BY Steve Rudman 02:37PM 02/13/2012

Rudman: Ichiro's In The Process Of 'Winking Out'

Even if Ichiro has an uptick from his .272 (BA) season in 2011, his first without 200 hits, it’s clear than we are watching a long-time star in the process of winking out.

Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki has contributed $1.25 million to Japanese disaster relief. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

When it became clear, after he hit a myopic .210 in 26 May games (22×105) last season, that Ichiro faced long odds to extend his streak of consecutive 200-hit seasons to 11, I began to mull over the idea that the best thing that could happen to him was to have that historic streak, fascinating as it was, come to an end.

Burdened by both it and advancing age, the 37-year-old Ichiro spent the balance of 2011 attempting to recover from his horrid May and re-establish a 200-hit pace, but couldn’t, and faded, like a rotting melon, into an ordinary ballplayer. It might not have been so conspicuous were he not pulling down $18 million, a massive chunk of the Mariners’ payroll.

By the time the rains came, Ichiro produced a career-low 180 hits (a big year for most), a career-worst .272 batting average, and dismal numbers across the board (.310 on-base percentage, .645 OPS), at least by the standards Ichiro established.

Almost no player sustains a career as long as Ichiro’s (counting Japan) without a few years treading through the doldrums. So as the Mariners gather in Peoria, AZ., for their annual season written in the sand, the most intriguing question to me revolves not around Jesus Montero or Dustin Ackley, and their upside potentials, or around the rotation order behind Felix Hernandez, but whether Ichiro can be Ichiro again.

Some will argue it’s possible, insisting that Ichiro’s 2011 season was an aberration. Some will say that if Ichiro abandons his obsessive pursuit of 200 hits, which carries with it such self-imposed pressure that he risks corroding his own stomach lining, he might have a chance to bounce back and become the player he once was.

I think that’s a fantasy. Ichiro has adamantly refused to change his approach to a season one iota since he joined the Mariners in 2001. There is no reason to suppose he will change now. He’ll enter 2012 intent on 200 hits to prove his approach still works, as it almost always has.

In a way, I admire that. It’s what has enabled Ichiro to become the first to do this, and the fastest to do that, too many times to count. In fact, it’s an approach that will take Ichiro to Cooperstown. But even a pressure-free Ichiro, if that’s possible, will find 200 hits a long shot, considering that at his age (or older), only three players reached 200 hits:

Year Player Team Pos. B/T Hits Age
1930 Sam Rice Senators OF L/R 207 40
1996 Paul Molitor Twins DH, INF R/R 225 39
1928 Sam Rice Senators OF L/R 202 38
1979 Pete Rose Phillies OF, 1B S/R 208 38

I also don’t think 2011 was an aberration. A trend would be closer to the truth. The numbers suggest what we’re witnessing is a star, once of great magnitude, winking out. In fact, Ichiro’s has been flickering for some time.

Baseball Reference.com, among other web sites, publishes a valuable stat, Wins Above Replacement. WAR  – Good God, what does it stand for? — is an attempt to summarize a player’s total contribution to his team in one number.

WAR hasn’t gained traction with all. Its critics argue that it’s geeky mumbo-jumbo, and that a player’s value cannot be reduced to one convenient figure. But WAR’s proponents subscribe to the idea that it’s pretty much all-inclusive when it comes to evaluating players. I come down on the side of the geeks, mainly because WAR tends to validate what I see, and can substantiate with more traditional statistics without pounding a calculator.

WAR looks at a player and asks: “If this player were injured and his team had to replace him, how much value would the team lose?”

This value, developed by Sean Smith of Baseball Reference, is expressed in a wins format. For example, Player X is worth 6.3 wins to his team while Player Y is only worth 3.5 wins.

Without getting into a nerdier explanation (you can read that here), WAR comes down to this: A WAR of 8+ equals a player of MVP quality. A player with a 5+ is an All-Star, +2 is a starter, 0 to 2 is a reserve and 0 or less, well, that player needs to send his resume to Wal Mart.

Last year, Ichiro’s WAR was -0.4.

That is a time-to-retire number. Many players of Ichiro’s historical profile have either shuffled away voluntarily or been shown the door after producing a WAR higher than -0.4, and approximately at the same age as Ichiro (38).

