Ichiro’s Silent Season

At 32-31, the Seattle Mariners are surprisingly in the thick of the AL West race. Whether the club is capable of keeping pace with the Rangers is another matter: Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report gives Seattle a 3.5 percent chance of claiming the division. Still, by most measures, the Mariners have played markedly better baseball in 2011. That is, except for one glaring example. And his name is Ichiro.

Known for his Jedi-like bat control, scorching speed and deadly arm, the 37-year-old has racked up the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement among position players since he left Japan and arrived in Seattle in 2001. He averaged 4.8 WAR from 2008 to 2010. Yet, this season, Ichiro has been a sub-replacement-level player (-0.6 WAR).

After three straight 0-for-4 games, Ichiro is batting .252/.306/.294 in 285 plate appearances this season. He has created 29 percent fewer runs than the league average (71 wRC+ ). Ichiro’s power is down, even relative to his own standards (.042 Isolated Power, .097 career average). And by far the biggest change in his offensive profile is his batting average on balls in play.

From 2008 to 2010, Ichiro’s .356 BABIP was third-highest among MLB hitters. His career mark is nearly identical, at .354. But this year, his BABIP is .273. Ichiro is hitting more ground balls than usual this season (62.3 percent, 56.9 percent from 2008 to 2010), and his BABIP on those grounders has dipped 70 points compared to his average over the previous three seasons. His BABIP on line drives is also considerably lower. Consider:

Considering that he’s older and that he’s also rated poorly by Ultimate Zone Rating this season (-5 UZR), it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Father Time has finally caught up with Ichiro. It’s a compelling narrative, but it’s also a rush to judgment.

Fangraphs’ Saber Library lists the sample size at which certain offensive stats become reliable. You won’t find BABIP among them, and there’s a reason: a player’s batting average on balls in play fluctuates much more than other stats do.

We have years of data showing Ichiro gets hits on balls in play more than just about any other player; then we have a little more than two months’ worth of numbers where his BABIP has cratered. Given what we know about BABIP, declaring that Ichiro lost a step is, at this point, a knee-jerk reaction. ZiPS projects a .318 BABIP over the rest of 2011. Ichiro would be about a league-average hitter if he reaches that conservative mark and shows a bit more power, considering Safeco’s pitcher-friendly tendencies. His rest-of-season ZiPS calls for a .312 wOBA.

Similarly, Ichiro’s lousy UZR rating shouldn’t be taken as a sign that he no longer can cover ground. No other right fielder saved more runs compared to an average player at the position than Ichiro over the 2008 to 2010 seasons (nearly 27 runs, and that’s when he split the 2008 season between RF and center field). Given that it can take up to three years’ worth of UZR data to draw conclusions about a player’s talent level, the odds are pretty good that Ichiro hasn’t suddenly become Brad Hawpe.

Perhaps Ichiro isn’t Ichiro! anymore, but he’s probably not washed up. If he’s merely an average hitter who plays quality defense and adds some value on the bases, Ichiro is still a solid starter, if not the perennial All-Star we have come to know and love.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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