When Seattle traded Ichiro Suzuki to New York in mid-July, the 38-year-old outfielder owned a mere .281 wOBA and was largely assumed to be on his last legs as a major-league baseball player. He still provided value with his glove, but his 77 wRC+ was simply too unproductive to pencil in as a right fielder every night.
As a New York Yankee, however, Ichiro has enjoyed far greater success and has people dreaming of his six-win years in Seattle.
After last night’s two-home-run outburst against Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox, the former MVP has hit .322/.344/.506 with the Bronx Bombers, and his .364 wOBA as a Yankee is well above average in relation to the remainder of American League right fielders.
The overall statistics should obviously be taken with a massive grain of salt due to the standard small sample size concerns. Not to mention he still has only drawn one walk since joining New York, and he also has seen his BABIP increase almost 40-points in that time frame. Plenty of reasons exist as to why we should not trot onto the field at Yankee Stadium and celebrate his re-coronation.
At the same time, Ichiro’s selectivity at the plate has drastically changed since donning pinstripes.
He has never posted gargantuan walk rates at any point of his career, but Ichiro began his career with the Mariners as a relatively selective hitter at the plate. His O-Swing% hovered between 16.6-25.2% from 2002 to 2006, right just a bit above league average, despite having a reputation as a swing-at-anything hack. His unique approach paid off, as he never had less than a .336 wOBA over that time frame and hit over .300 in his first ten seasons in the big leagues.
Even as he continued to churn out a .300 batting average season after season, though, his selectivity waned.
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From 2006 to 2011, Ichiro began swinging at more and more pitches outside the strike zone. The Mariners’ offense also became progressively worse until it hit rock bottom in recent seasons.
Now, this is not to suggest that Seattle’s production at the plate declined due to Ichiro’s declining selectivity over the past half-decade. Their offensive woes go much deeper than that. Instead, perhaps it’s reasonable to postulate that Ichiro began swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone because he was trying to do too much to compensate for the remainder of the batting order declining in talent. Perhaps he began trying to shoulder the load for the Mariners, becoming more aggressive because he was not confident that the bats behind him could drive in runs.
That’s certainly subjective analysis — and one could also argue that Ichiro’s O-Swing% increased because he began to see fewer fastballs as his career progressed — but the analysis does coincide with his sudden selectivity at the plate with the Yankees.
Prior to being traded, Ichiro swung at 35.6% of the pitches outside the zone. Since the trade, however, that number has plummeted to 24.9%. His swing percentage is down across the board and even the percentage of pitches he fouls off has dropped dramatically. Thus, his effectiveness with the bat has unsurprisingly increased, as one would imagine that his ability to better drive pitches would coincide with his choosing better pitches at which to swing.
The real interesting question then becomes whether his increased selectivity is a product of mere small sample size variation or a product of his new environment, where he happens to be surrounded by better hitters and an organization that has traditionally swung at few pitches outside the zone for the past decade.
Unfortunately, not enough time has elapsed to draw any solid conclusions as to the reason for the sudden jump in selectivity at the plate. The only conclusion we can draw at this point is that New York must feel as if they fleeced Seattle in the mid-season trade, sending two fringe prospects (at best) for a guy posting a .364 wOBA through his first 26 games with the organization — even if that level of production may be fleeting.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).