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September 24, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

The Unique Ichiro

by Nate Silver

I 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.

Okay, so Matty Alou and Tony Gwynn come pretty close. A bunch of golden oldies like Ty Cobb probably do, too, but PECOTA only looks at post-WWII players.

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 a lot, which means not walking much and not striking out much and not hitting a lot of home runs

  • Having a lot of the balls that you do put in play go for base hits
You might assume that these two things are related. In fact, the opposite is true. Those players who put the ball in play a lot tend do hit for lower batting averages on balls that do go into play. Let's look at each component in a little bit more detail.

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      .377
We'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      .271
A 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.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Ichiro

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