Know Your 40: Ichiro Suzuki


Showing his age or not, the future Hall of Famer is a Yankee for the next two years. Will he be the Ichiro of the second half last year or the Ichiro in decline for the rest of the previous two seasons?

Name: Ichiro Suzuki
Position: Outfielder
Bats: Left Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 39 (born 10/22/1973)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 170 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Two years, $13 million (Free agent after 2014)
2012 Statistics: (MLB) 162 games, .283/.307/.390, 28 2B, 6 3B, 9 HR, 29 SB, 7 CS, .300 wOBA, 90 wRC+

I was shocked when the Yankees traded for Ichiro last July. Even though I believe there was some discussion of Ichiro's discontent with the Seattle Mariners, who have been competitive in just one season over the past decade, the two are inextricably linked in the minds of all baseball fans. It did not seem like Ichiro would be on the market, and yet there he was in a Yankee uniform (in Seattle no less) on July 23rd.

It also did not seem like Ichiro would be coming back to the Yankees after 2012 since he was considered a substitute for the injured Brett Gardner and a move designed to keep Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones from polluting the outfield with their "veteran presents." Yet again, here we are in April 2013, and Ichiro will be a Yankee through next year, barring a surprising cut or trade.

To say Ichiro was a star in Japan is an understatement. He joined the Orix Blue Wave as an 18-year-old in 1992, and just two years later, he began an incredible streak of seven batting titles in a row by hitting a Japanese record .385 at age 20. During those seven years, he hit a ridiculous .359 with 1,242 hits in 868 games. He outclassed his league and became the first Japanese position player to make it overseas to Major League Baseball, where he immediately proved himself above the competition there as well.

Ichiro set a rookie record with 242 hits in 2001, his debut season, won the batting title by hitting .350, led the league in steals with 56, and took home AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors as the Mariners dominated the AL with a record 116 victories. His qualifications for those big awards can be debated, but there was no doubting that he belonged in the majors. It was the first of a record 10 straight seasons of 200 hits--from 2001-10, he notched 2,244 hits in 1,588 games, batting .331/.376/.430 with a 117 OPS+. Along the way, he played terrific defense in right field, made the AL All-Star team each year (and made hilarious, profanity-riddled pregame speeches), and in his crowning moment as a player, set the all-time single season hit record with 262 in 2004. Given that decade of excellence, it should not even be a question whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. "My, oh my" indeed, Dave Niehaus.

Since 2011 though, Ichiro has not been the same unbelievable player. That's understandable for a guy who made his living as a pure contact hitter that did not walk all that much. The very same player whose single-season hits record was broken by Ichiro, Hall of Famer George Sisler, suffered a similarly quick decline; Sisler played his last game of ball at age 37. Ichiro began his decline at that same age in 2011. When Ichiro was traded to the Yankees last July though, something changed. In an off-season writeup about Ichiro, okay-looking baseball blogger Jeff Sullivan explored it further:

Yet what I find most interesting is how Ichiro’s numbers break down. Ichiro, in 2011, posted a 79 wRC+. Ichiro, with the Mariners in 2012, posted a 77 wRC+. With the Yankees in 2012, he posted a 114 wRC+, excluding the playoffs. He did that over 240 plate appearances, and it just so happens his career wRC+ is 110. Ichiro didn’t bounce back a little with the Yankees; he bounced back all the way, just about.

People always wondered if Ichiro had the potential to be a power hitter if he wanted. Ichiro always said he wouldn’t change his game. But it looked like he was kind of trying to change his game, and it wasn’t working. Ichiro homered four times last year as a Mariner, just once at home and twice in the U.S. Cellular bandbox. Things suddenly picked up after the trade. Ichiro homered five times as a Yankee down the stretch, and once more in the playoffs before the team was eliminated.

Sullivan provided GIFs of all six Ichiro homers as a Yankee, all of which went to Yankee Stadium's lefty-friendly bleachers in right. Ichiro's never going to be a power hitter, but it does seem like his drives to right bear a strong resemblance to those that Johnny Damon hit down the line for dingers 24 times in 2009. Perhaps Ichiro could be '09 Damon-lite, which is not bad.

That being said, a year and a half of data from 2011-12 is more telling than a couple months. It's more likely that Ichiro is the player that struggled with the Mariners for 257 games than the guy who did a little better in 67 with the Yankees. Seeking a low-price replacement in the outfield though, the Yankees re-signed Ichiro for two years in the off-season.

I think the Yankees' supposed allure to Ichiro based on possible 3,000th hit marketability is a little overstated. When they signed him was 394 hits away from 3,000, and I don't think anyone is actually arguing that he is a 197-hit caliber player anymore. They just wanted a guy to play a decent outfield for a low price. It's debatable that they gave him two years, but it was necessary to retain him with the Giants and Phillies reportedly offering similar deals (with perhaps more dollar value). Were there other cheap options? Perhaps, but it's hard to know what went on behind the scenes. (It should also be noted that Scott Hairston, who some people suggested as a better replacement, is also off to a slow start this year at 2-for-20.)

The Ichiro signing can be debated, but chances that it should not be too crippling to the team. He needs to play a lot better than he has so far, and there is plenty of time to turn it around. Although he's been incredibly durable throughout his career and has the capacity to play every day, the Yankees have already given him more days off this year than any year he's played since 2009. They will mix and match to hopefully keep him away from facing too many lefties and limit his time.

Given the dearth of outfield options, the Yankees could do a lot worse than Ichiro. None of the other options really represent any more guarantees than Ichiro could offer. Sullivan thought in the off-season that Ichiro "might have plenty yet to give to the Yankees." Time will tell, and there is some cause for hope. Let's just cross our fingers that in the worst-case scenario of Ichiro's game turning to complete mush through the end of July, the Yankees do not hesitate in making him a fourth outfielder or searching for other outfield options.

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