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February 20, 2008
Doctoring The Numbers
Mariners, Braves, and Diamondbacks
If Doctoring the Numbers were an Olympic event, I'd never write about Ichiro Suzuki--the degree of difficulty is just too low. I could write an entire article about one of the most unique players of all time. Here are just some highlights.
As discussed in the Michael Young comment last week, Suzuki (it's still legal to refer to him by his last name, right?) has reached the 200-hit plateau for seven straight years; the only player with more is Willie Keeler, with eight. Unlike Wee Willie, Suzuki's seven 200-hit seasons have come in the first seven years of his MLB career. The most hits by a player in his first seven seasons:
Player Years Hits Ichiro Suzuki 2001-07 1592 Paul Waner 1926-32 1452 Kirby Puckett 1984-90 1407 Wade Boggs 1982-88 1392 Al Simmons 1924-30 1380
The gap between Suzuki and Waner is the same as the gap between Waner and his brother Lloyd, who's in 11th place. Suzuki has averaged 227 hits a season in his career, a seasonal total that would rank 30th all-time. Of course, he holds the all-time single season record with 262 hits in 2004, and he's also at the seventh (242 hits in 2001) and twelfth (238 hits in 2007) rungs on the all-time list.
It's not just that Suzuki racks up the hits, but that he does so by flicking the ball through the infield, not driving the ball out of the park or even lofting it into the gaps. Last year Suzuki singled 203 times, the second time in his career he's reached the 200-single plateau. No one else has done it even once. The most singles in a season:
Year Player Singles 2004 Ichiro Suzuki 225 2007 Ichiro Suzuki 203 1927 Lloyd Waner 198 2001 Ichiro Suzuki 192 1985 Wade Boggs 187 2006 Ichiro Suzuki 186
That, my friends, is statistical dominance. Suzuki is already more than halfway to 3000 hits, despite the fact that he didn't make his stateside debut until he was 27 years old. While it's unlikely he can sustain this pace until he's 40, he doesn't need to--he's averaged 223 hits a year over the last three years. If he can maintain that pace for another three years, he'll be at 2176 hits. At that point, he'll reach 3000 at the end of the 2014 season, when he's 40, if he maintains a leisurely pace of 206 hits a year. If he can play regularly until he's 41, he only needs a piddling 165 hits a season. And if Suzuki reaches 3000 hits, he'll hold an even more meaningful record: he'll wrest the all-time hits record away from Pete Rose.
Suzuki became an everyday player for the Orix Blue Wave in 1994, at the age of 20, and he promptly hit .385, with 210 hits in just 130 games, a pace that translates to exactly 262 hits over a 162-game season. In seven seasons in Japan (plus a couple of previous cups of coffee as a teenager), Suzuki piled up 1278 hits. If he gets to 2979 hits on this side of the Pacific, his combined total will be 4257; Rose finished with 4256.
Many will not recognize Suzuki's record as genuine, pointing out that the quality of the Japanese leagues isn't quite the caliber of the majors, while ignoring the fact that whatever advantage Suzuki earned from facing inferior pitchers was more than lost by playing a season that's 20 percent shorter, or the fact that he had far more hits in his first seven years in America than in his last seven years in Japan.
Call the record what you will. I'm pulling for Suzuki to get to 4257, and I'll be happy to recognize him as the most prolific hitter the world has ever seen. Though I'm willing to bet--ahem--that Rose will not.
Brian McCann is running neck-and-neck with the Dodgers' Russell Martin for the title of the best catcher in the National League. A year ago, you could make the case that McCann was the best catcher in baseball, better than Jorge Posada or even Joe Mauer. McCann's remarkable 2006 season was lost in the hype over Joe Mauer's batting title, the first by a catcher in AL history, but at-bat for at-bat, McCann was Mauer's equal, hitting .333/.388/.572 to Mauer's .347/.429/.507. McCann bested Mauer in EqA, .316 to .312, largely by hitting into far fewer double plays. And McCann was just 22 that season; he's 10 months younger than Mauer, and a year younger than Martin.
McCann fell back to earth with a hard thud last season, hitting just .270/.320/.452, although his core skills remained largely intact. In addition to his 18 home runs, McCann roped 38 doubles, the most in history by a catcher aged 23 or younger. (Mauer ranks second, with 36 doubles in 2006.) Somehow, though, McCann finished with only 51 runs scored. That was despite driving himself home 18 times, and getting into scoring position on his own another 38 times. McCann actually had more extra-base hits (56) than runs, which seems rather unusual. After checking the numbers, let me confirm that: it is.
In major league history, only four players (minimum 400 AB) have ever had more extra-base hits than runs scored by a margin greater than McCann's five. The list:
Year Player 2B 3B HR XBH R Diff. 1979 Ken Reitz 41 2 8 51 42 9 1998 Shane Andrews 30 1 25 56 48 8 1927 Bill Regan 37 10 2 49 43 6 1983 Ray Knight 36 4 9 49 43 6 1937 Babe Phelps 37 3 7 47 42 5 1939 Ernie Lombardi 26 2 20 48 43 5 1966 John Bateman 24 3 17 44 39 5 2003 Adrian Beltre 30 2 23 55 50 5 2003 Alex Gonzalez 33 6 18 57 52 5 2005 Mike Matheny 34 0 13 47 42 5 2007 Brian McCann 38 0 18 56 51 5
(That's the Alex Gonzalez who currently plays for the Reds, not the one who used to play for the Blue Jays and who still has Steve Bartman to thank for his relative historical anonymity, incidentally.)
