October 1, 2004
Ichiro!Ichiro Suzuki's pursuit of George Sisler's single-season record of 257 hits should end successfully in the next day or so. The BP crew discussed Ichiro and his performance this week.
Joe Sheehan: Is this record a little bit cheap? I think the guy is having a good as season as he can have playing the way he does. A .414 OBP and 13 net steals with good defense is a strong year, if not an MVP one. But his performance in September seems to have been reduced to hitting groundball singles in a specific effort to chase Sisler, and it just looks cheap to me. He has three extra bases in September, for an ISO of .026, and just four unintentional walks in 126 plate appearances. A couple of weeks ago, he bunted for a hit with a runner on second base and two men out in the sixth inning on a two-run game. I have no idea how that helps the team, or what might have happened if, say, Milton Bradley had done that.
This isn't about season length or his value as a player. This is just about having watched him play, and watched the Mariners play, and wondering if a record that seems so disconnected from the purpose of the game has as much value as one achieved with more connection to a season. (While I didn't feel that way about Mark McGwire's 62nd home run, I did think the external pressure to pitch to him--he had his lowest walk rate and intentional-walk total in September of that year--cheapened his march to 70.)
Right now, Ichiro's performance on offense reminds me of Dennis Rodman's in basketball, where he's allowed to focus on one particular task, and where he racks up gaudy totals by being a specialist.
This isn't a fully-formed idea. I'm just wondering if a player pursuing a different record with this kind of single-mindedness would be hearing about it. Is Ichiro getting a pass because people like his style?
Tom Wylie: Is this really any different than, say, throwing plate discipline to the winds in order to chase a home-run record? Or chasing a stolen-base record every time you reach first base, success rate be damned? As long as the sports world continues to lionize counting stats, you'll occasionally run into people chasing a goal despite it's being an open question as to whether it's a net benefit for the team. Hitting for average is a skill, regardless of where it ranks against the other baseball skills; Ichiro will set the record with his 258th hit, and nobody else has broken 250 since 1930.
Sure, maybe he could make himself marginally more valuable by concentrating on OBP or SLG instead of AVG, and maybe that could have an impact on the pennant race...but maybe he'd fail to keep up his value that way, impacting the pennant race in a different direction. This is basically a "what if?" objection, which we routinely deride "analysts" for throwing out for consideration.
Jim Baker: The thing about beating the ball straight into the ground is that it requires one to haul ass down to first. People like the haul-ass aspect of that approach. They're suckers for it, actually.
JS: I think 258 is 258, and it should be celebrated. My message came from watching Ms games and from looking at Ichiro's September line and seeing three extra bases and four unintentional walks. In fact, I can't think of an example of a player "throwing plate discipline to the winds in order to chase a home run record". (I think someone might have been caught stealing a bunch of times trying for 30/30 or 40/40 once.)
Ichiro has reduced his game to hitting singles not as a byproduct of his style, but in an intentional effort to produce singles. He's going to be at all kinds of extremes for fewest doubles, fewest XBH, lowest ISO while batting .350 or higher since 1920.
When I put it all together, I see a record achieved with a disconnect from the games it's achieved in. It's still an achievement, but it's lost something for me over the past couple of weeks.
I swear, this isn't a value thing. I'd imagine he'll be on my MVP ballot, and he's been a very good player this year. I just think his September is a little embarrassing.
Derek Zumsteg: So your argument then is that Ichiro is intentionally making contact with the ball trying to make singles and not...doubles? This non-optimal strategy, if it exists, has been awfully productive for him and it's not as if hitting singles hurts the team.
Whether there's a tradeoff between extra-base hits and singles is debatable, but it's entirely possible concentrating on hitting singles is the better of these strategies, and until you can come up with a specific argument like "Ichiro is concentrating on singles, increasing his hit rate by 5% at the expense of 20% fewer 2B and 10% fewer HRs, a net loss of 40 bases since he adopted this strategy" all you're doing is guessing.
JS: I don't know. My gut tells me Ichiro's current performance isn't sustainable. It's also my gut from where my uneasy feeling about his September comes. If he really has learned a way to hit .380/.410/.410, that's pretty valuable. It would also pretty much be a reinvention of hitting.
Will Carroll: I'm more curious as to how Ichiro is doing this. Have we looked at spray charts of where Ichiro is hitting (is he aiming?); the quality of infield defense he's facing; whether he's getting an outrageous BABIP or even an increase over his norm; other statistical stuff that the sharp knives know that I don't?
DZ: Here's a good piece on Ichiro's methods and madness. Essentially, these aren't just infield hits, they're getting through to the outfield.
Ben Murphy: I found that mini-study to be rather interesting. That tips off some of Will's questions about percentages and rates for this year. It also includes some interesting correlation stuff, for those so inclined. More information never hurts, provided you have the time to consume it.
