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September 24, 2004
Lies, Damned Lies
The Unique IchiroI have to confess to some mixed feelings about this whole George Sisler business. Ichiro Suzuki is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting players in the game today. I'm supposed to be a stats guy, not an aesthetics guy, but that counts for something. My dad was in town a couple of weeks ago; we wanted to catch a ballgame but the Cubs were out of town. Then we checked the schedule and saw that the Sox were playing Ichiro! during the week. Two field level seats and four MGDs, please.
The trouble is, Ichiro is doing one hell of a number on our projection system. PECOTA predicted Ichiro to hit .309 this year. It thought there was greater than a 40 percent chance that he wouldn't even manage .300. It gave him better than a one-in-three probability of having a collapse season at the plate. For PECOTA, Ichiro is this year's Javy Lopez.
What's particularly frustrating is that there are certain players that I know that PECOTA is going to get wrong. It's going to get Tom Glavine wrong because there aren't too many other guys who completely change their pitching philosophy depending on whether there are runners on base (this deserves its own column at some point). It's going to get Joe Mauer wrong because 21-year-old catchers with that sort of skill set come along approximately never. And it's going to get Ichiro wrong because there just aren't any other hitters in recent memory who are anything like him.
Luis Polonia? Tony Womack? Damaso Garcia? DAMASO F'ING GARCIA! PECOTA thinks that Ichiro is due for a major correction because it thinks he's like Luis Polonia, and when a hero like Luis Polonia hits .330 or something, it is almost certainly a fluke, a lucky year by a banjo hitter.
Let's think about what a guy needs to be good at to have a chance at breaking the all-time hits record. The record is not going to be broken by a home-run hitter who hits a lot of bombs but also a lot of melodramatic flyouts to Jose Guillen; it's going to come from a singles guy who hits a lot of line drives. (In fact, we won't even consider home runs for the remainder of this discussion).
Basically, if you want a guy who hits a lot of singles and doubles, you're looking for two things:
Putting the ball in play. We will define this as the percentage of plate appearances that result in something other than a strikeout, walk, home run or hit-by-pitch. The leaders and trailers among major leaguers with at least 400 PA thus far this season are as follows:
Leaders: Balls in Play Percentage (BIP%) Juan Pierre 87.4% Endy Chavez 85.6% A.J. Pierzynski 83.7% Tike Redman 83.6% Alex Cintron 83.5% David Eckstein 83.4% Cesar Izturis 83.4% Aaron Miles 83.3% Ichiro 83.1% Sean Burroughs 83.0%These are the anti-Three True Outcomes players, the sworn enemies of the Rob Deer fan club, and for the most part, they're a pretty worthless bunch. By contrast:
Trailers: Balls in Play Percentage (BIP%) Barry Bonds 40.4% Adam Dunn 41.0% Jim Edmonds 44.3% Jim Thome 45.3% Jason Bay 49.9% Sammy Sosa 50.2% Pat Burrell 51.0% Carlos Pena 51.6% Carlos Delgado 51.9% Mike Cameron 51.9%You gonna take the first group of hitters or the second for the company softball game?
Getting hits when you do put the ball in play. We will define this as non-HR hits as a percentage of times when the player does not walk, strike out, get plunked or hit a homer: this is the precise analog of defensive efficiency rating and the "Voros McCracken number" that we use for pitchers.
Leaders: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
Jim Edmonds .418 Ivan Rodriguez .398 Ichiro .397 Jason Varitek .396 Jason Bay .395 Melvin Mora .394 Erubiel Durazo .392 Lyle Overbay .384 Travis Hafner .379 J.D. Drew .378 Barry Bonds .377We've cheated and listed an extra name just so I don't get a flood of e-mails asking where Barry Bonds ranked. To a certain extent, it is likely that some of these guys are running hot; there is a luck component to this number for offensive players, just like there is for pitchers. Ichiro, however, has performed so well in this department throughout his career that I don't think we can maintain a straight face while dismissing it as a fluke. His awesome first step, his multitude of swing types--all of these things are designed to get him hits in spots where ordinary players just don't.
Here are the trailers in the same department:
Trailers: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) Tony Batista .241 Joe Crede .253 Jose Valentin .255 Rafael Palmeiro .264 Jose Cruz .265 Jay Payton .266 Doug Mientkiewicz .269 Juan Encarnacion .269 Alex Gonzalez .271 Alex Cintron .271A number of these guys have underachieved this year and are good rebound candidates in 2005, except maybe folks like Tony Batista and Jose Valentin who have repeated the pattern throughout their careers.
As I've already alluded to, players who put the ball in play less frequently tend to have more favorable results when they do. These are the more selective hitters who drive the ball when they do make contact. Their strategy isn't to knock a baseball into play and see what sticks, but rather, to hit the ball far and hard, even if they strike out a lot trying to accomplish this. The correlation between BABIP and BIP% for our group of hitters is around -.30:
Look at Ichiro! He's nowhere remotely close to any other hitter in the league. Barry Bonds--no shock here--isn't, either, but at least his results are consistent with the general direction of things. Ichiro bucks the trend and does it by a significant margin. I am having trouble coming up with the proper analogy; Spud Webb exquisitely dunking a basketball, maybe?
I do suspect that Ichiro is getting a little bit lucky and that his true batting average--what he'd hit if the season was double infinity games long--is "only" .350 or so. I'm not about to hold that against him, though PECOTA probably will once the winter rolls around. In the meantime, I'll be rooting for him.
By the way, my earlier jab at the White Sox aside, you should come one and all to the U.S. Cellular Pizza Feed that we're hosting this Saturday. The Cell looks fantastic this year, the weather is supposed to be very comfy this weekend, and there'll be lots of fans, authors, and Sox folks to talk with. Hope to see all of the regulars and some of the irregulars there.