Pop quiz: name the three most valuable position players for the Yankees this year. There's Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and...ummm...Overbay? Not close. Wells? Further away. Granderson, Soriano? No and no. Identifying Cano and Gardner is easy, but it may surprise some that the Yankees' 39 year-old Ichiro Suzuki has been the team's third-best position player. He does not have a ton of competition, either. Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay have been replacement level, while Alfonso Soriano, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez have not played enough to make more of an impact. Ichiro gets overlooked because his days as a useful hitter are behind him, but he fields his position and runs the bases very well, providing value to a team that has needed positive contributions wherever it could find them.
Unfortunately for Ichiro, the most easily observable part of his game, in the batter's box, is where he has been the least successful. After ten straight years of above average offense, never dipping below a .328 wOBA, Ichiro has been below average the past three years. Over close to 1900 plate appearances Ichiro has hit .275/.308/.361 for a wOBA of .290 and wRC+ of 78 (100 is average). Given the last three years in their entirety, it is safe to assume that the uptick in numbers he experienced upon being traded to the Yankees last year was a small sample size-driven streak and not something fundamentally different in his play. He is not a player that should be hitting near the top of a lineup anymore, although I should note he has hit better than Jayson Nix and Chris Stewart and is roughly even with the defensively inept Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells.
Even with the poor offensive numbers, Ichiro has proven himself valuable to this year's Yankees. He is still one of the top outfielders in the league. According to UZR, only Shane Victorino has been better than Ichiro's 11.2 fielding runs above average among right-fielders qualifying for the batting title. Ichiro's prowess in the field is not a one year sample size issue, either. He has reached double-digits in runs saved above average in three out of the past four years.
He has also provided value on the base-paths. His raw steal numbers are impressive, with 20 steals in 23 tries. However, fangraphs can measure more than just steals in determining base-running value. By looking at going from first to third, second to home, and other opportunities to take the extra base, a greater understanding of Ichiro's value once he gets on base is ascertainable. This season Ichiro has been 4.8 runs above average running the bases. That ranks 21st in all of baseball. He may have lost a step or two, but that still makes him considerably better than your average major leaguer.
Despite his poor hitting numbers, Ichiro's fielding and base-running have provided enough value to get Ichiro to a 1.6 fWAR and 2.0 rWAR, roughly league average. It is difficult to tell exactly what the Yankees expected from Ichiro when he signed his 2 year, 13 million dollar deal, but they are getting exactly what they paid for. Reaching his 4,000th professional hit is a great achievement, but he is not just holding on for milestones. He is providing a positive contribution to a contending team that has been lacking the same throughout 2013.
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- Eduardo Nunez is the worst fielder in baseball and you can't stop watching
- Yankees 2, Orioles 4: Bats fall asleep in series opener
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