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May 11, 2011
The Asian Equation
The Idiosyncrasy of Ichiro
Last month, I traced the early history of Japanese-American player traffic, from the Pirates’ sly attempt to sign Eiji Sawamura in the 1930s to the loophole-leaping of players like Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano in the 1990s. To close that voluntary-retirement loophole and to prevent trading players like Hideki Irabu without their permission, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB) agreed on the current posting system in 1998. The system was designed to allow MLB teams to sign NPB stars without turning the NPB into another minor league, by forcing MLB teams to pay twice for NPB players, with about half of the total fee typically going to that player’s club.
During the leagues’ offseason, NPB teams can choose to post players who want to test the MLB waters. Once a player is posted, any MLB team has four days to submit a bid to the MLB commissioner for the right to negotiate with him. The highest bidding team then has thirty days to sign a contract. If they succeed, the team pays the posting fee to the player’s NPB club, but if they can’t come to an agreement, no fee is paid. The winning club thus pays for a player twice, with a portion going to the team as a non-negotiable sealed bid. This kind of blind bidding can easily lead to overpaying, benefitting the NPB club, but not the player.
This inequity, combined with the fact that the player has no control over which team he bargains with, would never be tolerated by the MLB players’ union. Japanese culture and businesses, however, value loyalty and community harmony over individual rights. This mindset led the NPB players’ union to promise it will never strike, so they accepted the posting system without a fuss.
Individual NPB players might chafe at the lopsided payouts, but they can appreciate how the management-friendly, above-board method avoids the accusations of selfishness or disloyalty that have accompanied players leaving their native Japan. Players can still depart via free agency (made marginally easier when the NPB reduced its free-agency requirements from ten years to nine in 1998), but the youngest and most talented players have generally come via the posting system.
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp posted the system’s first players in 1999, offering Alejandro Quezada and Timo Perez. NPB teams—like their MLB equivalents—don’t usually let talent go for free, but the Carp’s reasons for granting the players’ posting requests isn’t clear. Like Alfonso Soriano, Quezada and Perez came from the Carp’s Dominican Republic training academy and might have had similar difficulties adjusting to the exhausting Japanese training regimen. Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker suspects that the Carp felt its existing outfielders (Tomoaki Kanemoto, Koichi Ogata, and Tomonori Maeda) were good enough to allow Timo and Alejandro to walk.
Hiroshima also might have felt that the posting fee would outweigh any loss of talent, although Quezada had already fared well in NPB. After being named MVP of the 1998 Fresh All-Star Game (Japan’s Futures Game), he hit .311/.333/.475 in 34 games in NPB. Perez, on the other hand, had his best season in 1997, when he hit .245/.295/.367 in 86 games. This performance disparity no doubt led to the Reds’ $400,000 bid for Quezada, while no team bid for Perez.
Quezada signed a $1.6 million deal with Cincinnati, where he changed his last name to Diaz. Whatever he called himself, he never got above Double-A, spending four full seasons at that level and accumulating a meek .267/.300/.412 minor-league triple-slash line. Interestingly, Perez would make a bigger mark in America.
Hiroshima granted Timo Perez his release after the next season, which Patrick and I suspect was due to his .173/.269/.174 line that year. Perez signed with the Mets in 2000 and helped them in their stretch run towards the 2001 World Series, where he appeared in all five games, starting four of them. His .286/.333/.469 line in 54 plate appearances in 2000 helped him stick around long enough to hit .295/.324/.437 in 481 plate appearances for the 2003 Mets, one of those fluky seasons that would ensure him a longer MLB career. After four seasons with the Mets, Perez was traded to the White Sox, where he played two more years, winning a ring in 2005. He then made his way to St. Louis and Detroit before fading quietly away with a limp overall line of .269/.308/.382 (.246 TAv) and a 2.2 WARP, nearly all of it accrued during that anomalous 2003.
Fortunately, these early posting failures didn’t prevent the importation of the most successful position player ever to make the transpacific jump—Ichiro Suzuki. Although it seems strange now, given his success, Ichiro’s posting caused considerable skepticism among American analysts, who saw the Japanese game as easier, particularly for a player like Ichiro. NPB teams played a shorter season, with a smaller ball, in smaller parks with artificial turf, and against lesser talent.
Moreover, Ichiro represented the stereotype of the Japanese ballplayer: slight of frame (5-foot-9 and 159 pounds) and fundamentally sound, but a slap-hitter, not a slugger. His distinctive pre-swing stretches and unique, knock-kneed batting stance surely had to raise eyebrows among baseball purists, and Rob Dibble famously swore he’d run naked through Times Square if Ichiro ever won a batting title in MLB.
The perceived difference between leagues, however, obscured Ichiro’s substantial accomplishments in Japan. Ichiro exploded onto the scene in 1994, becoming the first NPB player to collect more than 200 hits in a season; his 210 hits were even more impressive in a 140-game season. He ended with a .385/.445/.549 triple-slash line, reaching base in a record 69 consecutive games and winning the first of seven straight hitting titles and the first of three MVPs. He led Orix to the Japan Series in 1995 and 1996, winning it once, and accumulated seven Gold Gloves and seven Best Nine awards (given to the best overall player at each position) and once went 216 consecutive at-bats without whiffing (also an NPB record). He finished his NPB career with a .353/.434/.522 line, 1,278 hits, 199 stolen bases, and 118 home runs in seven full seasons and 3,619 at-bats.