Ichiro’s WAR numbers, especially if you have marveled over him for the past decade, paint an inevitable decline that no shift in his place in the batting order is likely to stem. According to WAR, Ichiro hasn’t been an All-Star since 2009 (although he made the 2010 All-Star team), and actually peaked as a player in 2004, when he produced an 8.1 WAR at 30.

This means that, entering 2012, Ichiro is already eight years beyond his prime (but still at the height of it as a wage earner). From an 8.1 WAR in 2004, when he had 262 hits, bumping down George Sisler in the record books, Ichiro’s WAR dropped to 4.7 and 4.2 in 2005 and 2006 (sub-All-Star), ticked up to 5.8, 5.4 and 5.3 from 2007-09, and dropped to 4.3 in 2010. Then came his nosedive into statistical oblivion, -0.4 last year (Sisler retired, at age 37, following a 1930 season in which his WAR was -0.3).

No surprise, really, that Ichiro reached production peak at age 30. Rod Carew peaked at 10.9 WAR in 1977 at 31 and never had a WAR higher than 4.5 (starter, but less than an All-Star) in his eight seasons after that. Carew retired in 1985 at age 39 with a WAR of 0.5.

Another noted singles hitter, Wade Boggs, peaked at age 29 (9.1), had an 8.2 at age 31 and retired after the 1999 season with a -0.3. Tony Gwynn, according to the WAR definition, had only two All-Star seasons after turning 31.

Lloyd Waner, a Hall of Famer who played mostly with Pittsburgh from 1927-45, is identified by Baseball Reference as the player most statistically similar to Ichiro. Here’s why:

Player AB R H HR RBI BB BA OBP SLG OPS
Ichiro 7456 1127 2428 95 605 496 .326 .370 .421 .791
Waner 7772 1201 2459 27 598 420 .316 .353 .393 .746

Waner retired in 1945 at age 39. In his final year, Waner’s WAR was 0.0, slightly better than Ichiro’s -0.4 last season.

If Ichiro doesn’t tie himself in knots trying for 200 hits, maybe he can make a more positive contribution than in 2011. But it doesn’t appear any upward bounce will be very high, problematic for the Mariners who owe him another $18 million in what will be the final year of his contract.

Ichiro has often said he would like to play at least until 40, perhaps a little longer. Here’s what I’d like to see Ichiro do: Play out his contract with the Mariners, return to Japan, and finish his career where it started, with dignity and a nearly unblemished major league career intact. As his WAR trend suggests, anything less won’t be pretty.


YourThoughts

  • Grover

    This column is right on.

    One thing I would add is that much of Ichiro’s above-average batting average and hits per season was due to all his infield singles, which were mainly due to his speed running to first base.  At age 38, his speed has got to be fading.  Therefore, not as many infield singles, and his batting average goes down.

    What I think Ichiro should do is try to become a power hitter this year.  Everyone says he has great power in batting practice, and hits as many home runs as anyone.  Why not tell him to try to hit more homers during games, and stop worrying about his batting average and how many hits he gets this year.

    At any rate, Ichiro was not much of a player last year, and I don’t expect him to improve this year, given his age, as Rudman discusses very well in this column.

    • Steve Rudman

      Grover: Thanks for your response, and I appreciate your imput.

    • Anonymous

      Grover: Thanks for your response, and I appreciate your input.

  • Grover

    This column is right on.

    One thing I would add is that much of Ichiro’s above-average batting average and hits per season was due to all his infield singles, which were mainly due to his speed running to first base.  At age 38, his speed has got to be fading.  Therefore, not as many infield singles, and his batting average goes down.

    What I think Ichiro should do is try to become a power hitter this year.  Everyone says he has great power in batting practice, and hits as many home runs as anyone.  Why not tell him to try to hit more homers during games, and stop worrying about his batting average and how many hits he gets this year.

    At any rate, Ichiro was not much of a player last year, and I don’t expect him to improve this year, given his age, as Rudman discusses very well in this column.

    • SteveRudman

      Grover: Thanks for your response, and I appreciate your input.

  • jafabian

    It would help if the M’s got a good batting lineup behind him.  Ichiro’s best years were when he got decent protection, something last year’s team couldn’t give him.  Chone Figgins was to be the ideal #2 guy and he was anything but that.  The # 3, 4 and 5 hitters haven’t produced and that won’t happen this year. 

    Ichiro will be the new Dale Murphy.  Long time, MVP All Star career, not much of a playoff history to show for it.