Almost without exception, these guys were all bottom-of-the-lineup hitters, guys who batted just ahead of the pitcher (every player on the list played in the NL except Regan, who played before the first DH was ever born.) They were also, as a rule, incredibly slow. Regan is the only guy on the list who stole more than two bases in the season in question. Some of these guys were legendarily slow, most famously Ernie Lombardi, the Hall of Famer who was once described as "the slowest athlete in any sport other than chess."
McCann, though, batted fifth for the Braves in more than half his plate appearances. While he did suffer the fate of having Andruw Jones, in a down season, and Scott Thorman bat behind him at times, the player who batted sixth most often for the Braves was Jeff Francoeur. Contrast that to Matheny, who batted eighth in nearly 80 percent of his plate appearances, or Gonzalez, who batted seventh or eighth over 90 percent of the time.
So McCann can't simply blame his inability to score runs on poor support from his teammates. Nor can he claim this was a fluke. In 2006, despite 34 doubles and 24 homers (not to mention that .333 average), he scored just 61 times--again batting mostly in the five hole.
Over the past two years, McCann has 114 extra-base hits, and just 112 runs scored. In major league history, only four other players have mustered more extra-base hits than runs scored over a two-year span, with at least 100 extra-base hits:
Player Years XBH R Diff. Brad Fullmer 1998-99 104 96 8 Pedro Guerrero 1989-90 105 102 3 Michael Barrett 2004-05 105 103 2 Brian McCann 2006-07 114 112 2 Kevin Millar 2001-02 121 120 1
Those guys aren't exactly world-class sprinters either. McCann's a fantastic young player, but in a world where "fast for a catcher" is an insult, he's nonetheless slow for a catcher.
From a player who can't score runs, we turn to a player who--at least as a rookie--could not drive them in. Chris Young showed a range of skills in his rookie season, including defense, power, and speed. In fact, Young was the first rookie in major league history to hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases. He narrowly missed Tommie Agee's mark for the greatest Power/Speed number ever achieved by a rookie:
Year Player HR SB Power-Speed 1966 Tommie Agee 22 44 29.33 2007 Chris Young 32 27 29.29 1977 Mitchell Page 21 42 28.00 2006 Hanley Ramirez 17 51 25.50 1997 Nomar Garciaparra 30 22 25.38 2001 Alfonso Soriano 18 43 25.38
But the ability to rack up RBI was missing from Young's toolkit last season: despite those 32 home runs, he finished with just 68 RBI. Only three players in history have swatted 30 or more homers in a season and finished with fewer RBI. The requisite list:
Year Player HR RBI 1992 Rob Deer 32 64 1964 Felix Mantilla 30 64 2004 Brad Wilkerson 32 67 2007 Chris Young 32 68 1987 Brook Jacoby 32 69
This is one list that members of the Rob Deer Fan Club would prefer you not know about. Deer went into September that year with 27 homers and 47 RBI, which seems impossible; he drove in only 16 runs all year on events other than home runs. Jacoby, like Deer, has no excuses for being on this list, as he batted sixth and seventh for most of the season; a remarkable 27 of his 32 home runs were solo shots.
Young, like Wilkerson, at least had the excuse that he led off for most of the season. (Mantilla split his at-bats almost equally between the leadoff and second slots in the lineup.) Lineup order may be overrated, but keeping Young in the leadoff spot was a criminal misuse of his talents, wasting his power and making his inability to reach base (.295 OBP) that much more glaring. Young had nearly as many home runs as walks (43), a feat which to my knowledge has been accomplished by only one leadoff hitter in history: Felipe Alou, who in 1966 led off for the Braves and hit .327/.361/.533 with 31 homers against just 24 walks.
(The Braves' manager that season, Bobby Bragan, decided to prove in that year that a century of offensive philosophy was dead wrong, and that the optimal lineup was to have your best hitters bat at the top of the lineup regardless of their offensive skills, so that they would bat as many times as possible during the game. This is why Eddie Mathews wound up batting second most of the year. Bragan was fired in August, but the Braves led the league in runs scored.)
Young can't blame his woeful RBI total purely on circumstances. His batting splits show an almost perfect progression:
Bases empty: .253/.303/.511
The good news for Diamondbacks fans is that there's no evidence that hitting with runners on base or in scoring position is a true ability--that is to say, there's no reason to think that Young's splits will endure for another year. Actually the really good news for Diamondbacks fans is that PECOTA absolutely loves Young's combination of youth, speed, and power, and projects a massive breakout this season, from .237/.295/.467 to .274/.352/.523.
For now, let's just hope that Young and McCann don't find themselves playing on the same team--in that scenario, the RBI single might go extinct.