When it became clear, after he hit a myopic .210 in 26 May games (22x105) last season, that Ichiro faced long odds to extend his streak of consecutive 200-hit seasons to 11, I began to mull over the idea that the best thing that could happen to him was to have that historic streak, fascinating as it was, come to an end.
Burdened by both it and advancing age, the 37-year-old Ichiro spent the balance of 2011 attempting to recover from his horrid May and re-establish a 200-hit pace, but couldn’t, and faded, like a rotting melon, into an ordinary ballplayer. It might not have been so conspicuous were he not pulling down $18 million, a massive chunk of the Mariners' payroll.
By the time the rains came, Ichiro produced a career-low 180 hits (a big year for most), a career-worst .272 batting average, and dismal numbers across the board (.310 on-base percentage, .645 OPS), at least by the standards Ichiro established.
Almost no player sustains a career as long as Ichiro’s (counting Japan) without a few years treading through the doldrums. So as the Mariners gather in Peoria, AZ., for their annual season written in the sand, the most intriguing question to me revolves not around Jesus Montero or Dustin Ackley, and their upside potentials, or around the rotation order behind Felix Hernandez, but whether Ichiro can be Ichiro again.
Some will argue it’s possible, insisting that Ichiro’s 2011 season was an aberration. Some will say that if Ichiro abandons his obsessive pursuit of 200 hits, which carries with it such self-imposed pressure that he risks corroding his own stomach lining, he might have a chance to bounce back and become the player he once was.
I think that’s a fantasy. Ichiro has adamantly refused to change his approach to a season one iota since he joined the Mariners in 2001. There is no reason to suppose he will change now. He’ll enter 2012 intent on 200 hits to prove his approach still works, as it almost always has.
In a way, I admire that. It’s what has enabled Ichiro to become the first to do this, and the fastest to do that, too many times to count. In fact, it's an approach that will take Ichiro to Cooperstown. But even a pressure-free Ichiro, if that's possible, will find 200 hits a long shot, considering that at his age (or older), only three players reached 200 hits:
|1996||Paul Molitor||Twins||DH, INF||R/R||225||39|
|1979||Pete Rose||Phillies||OF, 1B||S/R||208||38|
Baseball Reference.com, among other web sites, publishes a valuable stat, Wins Above Replacement. WAR -- Good God, what does it stand for? -- is an attempt to summarize a player’s total contribution to his team in one number.
WAR hasn't gained traction with all. Its critics argue that it’s geeky mumbo-jumbo, and that a player's value cannot be reduced to one convenient figure. But WAR's proponents subscribe to the idea that it’s pretty much all-inclusive when it comes to evaluating players. I come down on the side of the geeks, mainly because WAR tends to validate what I see, and can substantiate with more traditional statistics without pounding a calculator.
WAR looks at a player and asks: “If this player were injured and his team had to replace him, how much value would the team lose?”
This value, developed by Sean Smith of Baseball Reference, is expressed in a wins format. For example, Player X is worth 6.3 wins to his team while Player Y is only worth 3.5 wins.
Without getting into a nerdier explanation (you can read that here), WAR comes down to this: A WAR of 8+ equals a player of MVP quality. A player with a 5+ is an All-Star, +2 is a starter, 0 to 2 is a reserve and 0 or less, well, that player needs to send his resume to Wal Mart.
Last year, Ichiro’s WAR was -0.4.
That is a time-to-retire number. Many players of Ichiro's historical profile have either shuffled away voluntarily or been shown the door after producing a WAR higher than -0.4, and approximately at the same age as Ichiro (38).
Ichiro’s WAR numbers, especially if you have marveled over him for the past decade, paint an inevitable decline that no shift in his place in the batting order is likely to stem. According to WAR, Ichiro hasn’t been an All-Star since 2009 (although he made the 2010 All-Star team), and actually peaked as a player in 2004, when he produced an 8.1 WAR at 30.
This means that, entering 2012, Ichiro is already eight years beyond his prime (but still at the height of it as a wage earner). From an 8.1 WAR in 2004, when he had 262 hits, bumping down George Sisler in the record books, Ichiro’s WAR dropped to 4.7 and 4.2 in 2005 and 2006 (sub-All-Star), ticked up to 5.8, 5.4 and 5.3 from 2007-09, and dropped to 4.3 in 2010. Then came his nosedive into statistical oblivion, -0.4 last year (Sisler retired, at age 37, following a 1930 season in which his WAR was -0.3).
No surprise, really, that Ichiro reached production peak at age 30. Rod Carew peaked at 10.9 WAR in 1977 at 31 and never had a WAR higher than 4.5 (starter, but less than an All-Star) in his eight seasons after that. Carew retired in 1985 at age 39 with a WAR of 0.5.
Another noted singles hitter, Wade Boggs, peaked at age 29 (9.1), had an 8.2 at age 31 and retired after the 1999 season with a -0.3. Tony Gwynn, according to the WAR definition, had only two All-Star seasons after turning 31.
Lloyd Waner, a Hall of Famer who played mostly with Pittsburgh from 1927-45, is identified by Baseball Reference as the player most statistically similar to Ichiro. Here's why:
If Ichiro doesn’t tie himself in knots trying for 200 hits, maybe he can make a more positive contribution than in 2011. But it doesn’t appear any upward bounce will be very high, problematic for the Mariners who owe him another $18 million in what will be the final year of his contract.
Ichiro has often said he would like to play at least until 40, perhaps a little longer. Here’s what I’d like to see Ichiro do: Play out his contract with the Mariners, return to Japan, and finish his career where it started, with dignity and a nearly unblemished major league career intact. As his WAR trend suggests, anything less won’t be pretty.