There has never been a player like Ichiro.
He gets more hits than anyone—almost all are singles.
He has power but decides not to use it.
He almost never walks.
He is one of the fastest and smartest baserunners around.
He plays a great CF.
He has a legendary arm.
What does all this add up to?
Ichiro has all five tools, but basically stifles one (power) to boost another (contact). This isn't necessarily a bad strategy, but it ties all his value up in batting average. Ichiro's isolated walk rate and isolated power are very low.
That's not to say that what he does isn't great. The question is, how great is it?
Last week I introduced Ultimate Value Index, which is my new statistic that compares both hitters and pitchers, and takes baserunning and situational hitting into account for hitters. Given Ichiro's profile, he is very prone to being overrated ("Look at the batting average, hits, and steals!") or underrated ("Yeah, so he's good for a fast singles hitter. So what? It's just Juan Pierre with a bit more contact.") Using UVI, I thought that maybe I could actually find out where Ichiro's true value lies. Ichiro's career UVI ( drum roll please) is:
And yes, that includes adjustment for playing in cavernous Safeco Field.
I ran that in the middle of writing this article with no preconceived notion of what I was going to say. Had it come out .600, I would have said that Ichiro is awesome. However, Ichiro didn't come out at .600; he came out at .516. If you remove the Safeco adjustment, he's at .498.
Is .516 a good UVI? Yes it is. And it most certainly is an improvement on Juan Pierre. But to look at the complete opposite of Ichiro, let's look at Jack Cust. Cust's career UVI is (cymbal crash please, just to change it up some):
.512 without park adjustment.
Cust isn't a better player than Ichiro—Ichiro makes up that .009 difference with his defense. But that's not the point.
The point is simply that Ichiro isn't a particularly great player. He's fun to watch. He's interesting. He does things we've never seen before.
The bottom line is those things don't make him an amazing ballplayer.
With Ichiro, everyone always focuses on what he does well. He gets hits, he runs fast, and he defends well. No one ever notices that he swings at everything and has a career .103 ISO, because they see the average, hits, and steals and assume "That's enough to make you great."
Players who slug a career .435 need to get on base way more than Ichiro to be great.
With Cust, everyone always focuses on his flaws: he strikes out a ton and can't play defense. No one will ever forget that "Stumble-A-Thon" in Baltimore in 2003. No one noticed when he nearly broke the minor league walks record en route to a 1.067 AAA OPS in 2006. No one noticed when he hit 26 homers and put up a .408 OBP last year, despite not arriving in the Bigs until mid-May and playing in a park with a factor of 948.
But for their careers, they've essentially had equal or near-equal value.
Ichiro is good, and he certainly should be leading off for the Seattle Mariners. But there's much more to him besides the hits and the steals, and it isn't all that good.