and it doesn’t include RBIs.

  12. billr on July 24th, 2012 2:32 pm

    2244 hits in first 10 MLB seasons. You just can’t argue with a statistic like that for a HOFer…

  13. Kazinski on July 24th, 2012 2:35 pm

    I think Thiel has it right. Take the Heat for instance: allowing the league MVP to play a complimentary role is what allowed them to win the NBA championship.

    And the Thunder despite having the league scoring champion on their squad won’t win it all until he’s allowed to a complementary player.

    Yes, I guess that sounds a little ridiculous.

  14. Paddy on July 24th, 2012 2:36 pm

    I’m also not sure that I have heard complementary player making an All-Star team and having 200+ hits for 10 years in a row. Oh and being voted All-Star game MVP.

  15. ndevale on July 24th, 2012 2:53 pm

    I had the opportunity to see a lot of great players. For one reason or another, every Mets game I ever saw as a kid Seaver pitched. I saw Gooden strike out 17 Giants at the Stick. I got lucky and saw Jordan in Atlanta after he came back to earth. Remember the Kingdom scoreboard when it posted “The Kid can Hit”? I saw Payton develop into a HOF player. I had both Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker in my cab the night of Randy’s no hitter. Whitaker didnt want to comment. Fielder said he was better that Ryan. “You cant beat our Johnson”! Remember that? And like Sullivan mentioned on his sight, I remember my cantankerous old man, in his 90′,s comment on Ichiro’s approach at the plate, saying something like “well this guy thinks it doesnt stink”. And all I can say is that Ichiro was always electric. Sullivan says he expects Felix to pitch a no hitter every time out. I expect Ichiro to take Rivero deep. I expect Cashman to chuckle long and soft in November. But I never expected to look forward to a Yankee game.

  16. msfanmike on July 24th, 2012 3:02 pm

    Dave,

    Great stuff. Very well done. Thank you for the reminder. Keep it coming!

    It’s easy for me to root for laundry when watching a football game. However, I will always root for Ichiro regardless of where he is playing. He was a very unique and special player who undoubtedly has some glimpses of that talent remaining in the tank.

    Onward!

  17. timandren on July 24th, 2012 3:23 pm

    My favorite Ichiro memory. Comaneci!!!

    http://atmlb.com/1lhCBb

  18. greentunic on July 24th, 2012 3:30 pm

    So, are they “complementary contributors” as well? Or do they get a pass because DINGERS!!11!11!! and a World Series ring?

    I agree that value does not require home runs, but if someone doesn’t value a non-HR hitter as much as you, I don’t think that justifies reducing them to a slobbering idiotic “old age” fan who only uses home runs in their evaluation of talent on the field.

    I don’t know when the “woa OMG totally DINGERS!!!” satirical culture started on this site, but I’m a bit tired of it. Let’s stop trying to embarrass each other eh? We’d all be inseperable if we met at a party. Don’t know why we have to pick each other apart on here.

  19. kenshabby on July 24th, 2012 3:33 pm

    Ichiro’s playing while surrounded by crap talent for the past several years has been like watching a smart, beautiful woman suffer and get dragged down by a lousy relationship–what should have been the best years of her life wasted on a clueless jerk. At least that’s the first analogy that popped into my head.

  20. djw on July 24th, 2012 3:33 pm

    I think Thiel has it right. Take the Heat for instance: allowing the league MVP to play a complimentary role is what allowed them to win the NBA championship.

    This analogy is terrible. Basketball players can completely change their game based on their teammates. Baseball players only change their game in the most marginal, trivial ways based on their teammates.

  21. Westside guy on July 24th, 2012 3:50 pm

    This analogy is terrible.

    I believe Kazinski was sarcastically joking, djw.

    Ichiro’s playing while surrounded by crap talent for the past several years has been like watching a smart, beautiful woman suffer and get dragged down by a lousy relationship–what should have been the best years of her life wasted on a clueless jerk.

    Leave my wife out of this!

  22. greentunic on July 24th, 2012 3:54 pm

    hehe that was good.

