Sunday Notes: Did Bobby Abreu Have a Better MLB Career Than Ichiro Suzuki?

A few days ago, I ran a Twitter poll asking which of Bobby Abreu and Ichiro Suzuki had the better MLB career. The latter won in a landslide. Of the 1,183 votes cast, 86.8% went to Ichiro, while Abreu garnered just 13.2%.

The poll results don’t reflect their respective numbers:

Ichiro: .311/.355/.402, .328 wOBA, 104 wRC+, 57.8 WAR.
Abreu: .291/.395/.475, .378 wOBA, 129 wRC+, 59.8 WAR.

If you favor counting stats, here are a few of those:

Ichiro: 3.089 hits, 362 2Bs, 96 3Bs, 117 HRs, 3,994 total bases, 509 SB.
Abreu: 2,470 hits, 574 2Bs, 59 3Bs, 288 HRs, 4.026 total bases, 400 SB.

Unless you place an especially-high value on hit totals and batting averages, Abreu clearly has a career-wise statistical edge on the undoubtedly Hall-of-Fame-worthy Ichiro.

As for their respective primes, the multiple commenters claiming that Ichiro has the edge here are, at best, only partially correct. Ichiro accumulated the vast share of his 53.3 WAR from 2001-2010, a 10-season stretch in which he logged a 115 wRC+. In Abreu’s best 10-season stretch (1998-2007), he accumulated 52.3 WAR, with a 137 wRC+. Defining “prime” in narrower increments — say, five or seven years — yields similar results.

Ichiro was by far the better defender, which is why their WAR totals are nearly identical (only Robinson Canó sits between them on our 1990-2021 position-player leaderboard). In terms of offense, Abreu’s edge might be best explained as follows:

Ichiro’s highest wRC+ in any individual season was 131. Abreu’s highest wRC+ was 151, and he finished 131 or better nine times. Ichiro’s highest wOBA in any individual season was .375. Abreu’s highest wOBA was .429, and he finished .375 or better eight times.

I’ll put a checkmark next to Ichiro Suzuki’s name when he first becomes Hall of Fame eligible in 2025. The vast majority of voters will do the same. In all likelihood, Ichiro will sail into Cooperstown as a first-ballot selection. Conversely, Abreu’s chances of one day being elected appear slim. While Jay Jaffe and I have voted for this vastly-underrated outfielder in each of his two years on the ballot, he’s otherwise been an afterthought for most of our BBWAA colleagues.

With the the aforementioned poll results in mind, Ichiro probably does have the stronger Hall of Fame credentials. But not when you discount his NPB career and only consider what he did in MLB. Despite his greatness, and despite him having received far more accolades and notoriety, Ichiro doesn’t compare favorably to Abreu. At least not statistically.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Ty Cobb went 18 for 53 against Babe Ruth.

Lou Gehrig went 10 for 21 against Walter Johnson.

Hank Aaron went 42 for 116 against Sandy Koufax.

Dick Allen went 3 for 46 against Don Drysdale.

Casey Stengel went 24 for 75 against Burleigh Grimes.

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The DH rule was introduced in 1973, which means the upcoming season will be the 50th season in which the position has existed in the American League. That’s fifty, as in 5-0. In other words, more years than many of you reading this have been alive. Not only that — thanks to San Diego Padres broadcaster Jesse Agler for bringing this to my attention — there have been more American League games played with the DH than without. (While there have been more non-DH seasons, expansion, and going from a 154-game to a 162-game schedule beginning in 1961, have more than made up the difference).

Why then are some Hall of Fame voters reluctant, if not unwilling, to put check marks next to the names of players who were primarily designated hitters? No defensive value is a valid argument, but at the same time, it’s not as though a David Ortiz wouldn’t have been an every-day first baseman had he played in the National League, or in the AL prior to 1973. Moreover, had Ortiz — or Edgar Martinez for that matter — regularly played a defensive position, they likely would have put up even better offensive numbers. The DH penalty isn’t a myth.

