MLB's Sultan of Slap: 10 Stats That Prove Ichiro Is Among Baseball's Best
Being the first at something always means there will be questions.
This fact held true when the Seattle Mariners won the posting process and subsequently signed Ichiro, making him the first Japanese-born position player in major-league history.
Obviously, the challenges for Ichiro were not the same as those that were laid before the great Jackie Robinson. There were some reports of racial taunts, though, these were mild in comparison to what Mr. Robinson had to endure from a much different America 54 years prior.
Ichiro's biggest challenge was to overcome the media and fans who thought he couldn't translate his Japan success to the American game. The pitchers were better. The parks were less hitter-friendly. He was already in his late 20s.
He was going to be a slap hitter who might provide little else. Even commissioner Bud Selig seemed to be a doubter. At the time, he mostly refused comment, but he called the Mariners' winning bid "surprising."
I think Ichiro has been plenty worth that $13 million posting fee.
And then some.
Here's a look at some statistics that show he was amongst the game's best in his first 10 years in the majors.
Hits, in isolation, don't tell the whole story.
On one hand, you could say: "Big deal, the guy gets 200 hits a season. Look where it's got the Mariners."
On the other, though, for even those with an inclination to move past the "standard" section of a stat sheet, Ichiro has done something historic with his hit totals.
When you're being compared to players like Willy Keeler and George Sissler, it shows how unique you are in today's game.
Sure, hits may not be a barometer of your greatness alone, but when you're doing something no one else has ever done, that has to count for something.
Batting average is another stat that alone is not the best indicator of skill.
There are guys like Yuniesky Betancourt who can put up a BA over .300 and everyone knows how bad he still is offensively.
Kind of kills any glory I'd give to Ichiro for doing just that, right?
When you combine the past 10 years, there aren't even 20 players who have pulled that off and Ichiro sits right on top of the list.
Since both men came to the majors in 2001, Ichiro and Albert Pujols are deadlocked on top of the batting average list at .331, and any chance I get to compare Ichiro to the best hitter of this generation, I'm going to do it.
We all know Ichiro is fast and capable, but does he come to mind when we think about steals?
Here's a fact, though: Since 2001, only Carl Crawford and Juan Pierre have been better at thievery.
Those two guys are known to be bag burglars, and Ichiro has somewhat quietly been one of the best in the league over the past decade on the base paths.
Grounding into a double play is frowned upon, for obvious reasons.
Since 2001, with a minimum of 500 plate appearances on average per season, not a single player has hit into fewer than Ichiro.
He has only grounded into 46 in his entire career. That's 10 less than another speedster who hits for more power, Carl Crawford.
Scoring runs is important in baseball, since that's how you win games.
During the course of his career, he ranks fifth in runs with 1,047.
One thing comes to mind when you look at the four players ahead of him: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon.
All four have been on championship teams during that time, with far superior supporting casts to drive them in, while Ichiro has been part of a historically poor offense.
Since he entered the league, only eight of the game's elite hitters have put up a higher accumulated wRC than Ichiro.
If you're wondering what wRC is, it's a stat from Tom Tango that improves upon Bill James' runs created based off of wOBA. Check out the link to Fangraphs for more info.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) tells us how many struck balls land safely for a hit. It is park-and-league adjusted, so there is an even playing field.
Usually, you'd use BABIP to predict regression for a player. If a hitter or pitcher runs a BABIP higher or lower than their career norms, you can generally expect it to move back towards that average the following season, and then adjust their other stats accordingly.
For Ichiro, he is always prone to a high BABIP due to his unique approach. The infield hits, slaps and bloops all add into this. A one-season deviation would make you skeptical about sustainability, but we have a large enough sample now to know Ichiro gets on base with hits more than anyone and we shouldn't expect that to change.
No one with more than a season in the majors has a higher BABIP.
For Ichiro, his inflated BABIP seasons have been in the near .400 range and led to two batting titles and two second-place finishes.
What about his normal level?
The 90th percentile hovers somewhere around .340, and Ichiro's career average is .357.
This means that, year in and year out, you can count on Ichiro to be the best player in baseball at getting on base with a hit.
Fangraphs has a stat called clutch that "measures how well a player performed in high leverage situations."
While clutch doesn't help much with predicting future performances, it does do a great job of telling you what happened in the past.
The historical perception of clutch may lead some to disagree, since Ichiro has only been on one playoff team, and only four that were serious contenders during his 10 seasons.
Most fans' memories are of guys like Derek Jeter or David Ortiz coming up with big hits in a game with huge implications. That's how they think of, and remember, clutch performances. After all, we don't have spreadsheets in our heads to sort columns over 10-year spans.
However, according to the aforementioned stat, Ichiro has been the most clutch player in baseball since 2001.
There really is no perfect defensive metric.
While advances have been made, it's still really tough to get a solid grip on defensive abilities, especially in sample sizes under two full seasons.
UZR, and subsequently UZR/150, is the best thing we have right now, and Ichiro is amongst the league's best every year.
Since his first season in 2001, only four players have a higher UZR total than Ichiro. Andruw Jones and Carl Crawford are the two outfielders ahead of him.
Defense is a large part of Ichiro's overall value, and he has proven to be an elite defender even into his mid-to-late 30s.
Wins Above Replacement is a statistic that tries to encapsulate a player's total value in a one-stop-shop type of way. It even adjusts based on positional adjustments based on difficulty of position.
It applies a win value to each player, telling you what their value is compared to your basic minor leaguer or bench player. This stat is a tough pill for a lot of non-saber friendly folks out there to swallow sometimes.
Look at Carlos Quentin of the Chicago White Sox. Over the past two seasons, he's put up -0.4 WAR. In 2010, he broke dead even at 0. You'd probably call me crazy if I suggested that the White Sox grab a random AAA player to plug in his spot to save millions of dollars.
In 2009, Willie Bloomquist would have been just as valuable to them.
Remember, though, WAR covers everything, offense and defense. So, if you're one who believes that a run saved is as good as a run earned, you should consider buying into WAR. In Quentin's case, his defense is so poor that it negates the 26 home runs and 87 RBI that many teams would love to have from their right fielder.
So how does Ichiro stack up?
Since 2001, when Ichiro made his big-league debut, only three players have been more valuable according to WAR.
Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Lance Berkman.
That's exceptional company. As an elite defender who gets on base at a solid clip, most of us can recognize Ichiro as an exciting player who sets the table for the rest of the team (well, unless they're useless like the 2010 Mariners).
Being the fourth most-valuable player in the game over the past 10 years, though? Even I was a bit surprised.