    • Steve Rudman

      You make excellent points and I would like to thank you for weighing in. I hope Ichiro proves me completely wrong and has a tremendous season. Thanks for visiting the web site.

    • Anonymous

      You make excellent points and I would like to thank you for weighing in. I hope Ichiro proves me completely wrong and has a tremendous season. Thanks for visiting the web site.

  • jafabian

    It would help if the M’s got a good batting lineup behind him.  Ichiro’s best years were when he got decent protection, something last year’s team couldn’t give him.  Chone Figgins was to be the ideal #2 guy and he was anything but that.  The # 3, 4 and 5 hitters haven’t produced and that won’t happen this year. 

    Ichiro will be the new Dale Murphy.  Long time, MVP All Star career, not much of a playoff history to show for it.

    • SteveRudman

      You make excellent points and I would like to thank you for weighing in. I hope Ichiro proves me completely wrong and has a tremendous season. Thanks for visiting the web site.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you about Ichiro going after the longball a bit more, even at the risk of his batting average dropping…I’ve heard he’s got power in BP, too, although BP is a lot different than live pitching when they’re actually trying to get you out instead of grooving ‘em in.

    Still, as Rudman says, Ichiro isn’t going to change his approach.  He is the ultimate creature of habit, and (until last year) it’s worked extremely well for him.  He wants those 3,000 hits and uppercutting won’t get that done.  I’d love to see a rebound year because Ichiro’s the only one of four Hall of Fame players who has stayed loyal to Seattle and the Mariners: Griffey, Johnson and A-Rod all bailed one way or another, but Ichiro hasn’t. A happy medium will have to be reached between a team that won’t pay Ichiro what he’s been getting (I’m sure the M’s have gotten that money back through TV rights and merchandising in Japan) and a very proud player who doesn’t strike me as someone who’ll take kindly to lowball offers for 2013.

    • Steve Rudman

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I like your points and it will be interesting to see what happens with Ichiro this season.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I like your points and it will be interesting to see what happens with Ichiro this season.

  • RadioGuy

    I agree with you about Ichiro going after the longball a bit more, even at the risk of his batting average dropping…I’ve heard he’s got power in BP, too, although BP is a lot different than live pitching when they’re actually trying to get you out instead of grooving ‘em in.

    Still, as Rudman says, Ichiro isn’t going to change his approach.  He is the ultimate creature of habit, and (until last year) it’s worked extremely well for him.  He wants those 3,000 hits and uppercutting won’t get that done.  I’d love to see a rebound year because Ichiro’s the only one of four Hall of Fame players who has stayed loyal to Seattle and the Mariners: Griffey, Johnson and A-Rod all bailed one way or another, but Ichiro hasn’t. A happy medium will have to be reached between a team that won’t pay Ichiro what he’s been getting (I’m sure the M’s have gotten that money back through TV rights and merchandising in Japan) and a very proud player who doesn’t strike me as someone who’ll take kindly to lowball offers for 2013.

    • SteveRudman

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I like your points and it will be interesting to see what happens with Ichiro this season.

  • One174

    ” faded, like a rotting melon, into an ordinary ballplayer”

    So Ichiro is a “rotting melon”, and when he rots he sinks to the level of an ordinary ballplayer? Steve, I think you have dipped into the simile bag once too often!

  • One174

    ” faded, like a rotting melon, into an ordinary ballplayer”

    So Ichiro is a “rotting melon”, and when he rots he sinks to the level of an ordinary ballplayer? Steve, I think you have dipped into the simile bag once too often!

  • Anonymous

    if ichiro doesn’t go for 200 hits, what the hell will we mariners fans have to keep us interested after june?

    • Anonymous

      I take it you don’t collect bobble heads?

  • notaboomer

    if ichiro doesn’t go for 200 hits, what the hell will we mariners fans have to keep us interested after june?

    • sportspressnw

      I take it you don’t collect bobble heads?

  • Wilburwatson

    Even at his prime Ichiro was perfectly suited for the mariners.  A statistical star on a loosing team.

  • Wilburwatson

    Even at his prime Ichiro was perfectly suited for the mariners.  A statistical star on a loosing team.

  • canyudigit

    Good Jobs Hawks!…Now go get Mario Williams…..(pleeeeeease)

  • Steve60

    David Hawthorne needs to be on the list.