Accomplished hitters being penalized for playing a position that has existed for five decades is likewise not a myth. It should be. Fifty years is a long time.

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A quiz:

A total of 107 Venezuelan-born players have 1,000 or more MLB plate appearances. Which of them has the highest career OBP?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Tyler Chatwood has reportedly agreed to sign with NPB’s SoftBank Hawks. A veteran of 10 big-league seasons, the 32-year-old right-hander is coming off a season where he made 32 appearances, and threw 32 innings, with the Toronto Blue Jays and the San Francisco Giants.

The annual Scout of the Year Awards will be presented later this month in Las Vegas. The honorees are Jeff Brookens (Cincinnati Reds, East Coast), Ralph Garr (Atlanta Braves, Midwest), Jess Flores (Pittsburgh Pirates, West Coast), and Louie Eljaua (Chicago Cubs, International).

Fred Andrews, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies for parts of the 1976 and 1977 seasons, died on December 20 at age 69. An infielder whose big-league career comprised 16 games and 34 plate appearances, Andrews went walk, HBP, infield single, infield single, F-9, walk, single, F-3, single, 1-3, single in his first 11 times up. Thereafter, he reached base three times.

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The answer to the quiz is Bobby Abreu, with a .395 career OBP. Miguel Cabrera ranks second, at .387.

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Jumping back to comps, Willie Wilson was better than Juan Pierre. That said, these numbers are interesting:

Wilson: 8,317 PA, 2,207 hits, .285 BA, .702 OPS, 668 SB.
Pierre: 8,280 PA, 2,217 hits, .295 BA, .704 OPS, 614 SB.

Again, Wilson was better. Superior on the defensive side of the ball, he was also a far-more efficient thief, getting nabbed just 134 times, while Pierre was caught stealing 203 times. Wilson’s definitive edge in WAR — 37.8 to Pierre’s 24.0 — is therefore not surprising. That said, the striking similarity of some of their other numbers is. At least it was to me.

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Manny Acta shared some great anecdotes when he appeared as a guest on this past Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio. One of them came from 1993, his first year as a minor league manager. Just months past his 24th birthday, his playing days barely behind him, Acta was at the helm of the short-season Auburn Astros.

“I didn’t want to take the job,” recalled Acta, who went on to manage in the big leagues with Washington and Cleveland, and is currently the third base coach in Seattle. “I believe I was 23, and I told my boss, Fred Nelson, the farm director in Houston, ‘Fred, how can you want me to go manage in the New York-Penn League? I’ll be managing guys that are seniors out of college who are 21-22. I mean, that’s hard.’ He goes, ‘Hey, you don’t have to tell him how old you are. Don’t worry about it.’”

As Acta went on to explain, not worrying was initially easier said than done. One of the first players under his tutelage was a 21-year-old left-hander whom the Astros had just drafted 12th-overall.

“My first year, I get our first-round pick, Billy Wagner,” said on the podcast. “I’m a Dominican guy who was just barely speaking English well enough. Billy is from West Virginia. a first-round pick, and I was intimidated. I was like, ‘Oh, gosh. How is this guy going to take me managing him?’

“Billy showed up later than most of the guys on the team, and we only had one locker left,” continued Acta. “He was in a corner, which was very uncomfortable. I was like, ‘This guy is going to throw a fit when he comes in.’ Well, Billy is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever been around. He came in and was just so happy that he had a locker. Billy played Division III, at Ferrum College, and he used to tell me stories [about] how he didn’t even have someone to play catch with at times. He used to throw the ball as far as he could, then jog over, pick it up, and throw it back. So Billy was outstanding. He was very happy. I took a deep breath.”

A few short years later, Acta was managing the High-A Kissimmee Cobras, a club whose pitching staff included Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt, and Tim Redding. Friday’s podcast episode includes a fun story about that threesome, and much more. If you missed it amid your busy holiday week, it’s well worth the listen.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Longtime Hall of Fame voter John Perrotto explained his ballot at Forbes.