This amazing record didn’t blunt criticism of him, possibly because he would be the first position player to make the jump and thus would be expected to hit, field, run and throw, and not merely pitch. With the exception of power, Ichiro could do all of those at an exceptional level (he could even pitch, as he had in high school and in the NPB All-Star Game). Ichiro turned out to be a unique talent, a truly idiosyncratic player.
Ichiro’s uniqueness began with his debut, when he became the first player since Fred Lynn (and the second ever) to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP. He hit .350/.379/.457 (a .307 TAv) and put up a 6.6 WARP that was 18th best overall among hitters. He led right fielders in putouts (which he would do five more times) and led all of baseball on the bases with his 7.8 EQBRR. He led the league in stolen bases with 56, in hits for the first of seven times (those other three times, he finished second), and even took the batting crown—and, yes, Dibble made good on his promise.
In the years to come, Ichiro would add to those statistics, leading all of baseball in hits for the decade with 2,244, despite beginning a year later than all of his competition (Derek Jeter, in second, trails him by 125 hits). Ichiro’s .331 batting average over that decade ties him for first with none other than Albert Pujols (although Ichiro’s .376 OBP puts him in 27th).
Looking at this huge gap in rankings between batting average and on-base percentage, we begin to get some sense of Ichiro’s idiosyncratic makeup. Though he had a top-notch contact rate just shy of 90 percent, he had a skimpy 6.2 percent walk rate, which would normally peg his average around .279. But he beats that by more than 50 points, thanks to a .357 BABIP that is second only to Shin-Soo Choo in the 2000s. It’s a combined hitting profile that consistently befuddles PECOTA. How, exactly does he do this?
He is not the first to hit well despite impatience and high contact, but few have been as successful. Looking at players with similar strikeout and walk rates with at least 1000 plate appearances, here are the top 20 TAvs:
It’s an interesting collection of talent, with five Rookies of the Year and eighteen All-Stars. But there’s no player with more homers than Del Ennis’ 288 and no Hall of Famers (yet). Clearly, this is not a power-hitter’s profile; many of these players were good base stealers, however, and this collection of skills works well for a speedster.
Speed explains some of Ichiro’s BABIP and batting-average anomalies: he has led his league in infield hits for much of his career, and holds a 13 percent infield hit percentage over the last decade, fourth best in baseball. But that is a bit of an illusion, since changing the denominator from all ground balls to just grounders fielded by infielders pushes him down to 20th. And infield hits only comprise about 20 percent of his total hits, ranking him 40th overall over the last ten years. Despite the stereotype, Ichiro is not just a slap-hitter who puts the ball on the ground and legs out his singles.
Some of his success may also be due to his ability to make contact outside the zone and place his hits well. Over at Baseball Analytics, David Pinto created some great Pitch f/x heat maps to show that Ichiro swings at so many pitches simply because he makes successful contact, even when the pitch is clearly a ball. When he makes contact, he seems to be able to place them where the other fielders ain’t. Mike Fast created a graph of Bat f/x data from April 2009 (the only month for which clubs have released data), which seemed to indicate that Ichiro managed to place his hits right between the fielders:
It’s appropriate for Ichiro to use Wee Willie Keeler’s “hit ‘em where they ain’t” philosophy, since Ichiro recorded his ninth straight season of 200 or more hits in 2009, breaking Keeler’s record for consistency. This came one season after Ichiro tied Lou Gehrig for most consecutive seasons with 200 hits and 100 runs scored. A tepid Mariners’ offense and the first DL stint of Ichiro’s career (for stomach ulcers) prevented him from breaking that record, too, in 2009; he finished with only 88 runs.
He has been remarkably consistent on the basepaths as well. Ichiro is the only player in the modern era to record nine seasons with a .300 average and 30 or more steals. Among players of any era, only Ty Cobb (12) and Eddie Collins (11) have more, while Honus Wagner also has nine. This basestealing success comes not only comes from his speed, but also from selectivity. Among modern-era players with at least 200 swipes in their career, Ichiro’s 81.5 percent success rate ranks tenth, a shade behind Carl Crawford’s 81.8 percent. In 2006, Ichiro attempted 47 steals and was caught just twice, a 95.7 percent success rate unmatched by any expansion-era player with 40 or more steals.
Even when he is not stealing, he is running the bases well. Over the past decade, only two players were better than Ichiro at delivering runs for their team, according to BRR:
And in the field, Ichiro’s efforts also stand out. Combining his work in right field and center (where he played in all of 2007 and parts of 2006 and 2008), he ranks among some of the best outfielders (mostly centerfielders) for his run prevention since arriving in MLB. Seattle fans still talk about “The Throw,” his peg of Terrence Long, who was trying to get from first to third on a single. Players quickly learned not to run on him, or his FRAA likely would have been even higher:
Although we may never be able to understand exactly how Ichiro has been so successful, it’s clear that his idiosyncratic package of skills is unique in baseball’s modern era. No other player brings his combination of intelligent speed, consistent batting average (despite extreme secondary stats), and fielding acumen—were he to swing for the fences, he’d likely bring power, too. On either side of the Pacific, he is a truly unique player, likely to be the first enshrined in both the Japanese and American Baseball Halls of Fame.
To the Japanese-American market, Ichiro’s skill set has been both a blessing and a curse. Just as Hideo Nomo showed that Japanese pitchers could dominate MLB, Ichiro erased any doubts that NPB position players can not only survive, but thrive, across the Pacific. In the process, however, he has elevated expectations to an absurd degree—next month, I’ll look at the players who have suffered in the prodigious wake of expectations trailing behind the idiosyncrasy that is Ichiro Suzuki.