I have mixed feelings about Ichiro. While I marvel at his ability to hit, run, and play outfield, I am underwhelmed by his contributions to run scoring.
Before I get run out of Seattle, let me explain a few things about Ichiro' place in baseball's strategic landscape and let me preface the article by saying that I don't question Ichiro's desire to win or his professionalism; both are impeccable.
What I question is the value of Ichiro's hitting approach. The heart of the debate about Ichiro that has been raging here, here, and elsewhere is how to evaluate a player who is perhaps the best ever at a few of baseball's tasks. I use overrated and under-appreciated in the title because Ichiro is often overrated as a contributor to victory and under-appreciated for his contributions to baseball beauty, folklore and legend.
Ichiro should be in the Hall of Fame (HoF) and is on the short list of players I most like to watch; however, were I trying to maximize run-scoring, there are many non-HoF players I would rather have hitting.
The following players all spent multiple seasons in right field from 2001 to 2010 and are bigger offensive contributors than Ichiro: Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Brian Giles, and Bobby Abreu. I would put Ichiro in the HoF before any of them, yet I would rather have any of them hitting for my team, game-on-the-line cliche or otherwise.
The following is a list of statistics for those players, including Ichiro, for their seasons starting at age 27, ending at age 36. The triple slash line denotes batting average, on-base percent, and slugging percent. The number after home runs is offensive win percent (OWP), a number indicating the winning percent of a hypothetical team allowing a league-average level of runs while scoring runs as if the lineup were constructed of hitters identical to one indicated. I use it because it is fair single-metric evaluation of offensive output.
Giles: .293/.406/.517, 250 home runs, .676
Sheffield: .303/.417/.552, 332 home runs, .687
Guerrero: .317/.380/.537, 276 home runs, .666
Abreu: .291/.396/.480, 217 home runs, .670
Ichiro: .331/.376/.430, 90 home runs, .607
Ichiro is the batting average leader, but he is last in the categories that correlate more highly with run scoring: on-base percent, slugging percent, and offensive win percent. These numbers are the basis of my preferences; OWP dictates my choice when I want to win but not necessarily who I want to watch. My two favorite players to watch on that list are Guerrero and Ichiro, the players with the lowest OWP and—to my untrained eye—the most amazing hitting skills.
I know Ichiro runs circles around those guys, but even if I factor in his stolen bases, Ichiro still falls short. I assume base stealing needs to be successful 70 percent of the time to be effective, putting Ichiro's net gain of bases via theft during his first ten seasons at 178* or 383 - 205. If I give him 178 total bases, converting 178 singles to doubles, his slugging percent only jumps to .456, still a far cry from the standard of strong-hitting right fielders.
The following analogy helps me think about the odd juxtaposition of amazing skill and less-than-amazing results we see when watching Ichiro hit.
Imagine a stream running past a hill, and on the hill stands a water tank. Workers fill the tank from the stream, using buckets of various sizes and a leaky, often broken, pipe-and-pump assembly. Some workers choose to use only big buckets, making fewer and slower trips up the hill. Some use small buckets, making many fast trips. A few workers spend time fiddling with the pump or patching the leaky pipes between bucket trips.
Now imagine that water represents contributions to run scoring, water moved with buckets represents hits and water moved via pump-and-pipe represents walks. Sluggers are the guys carrying big buckets, trying to contribute with big hits. Singles hitters carry a lot small buckets, contributing with small hits.
Ichiro is the best carrier of small buckets ever, carrying more of them than anybody else, more consistently than anybody else. Abreu carries fewer yet larger buckets and rests now and then to work on the pump. He escapes notice because a lot of water carriers share his approach. Because Ichiro stands out, nobody notices that Abreu moves more water. Nobody notices that Abreu and his ilk are the better offensive players.
The analogy can be applied to extreme Seattle Mariner situations this year—Jack Cust spent the whole of his season putting duct tape on the pipe, while Carlos Peguero spent all his energy groaning under the biggest bucket he could find.
The challenge with evaluating Ichiro is separating the things he does that nobody else has ever done from the things he does that win games. The water analogy is my explanation for the over-rating of Ichiro. Why he is under-appreciated is well addressed by Mark Evans in the first article link.
I think Ichiro is a rare player to be under-appreciated and overrated. Usually players are both overrated and over-appreciated or underrated and under-appreciated.
*I am subtracting 205 bases that are canceled out by the 88 times he was caught stealing. 205 = 2.33 multiplied by 88 where a ratio of 2.33 steals per caught stealing is a 70 percent success rate, the rate I am calling the break-even point. I am generous in favor of Ichiro in this analysis.