The Baltimore Sun’s’s always excellent Jon Meoli wrote about new Orioles co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller.

Alex Hall presented us with memories of Mark Kotsay as an Oakland A’s player at Athletics Nation.

Jamey Newberg hopes that 2022 will be a year of prosperity for all, including a Texas Rangers team that is finally trending in the right direction. He expounded on his thoughts at D Magazine.

Our Esquina named its Latino Player of the Year. Manuel Gómez has the story.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Jose Abreu hit 30 home runs and grounded into 28 double plays in 2021. Cedric Mullins hit 30 home runs and grounded into two double plays.

J.D. Martinez had 90 singles, 42 doubles, three triples, and 28 home runs.
Jeimer Candelario had 90 singles, 42 doubles, three triples, and 16 home runs.

Randy Arozarena and Shohei Ohtani combined to steal 46 bases and get thrown out 20 times. Starling Marte stole 47 bases and was caught five times.

A total of 147 batters struck out 100 or more times. In 1968 (aka “The Year of the Pitcher”) a total of 18 batters struck out 100 or more times.

Chicago Cubs batters struck out 1,596 times in 5,972 plate appearances this past year. Wee Willie Keeler struck out 136 times in 9,616 career plate appearances.

The seven pitchers with the most career losses are all in the Hall of Fame: Cy Young (315), Pud Galvin (310), Nolan Ryan (292), Walter Johnson (279), Phil Niekro (274), Gaylord Perry (265), and Don Sutton (256). The non-Hall of Famer with the most losses is Jack Powell, who went 245-255 from 1897-1912. Powell had five 19-loss seasons, and four seasons with 20 or more wins.

Mark Kotsay went 21 for 36 against Jamie Moyer. The latter signed a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox on today’s date in 1996.

The Oakland A’s signed Scott Hatteberg to a free agent contract on today’s date in 2002.

Players born on today’s date include Red Kress. An infielder for the St. Louis Browns, Kress had the following back-to-back seasons:

1930: .313 BA, 43 2B, eight 3B, 16 HR, 299 TB, 112 RBIs, three SB.
1931, .311 BA, 46 2B, eight 3B, 16 HR, 298 TB, 114 RBIs, three SB.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Josh
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Josh

Always a fun read — the consistency of this column is amazing. On the Abreu/Ichiro question, one can’t really “discount his NPB career,” given how spectacular it was. It’s just not in any way an argument that detracts from his HoF case. But it did get me thinking: Should we consider the totality of a player’s career at all levels? If Bobby Abreu was an extraordinary minor leaguer, maybe that should be counted in his favor, too. Seems like players who leave MLB for Korea or Japan and then come back to MLB later are now getting a little credit for playing overseas, in terms of overall career assessments. Does that continue in the future, at least in terms of HoF considerations?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The minor leagues are not really on the same level as the NPB, and furthermore, anyone who was that good in the minor leagues would be called up within a year so they wouldn’t amass the same track record. So I don’t get where you are going with this.

Ichiro is an unusual case because he played something like 60% of his prime in Japan, was an absolute megastar with roughly identical stats from something like ages 20-26, and then he came over and was immediately a star in MLB. It’s hard to think of a case where this would happen in the reverse, with someone putting up huge numbers in MLB, going to Japan afterwards, and then dominating there. Ohtani is likely not passing up $300M+ to go back to Japan, for example. Xander Boegarts is probably not going to play in Japan after opting out of his contract.

demilio
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demilio

I don’t know… we all know that the only reason Rickey Henderson is in the HoF is that year he played in the Golden Baseball League 🙂

Josh
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Josh

I’m musing rather aimlessly, not putting forth anything like a proposal we do this. It’s just an idea I found interesting to ponder. Take a breath! But thank you for thinking through it so thoroughly!

p0lice
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p0lice

“Take a breath” seems a bit harsh. You chose to muse aimlessly publicly, people are allowed to muse back. If you’re assigning some level of breathlessness to the response, maybe it’s you who needs to pause and take a breath. Unfortunate, because this seems like otherwise good discourse – interesting musings on both parts.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It’s alright, Josh is just musing aimlessly. He’s not hurting anyone.

