Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ichiro Suzuki - Pride and Sadness

The game between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees on Monday night was indicative in how far the Mariners have fallen. The game was just as indicative of how far Ichiro Suzuki has fallen. The former Japanese star has played in all but two of the Mariners' 102 games after playing in every single game last year. And while last year showed some slippage in the hitting machine that is Ichiro, this year's version isn't even close. At the age of 37, is this the curtain call?

Watching the game last night, the erect and proud frame of Ichiro is still evident. After he struck out in the first inning, there was still a carriage in his frame as he walked deliberately back to the dugout. But there is no longer the zip in his step or the hop in his play. His grace in the outfield is missing as he plods after balls in the corner and there is no longer the rifle display when he throws the ball back into the infield.

Watching Ichiro, one gets the idea of how a samurai carried himself.  There is the flair of a bullfighter. You never lost sight of the fact that he was carrying the pride of his country in each step and with each pointing of his bat-sword held at the pitcher as he waited for the pitch. Each pitch was a challenge like the charge of a bull. With a swing unlike any we've ever seen in American baseball, Ichiro's bat was like a magic wand. It seemed he could do anything he wanted to a pitcher. The legend continued that he could hit forty homers if he wanted. But it was his speed that set him apart. This generation had never seen that mastery of a bat combined with that blinding speed.

That speed has failed Ichiro. He no longer beats out infield hits. Over the course of his career, an astounding 35 percent of every ball he put in play resulted in him standing on a base. This year, only 29 percent of his batted balls result in a hit. His BABIP was never below .300...until this year. His string of 200+ hit seasons seems sure to end. He would have to find a way to deliver 88 hits in the Mariners' last sixty games. It's possible of course. If he played in every game and got his current average of 4.2 at bats per game, he would have to bat .349 the rest of the season to reach 200 hits. That seemed more possible for a different Ichiro from a different time.

Many have said that Ichiro has refused to hit for power for the sake of his batting average. But with a paltry fourteen doubles, three triples and one homer, his slugging percentage is easily the lowest of his career. At .318, his slugging percentage is 68 points lower than his previous low of .386 in 2008. That season also produced Ichiro's lowest OPS of .747. His OPS this year is .633. Perhaps an even greater indignity is his OPS+ of 82 this season.

No matter what fielding metric you look at, Ichiro Suzuki has slipped. He sits at -3 according to the Fielding Bible. UZR has him at -8.4. Range Runs Above Average has him at -7.9. His range used to be listed at 2.30 or higher. Now it sits at 1.69. That just isn't Ichiro in right field anymore.

Ichiro Suzuki's career has been debated almost since it began. His lack of power and his lack of desire to take a walk at the plate offset his ability to hit, run and field for a lot of evaluaters. And yet, both Fangraphs and Baseball-reference.com have similar WAR computations for him and both systems show that he averaged a WAR of over five a year for his ten big league seasons before this one. He has earned $111 million in his career with the Mariners and if this Fan has done his math correctly, has been about a $200 million player during that time. Power and patience or not, Ichiro has been a great player while drumming up huge interest and business for the Mariners and Major League Baseball.

It is sad to see Ichiro like this. It's sad to see a warrior without the physical ability he once had playing for a team that has been awful for two seasons now. He has not been part of any trade rumors, but wouldn't it be something if there was a last minute deal and Ichiro went to a contender and finished this season with a flourish and in the spotlight?

That probably won't happen. And if it doesn't, do this Fan a favor and when you think of Ichiro Suzuki, don't think of this season. Think about how he burst on the scene in 2001 and won the MVP with his bat, his arm and his legs. Think about the 2,244 hits in his first ten seasons. Think about his 81 percent success rate to go along with his 409 steals. Think about the eight straight seasons scoring more than 100 runs to start his career and the ten straight 200 hit seasons. Think about how since 2001, only thirty total seasons of 200 hits have been recorded and Ichiro has a third of them.

Yes, remember all those things when he makes his acceptance speech in the Hall of Fame a few years from now. Just pretend this season isn't happening.


Josh Borenstein said...

William, have you seen the Jerry Meals call at home (Pirates-Braves game)?

Worst call I've ever seen. What's infinitely more upsetting than the actual call was Meals' obvious intent.

Meals KNEW he was out. You can tell by the way he hesitated. He was probably thinking in that split second, "Can I get away with calling him safe?"

A lot of people lose their jobs for accidental incompetence. When it's deliberate, the ax needs to come down.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Yeah, agreed on this end. Unbelievable call there. Crappy way to lose a game. What now, Bud Selig?