August 30, 2004
The Race to 258
I don't get the same thrill out of watching Ichiro play as others do, and as I've pointed out before, the style points people are so willing to grant him mean that he'll perpetually be overrated. In his best seasons, he'll be an above-average player wrongly considered an MVP candidate. In others, he'll be an average player called "above average." In any case, his offensive value is entirely dependent on how high a BA he can put up.
This year, he's putting up a huge one. His .369 mark leads MLB and almost assures him of a second batting title in his four major-league seasons. If he can bump it up just a bit, he could become just the third player since 1980 to bat .375 or higher. (Batting .400, while a possibility, would require hitting between .525 and .545 for the rest of the season, a feat that seems even beyond his grasp.) That BA is the largest part of a .410 OBP and .466 SLG, which, along with his .314 EqA, provide a more reasonable picture of his performance in 2004. With just 26 unintentional walks and 34 extra-base hits, he's not doing much else at the plate but hitting singles, which is why he's just 16th in the AL in Equivalent Average.
With the Mariners long past relevance, Ichiro is the only reason left to follow their games, and the biggest reason to follow Ichiro is to see if he can break one of the game's oldest records: George Sisler's mark for hits in a season, set at 257 way back in 1920.
Unlike the home-run mark so recently shattered, or even the occasional chase for a .400 average, this is a record that had gone virtually unchallenged for decades. The record for hits in a 162-game season is just 242, set by Ichiro himself in 2001. Just three players since 1930 have picked up even 240 knocks in a season. Simply having a shot at this mark in late August is a rarity.
Can Ichiro get to 258? He's currently on pace to do so, averaging 1.61 hits a game with 32 to play, a rate that would get him to 260 safeties. If you give him credit for his second-half pace--Ichiro is hitting .459 since the All-Star break--he'd break the record with nearly a week left in the season.
Of course, it isn't that simple. First of all, Ichiro has an established pattern of wilting in September. His career .283 average in the last month is his lowest by 15 points. Last year, remember, he was on his way to a second questionable MVP award before hitting .242 in August and .273 in September to fall out of the running (and take his team's hopes with him). Coming into 2004, Ichiro averaged .335 before Sept. 1, and just .290 after. Whether it's the longer U.S. season, his style of play, or factors with which we're unfamiliar, Ichiro has not been the same player in the season's last 30 games.
Another reason to be skeptical is the competition Ichiro will face down the stretch. While he's hit everybody for six weeks, the pitching staffs he'll see the rest of the way do a very good job of preventing hits:
Team G BAA AL Rank Toronto 3 .273 11 Chicago 3 .274 12 Cleveland 2 .275 13 Boston 4 .256 1 Anaheim 7 .264 4 Oakland 7 .258 2 Texas 6 .272 8The bulk of Ichiro's at-bats the rest of the way--18 of 32 games--are going to come against three of the four AL teams who are the stingiest with hits. (Against these seven teams, I should note, Ichiro is hitting .367 in 275 at-bats, almost exactly what he's hitting against everyone else.)
The biggest factor standing in Ichiro's way, however, is opportunity. His margin for error is small enough that losing any at-bats will be a big problem for him. Not only, then, does he have to keep getting hits at a historic pace, he has to keep getting at-bats at that same historic pace. Ichiro is headed for just the third 700-AB season in baseball history, following Willie Wilson in 1980 and Juan Samuel in 1984. Those two players batted leadoff for good offensive teams, ones that finished fourth and second in their respective leagues in runs scored. The 2004 Mariners…well, they'll rank lower than that.
Even if Ichiro can keep getting hits at his current pace, in what is historically his worst month, against a subset of pitching staffs that are good at hit prevention, he may fall short based on opportunity. He's averaging 4.39 at-bats per game, a figure that is almost certain to drop over the next few weeks. The Mariners and their .331 team OBP--a figure that includes the work of John Olerud--will have a difficult time turning over the lineup four times against the pitchers they'll face in September. More critically, Ichiro is perceived to be so much better than the Ms #2 hitter (Randy Winn, usually) that he'll be in danger of receiving intentional walks in games that matter. As close as the AL West and AL wild-card races are, Ichiro could lose numerous at-bats over the last three weeks of the season.
When I combine all the factors working against Ichiro--his predilection towards late-season slumps, the tough pitching he'll face, the at-bats he's likely to lose--I can't see him reaching 258. He would need everything to go right, from maintaining a .370 average to his teammates doing enough to get him a fifth at-bat in a lot of games to the AL races devolving to the point where the Angels, A's and Rangers pitch to him in a lot of game-critical situations. And I haven't even mentioned what happens to his chances if, say, he sprains an ankle and misses a game.
The fact that we're even talking about this is a tribute to the kind of player Ichiro is. We haven't seen many hitters of his ilk, and while his approach isn't run-maximizing, it certainly is interesting. I'll root for him in spite of the numbers, because when someone gets this close to history, you'd like to see them make it.
What follows is a chart of how well Ichiro would have to hit to reach 258, for all at-bat ranges from 3.75/game to 4.55/game (assuming he plays in every game):
AB/G AB AVG 3.75 120 .408 3.85 123 .399 3.95 126 .389 4.05 130 .377 4.15 133 .368 4.25 136 .360 4.35 139 .353 4.45 142 .345 4.55 146 .336