RoyalsFan#14321
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RoyalsFan#14321

Agreed. Even in the best case comparison scenario, maybe our AAA leagues are roughly comparable (if not better, in quality) than NPB… but nobody in any HOF discussion is spending more than a year at AAA anyway.

Adenzeno
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Adenzeno

Wade Boggs wants a word…😁

thebearproofsuit
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thebearproofsuit

Edgar’s already in line…

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

Abreu himself put in 3 years at AAA.

Werthless
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Werthless

Wade Boggs (488 games combined at AA and AAA), Bobby Abreu (324 games at AAA), Chase Utley (273 games at AAA), Nelson Cruz (326 games at AAA), Brian Giles (347 games at AAA), Fred McGriff (261 games at AAA), Edgar Martinez (523 games at AA and AAA), etc.

We have a system that results in some teams keeping players in the minors past when they could have been contributing positively to their team. The above Hall cases would certainly look much better with another 3-5 WAR. For some players, it may tip the scales. For Abreu, Utley, and Cruz, they would have benefited from another decent season on their resume. Fred McGriff would have 510+ HRs and maybe gets in. It’s a fun question to consider.

dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu

Tom Selleck did this exact thing

MikeD
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MikeD

Yes, but he did return for Blue Bloods.

MikeS
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MikeS

I think even when you tell people to only consider his time in MLB, they still subconsciously give him some credit for being great in NPB before he got here BECAUSE he continued to be great in the same way. People think “what if he had broken into MLB five or six years earlier….” He might have caught Pete Rose and Ty Cobb.

I think the other reason people think so highly of him is that he led MLB in hits 7 of his first ten years. It may not be as important as leading in a more modern stat, but if you are clearly the best of your generation and one of the best ever in a major skill in your sport, you get a lot of credit for that. This isn’t some quirk like leading the league in pickoffs, HBP, or outfield assists and it doesn’t require advanced math like DRS or wOBA. Getting hits has been a carrying tool in baseball since the beginning and if you are the very best at it, you get noticed more. Abreu led his league once each in doubles and triples. That’s not nearly as impressive.

dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu

Pete Rose has done this about a dozen times. Any time someone has said Ichiro’s NPB stats should be used and he’s the all time hit kind, Rose has said his AAA stats should be used, and HE is the all time hit King. Rose aside, I have no issue with saying NPB = AAA.

thebearproofsuit
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thebearproofsuit

not sure if there is a more recent article…but BP’s 2001 study , using decades of data, gives AAA an 0.86 equivalency to MLB and NPB a 0.95

MLB=1

So slightly closer to MLB than AAA.

“Every case from the 1990s shows
that players do worse as a CPA-weighted-average group in Japan than they do
in Triple-A, and by a considerable margin.”

https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/1330/japanese-baseball-how-good-is-it/
(delete link if not ok)

LHPSU
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LHPSU

That’s not necessarily evidence for or against anything. There have also been NPB stars who struggle in Triple A, and there’s no metric to quantify one’s ability to adapt to a different country and a different playing environment.

thebearproofsuit
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thebearproofsuit

It’s evidence that NPB is a bit better than AAA and worse than MLB.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

And, if you expand the discussion, should we consider College performance since college ball – while still an amateur sport – delays MLB arrivals in a way that depresses counting stats and WAR accumulation and makes it much harder for a player to make it to Cooperstown? Mark Teixeira is a Hall Of Famer if he signs with the Red Sox out of High School, makes it to the majors 2-3 years earlier, tacks those years onto his stats and has the same ML career. And he was one of the best College players in the country, by a long-shot. So why do we ding players for going to college?