  23. Rick L on July 24th, 2012 4:08 pm

    Meanwhile, it is Trayvon Robinson that takes his spot! That too deserves an exclamation point.

  24. PositivePaul on July 24th, 2012 4:26 pm

    Ichiro = Ernie Banks

    (except, well, Ernie hit a bunch of dingers and stuff)

  25. samregens on July 24th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Thank you Dave for a great post.
    Ichiro will always be my most favorite player by far. Such an excellent and exciting ballplayer.

  26. Breadbaker on July 24th, 2012 4:54 pm

    I have one disagreement about 2004:

    because everyone else on the roster was old and bad

    That is just totally untrue. Some of the players on that roster were young and bad.

  27. diderot on July 24th, 2012 6:03 pm

    Dave,
    An excellent article…and irrefutable.

    But I disagree on two points.

    First, there is no ‘misunderstanding’ among local media. Their denigrations are intentional. They have resented Ichiro nearly from the start simply because he would not play their game. They assumed his insistence on speaking through an interpreter to them–while talking while freely in English among teammates–was a slight. They are (with few exceptions) cultural misanthropes. In response, he quite logically chose to avoid them. So they started to snipe. He withdrew further. Soon he was ‘aloof’, ‘selfish’, and holding a gun to the collective head of ownership.
    No matter that this was untrue. It was their way of retaliating. But nothing they invent can erase his record.

    And secondly, among their ranks, Thiel stands alone. He was never ‘solid’. About anything.

    But truly, thanks for defending the record (and honor) of a true superstar.

  28. stevemotivateir on July 24th, 2012 6:05 pm

    Great post Dave. Great way to start the reflection on his career here! Totally agree with that last line as well. He absolutely was a superstar. One of the greatest the game has seen.

  29. Cresswell on July 24th, 2012 6:59 pm

    Baseball would be more fun to watch if more players were like Ichiro. I loved watching him play, and it was clear as was said above, when he hit and scored early, Ms won. Simple as that.

    What’s amazing about Ichiro as an athlete is that he arrived in the Major Leagues at 27. He was supposed to be on his downslide. Players like him (hits, speed) decline very rapidly after age 31 (Figgins). Only a very special few (such as Lou Brock, Pete Rose) continue to be effective after 31. But at age 35 he his .352 and led the league in hits.

    Note also he was under a tremendous amount of pressure, when people were saying a Japanese player, especially one as small as he is, could not play every day in the major leagues. Well he disproved that for over 11 years.

    One final note – the fans have been generally good to Ichiro, but the media, especially sports radio, has not. They fall into that trap of complaining that he wasn’t someone else (a home run hitter) rather than celebrating who he was and complaining about the crappy players we were trading Adam Jones for.

    Finally … is it reasonable to think Ichiro might be the all-time hits leader had he started in the Major Leagues at 20? Depends on how long he lasts. I am sure he would have hit 1300-1400 hits, which would give him 3900+ …

  30. Milendriel on July 24th, 2012 7:47 pm

    “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.”

    It’s not just local media. Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, Peyton Manning, and, of course, Alex Rodriguez all got the same treatment. Doesn’t matter what sport it is, the media want to believe that players singelhandedly win games, because it both makes for a good story (as you said), and doesn’t require them to actually understand how sports work.

  31. Jim_H on July 24th, 2012 11:41 pm

    Thank you for writing this Dave.

    I’ve been listening to both of the local sports radio stations the last two days, and for the most part, it makes me sick to hear them try to find ways to denigrate Ichiro. Even people who weren’t around to see him play here (Salk) had the nerve to talk him down. It really frustrates me.

    Diderot’s points out above what is behind it. Most of the local sports media has been frustrated by Ichiro over the years, and can’t stand the fact that fans, for the most part, love him.

    I’ve pretty much committed to tuning out the few local sports personalities I was still willing to listen to. If they can’t put their pettiness aside and acknowledge the greatness that was Ichiro, then I’ll look elsewhere for my local sports info.

  32. MrZDevotee on July 25th, 2012 9:39 am

    Dave (or anyone else)
    Is there a way to sort on Fangraphs by “errors caused” or “errors during at bats”… Folks who say he didn’t have a profound impact on the game would probably be surprised by how many errors/unearned runs occurred because of Ichiro’s ability to make defenders rush their throws/and hurry plays.

