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Back in spring training, a buddy of mine asked me whether I thought Ichiro Suzuki would have another 200-hit season. I paused before responding, but only because I couldn’t think of the best way to explain what I expected out of Ichiro this year. My response was: “Does a bear crap in the woods?” (Note: I used a different word in place of “crap” but this is a respectable blog. Kids could be reading this stuff.)
Well, apparently there are a lot of constipated bears this season.
After posting 10 straight 200-hit seasons to start his major league career, it finally appears age has caught up with the best player Japan has ever produced. From 2001 through 2010, Ichiro compiled 2,244 hits (a career .331 average) and never batted below .303 in any single season. He was the game’s most prototypical and potent leadoff hitter, scoring 100-plus runs in each of his first eight seasons before Seattle’s offense became weaker than a Scotch and water, hold the Scotch.
Now, Ichiro is sitting at just 104 hits and a .260 average through nearly four months of the 2011 season. If he’s to get back to his usual .300-plus self, he’ll need to get 96 hits in his next 280 at-bats, which would bring him to his typical season-ending total of 680 at-bats. That would be a blistering .343 pace from here on out.
While it’s certainly possible, it’s not likely to happen. Either way, how do we explain Ichiro’s rapid decline? The answer lies in his batted ball data.
Ichiro is famous for his ability to make contact and quickly get down the first base line with a swing that takes him out of the box just as he’s making contact. According to Fangraphs, there are 551 batters that have registered at least 1,000 plate appearances since the start of Ichiro’s career, and only one (Shin-Soo Choo) has a higher career batting average on balls in play than Ichiro’s .357 mark. Once the ball is put in play, there’s (almost) no one more likely to get on base than Ichiro.
But that’s not been the case this season. In 2011 Ichiro’s BABIP is a Bengie Molina-esque .282 versus that career .357 mark. For those who don’t know much about BABIP, it’s a highly luck-dependent statistic. If you’re hitting balls right at fielders, your BABIP is going to lower because your ball placement has been unlucky. Because of his great speed, Ichiro is able to neutralize this to an extent, only once finishing a season with a BABIP under .333 (.316 back in 2005).
(These headings really take away the suspense, huh?)
Again, because of his great speed, Ichiro is able to beat out a lot more ground balls for hits. Of those 551 players who stepped to the plate at least 1,000 times since 2001, only Joey Gathright gives Ichiro a run for his money in this category (pun completely intended) as both players have infield hit rates of 13.0 percent. The next closest player is Jason Bay at 11.7 percent.
In fact, for his entire career, Ichiro has posted a .300 average on all ground balls he hits whereas the average major league player with average speed checks in at around .250. This year Ichiro has just a .232 average on ground balls. Considering that ground balls make up 60.3 percent of all balls Ichiro has put into play this season, this 68-point drop is astronomical. If Ichiro was posting his typical .300 average on ground balls this year, his .260 overall average would instead be .313, a completely reasonable (and expected) number.
Can we expect Ichiro to get back to being the Ichiro of old?
One of my favorite advanced stats is speed score. It has a crazy equation that’s not really worth explaining, but essentially it yields a single number that we can use to quantify how fast a player is. There’s not a ton of credibility to the stat and very few places reference it for this reason, but I think it gives a quick, handy, on-the-surface way of look at a player’s speed.
For his career, Ichiro’s speed score is 6.6. Back when he was younger (he’s 37 now), Ichiro was regularly posting speed scores in excess of 7.0. Over the last three seasons his average speed score is 5.5.
So, Ichiro is older than he used to be (duh) and he’s not as fast as he used to be (makes sense), so it would be unreasonable for us to expect him to continue to put up numbers like his .357 career BABIP or .300 career batting average on ground balls, but the respective .282 and .232 marks we’ve seen this year are too low to be considered the new norm. Even if Ichiro only managed a .275 batting average on ground balls from here on out (he’s older and slower, after all) that still works out to a .283 average for the remainder of the season. For what it’s worth, Ichiro batted .282 in June before tanking to start July.
In short, Ichiro’s not the 200-hit guarantee he’s been in years past, but he’s better than the player we’ve seen in 2011 and he’ll definitely improve over the season’s final two months if Lady Luck has anything to say about it.
Tags: Ichiro Suzuki