JS: I don't think Ichiro is getting a lot of infield hits. I think he's getting singles that don't advance runners more than one base in many cases, though. I'd have to look at PBP data to be sure.
I consider the bunt with two outs and a runner on second to be a pretty damning thing, though. Can you imagine the reaction to an unpopular player doing that?
Jason Grady: That he gets more hits that go through to the outfield and that his infield hit rate are down are most likely not the result of placing the ball better or losing a step, respectfully, or luck in general but because the infielders don't play at normal depth. Their angles are worse so more balls get through, but the ones that don't aren't becoming hits because fielders are in. So playing Ichiro in is actually a net negative for the infield defense. Sure you throw him out the few times he hits it softly at or near a fielder, but you're raising his average overall because of how many balls shoot through the infield.
If you follow/buy into this then his performance is sustainable, not luck. Of course, the sustainability is based on the defense, not on Ichiro himself. I wonder if certain infields have significantly different results against him. Those with lots of guys with good range, quick releases and strong arms, or those who simply play back or medium as opposed to in would seem to have an advantage, though I suppose that could be said of any hitter. I'm just wondering if it is even more extreme with Ichiro.
I'm sure it didn't take two full years for teams to shorten up a little on Ichiro, so that fact sort of casts doubt on my theory. However (and I'm thinking of Bobby Crosby this year as an example) maybe infielders are further in than ever before. Maybe. I haven't seen many Mariners games during Ichiro's tenure, but it's possible the league is just getting more and more sick of him beating balls into the ground and beating them out and so are getting closer and closer to the point they're actually doing him a favor.
Chaim Bloom: This is fascinating. What if, as Derek suggests, Ichiro's record quest has actually led him to find a way for him to be a more productive hitter? Remarkable. Record quests in themselves are separate from the goal of the team winning the game, so they intrinsically cheapen it. Enjoy it, I suppose.
We can't have it both ways: for instance, I don't think we should call out the Diamondacks for not pitching to Bonds because they're out of the race. We can call them out for not pitching to Bonds when it's a five-run game, or call them out because we think it's a tactical error; that's something else. Their place in the standings has nothing to do with it. Either you're trying to win the ballgame or you aren't. Whether you have 110 wins or 110 losses doesn't change that.
JB: Focusing on singles when one is not capable of lining the ball with authority is probably the best course of action. Ichiro has more power than he has shown in 2004, though. If it were easy to do what he is doing at the moment, more people would do it. Certainly, Jason Tyner could make himself useful if he could emulate the Ichiro approach and at least approximate its results.
BM: I'm interested in seeing a comparison of Ichiro! to Tony Gwynn. Maybe annual defensive and offensive numbers for their first four seasons and then maybe look at Gwynn's best three- or four-year stretch? It would be interesting to see something concrete, I guess.
Gary Huckabay: Ichiro is Tony Gwynn with an MLB work ethic.
Gwynn is one of the most overrated players in the history of the game, and in my view, one of the most tragic and confusing. He got a ton of press for basically being someone who pounded the videos and was chronicled as a "dedicated and disciplined student of the game," which is crap.
Discipline isn't manifested through compulsive and repetitive execution of those tasks which you enjoy, like cage time and video study. It's manifested through the diligent repetition of those tasks you don't like--in the case of Mr. Gwynn, cardio workouts, weightlifting and proper nutrition--so that you're in a position to perform the entirety of your required task set at the highest possible level. The final years of Gwynn's career were a pathetic waste, plagued by excessive fragility and impaired defense, primarily because of miserable conditioning. Barry Bonds could look like Tony Gwynn instead of like a 28-year-old Rickey Henderson. He doesn't.
Ichiro is the player that Gwynn fans think Gwynn was, but better. Yes, he's not a power hitter, and his seminal skill, hitting singles, is overrated, but he's still an excellent player. Look at the qualifer in the sentence in Joe's text--lowest ISO for a player hitting .350 since 1920. That's a pretty steep filter. It isn't 756, 74 or .400, but it's pretty cool, and lest we forget, pretty valuable.
Dayn Perry: I agree with you about Gwynn's conditioning--it was shameful and an abrogation of his duties as a professional. However, if you think Ichiro is a better player, I'm not sure what numbers you're looking at. He hasn't yet had a season as good as Gwynn's '87, '94 or '97, and I have a hard time believing Ichiro is ever going to be better than he's been this year. Ichiro is better than Gwynn? How?
JB: I agree with Gary that the video watching was nonsense. Take it all away and he would have hit exactly the same. What he did at the end was a shame. This is a guy with such placement skill that he could have still come off the bench at the age of 50 and dropped a single over the shortstop's head 30% of the time.