    Would be an interesting stat– and I’d guess he probably is the all-time leader in that statistic (if it exists).

  33. reggie206 on July 25th, 2012 7:13 pm

    To me, Ichiro Suzuki was the greatest Seattle Mariner to ever put on a uniform. Some can argue Alex Rodriguez, Griffey, Randy Johnson, or Edgar Martinez.. but to me, Ichiro was the best. Alex left Seattle because of money, plus ruined his legacy with the steroid incident.. Griffey unfortunately wanted to leave because he was “home sick”.. Randy Johnson wanted to leave Seattle.. and Edgar was a great bat, but unfortunately couldn’t contribute to the field (like Ichiro).

    During Ichiro’s first 11 years in Seattle, Ichiro never wanted to leave (unlike A-Rod, Randy, & Griffey). Unfortunately, I feel Ichiro started to feel the organization wasn’t going anywhere, while the media wound trash talk him because of his diminishing stats. Due to his contract, people still expected “Mr. 200 Hits” from Ichiro at the age of 38. The media would avoid talking about how Smoak, Ackley, Carp, or Brendan Ryan’s horrible stats. Instead, we have Jay Buhner giving his “I will puke if Ichiro gets a multi million dollar contract”. Yes, I agree Ichiro shouldn’t get huge contract anymore.. but using the “puke” word is very unprofessional and disrespectful. It probably bothered Ichiro.. (BTW: Buhner’s career couldn’t even touch Ichiro jock strap in comparison) (ALSO: Who would of knew if Ichiro would of taken a 5 million a year contract to finish his career here? That would be worth it.. especially when he gets to his 3000th hit)

    In my opinion, during the 11.5 years, Ichiro earned every single penny of his big contract. The Mariners got much more in return from Ichiro’s international superstar status (jerseys, posters, japanese TV televising Mariner games in Japan, etc). People also forgot how reliable he was on the field: he played 145+ games a season each year and rarely got hurt. Ichiro brought a MVP and ROY award here. Ichiro represented the Mariners 10 times in the All Star game. Ichiro brought home a “gold glove” 10 times also. Ichiro also brought a great moment in Mariner history when he broke the single season hits record. Ichiro also brought home a “silver slugger” award 3 times.

    The fans that were bad mouthing Ichiro during his last 2 years here in Seattle do not deserve those memories. Imagine the Seattle Mariners without Ichiro during the last decade? Exactly. Ichiro again deserved each and every penny of his contract during his stay here. If there is someone you should get mad at, it should be the Mariners front office. It is because of them, the Mariners cannot have a winning ball club.. not because of Ichiro. The man gave everything he could to this city.

    God bless Ichiro and may you finally win a ring in New York. You deserve it! This will be the only year in my life I will be cheering for the Yankees to win it all.

    Thanks for the memories! You will always be my favorite Mariner of all time!

  34. yoshkawano on July 27th, 2012 10:08 am

    (hopefully the crowd will have come around about the DH thing by then).
    ————————————————–
    I wish the hall would have a special wing for DHs as they should have done for closers. They can define the standards as they wish and acknowledge that those roles are a modern development incomparable to the past players. The hall is a private entity and can do as they wish.

    I had always hoped the Safeco era Mariners could prove pitching, defense, and base hits could compete in the homer-happy MLB of today. Ichiro was the perfect player for that kind of team but was surrounded by poor hitters trying and failing to hit the ball out of Safeco.

  35. Coach24 on July 27th, 2012 12:51 pm

    Damn you and your numbers. I was very wrong when I suggested that we should have taken the trade offer before the season of Sheffield for Ichiro in 2001. As a coach at all but the professional level I was not a fan of Ichiro never diving and not driving the ball very often when watching just 1 game.

    When you take the body of work and consider that he got to so many balls that he didn’t need to dive, and stayed healthy by not being a diver, plus, he just flat out hit, you have to appreciate it even if it wasn’t your style. Thanks for playing hard every day Ichiro.

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