Sunday, June 17, 2007

You should stick to basebarr, Ichiro

I was discussing with Connor the other night the relative value of Ichiro, and, as usual, he was making wild and unsubstantiated claims about how not-good and overrated he is. And, as usual, I disagree. To sum up:

I contend that Ichiro is a once-in-a-generation player whose lack of power (and lack of interest in hitting for power) ensures that he will be perennially underrated in today's baseball environment.

Connor contended, among other things I can't remember, that he wasn't that good defensively and had a terrible on-base percentage.

So, here's my case. In an effort to avoid Connor's inevitable construction and burning of straw men, I'll specify that I am saying all of these things:

Ichiro is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If you doubt this, I encourage you to consult his baseball reference page, which, among all the other impressive stats, puts his HOF Monitor number at 147 (130 is a "virtual cinch"). You might want to load it, anyway: we'll be referring back. Stats aside, the man is the most obvious and unique talent I have ever seen play baseball, but of course that's hard to quantify or prove. I've always thought that greatness is much like pornography: you know it when you see it.

Ichiro is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. I actually think he's the single best, possibly even among the best ever at his position, but I'll stick with the bolded claim for the sake of moderation. He's better even than Mythical Mike Cameron, who is so often fluffed in our circles. I don't have access to any resource that I can find with comprehensive defensive statistics, but for a quick gauge, look at his Range Factor numbers thus far in his first season as a center fielder:

Ichiro: RFg 3.08 RF9 3.22
Cameron: RFg 2.59 RF9 2.57

(For reference, the league averages are 2.46 and 2.76, respectively.)

Much of that is due to Ichiro's speed -- the best in the majors, unless it's Shane Victorino -- which leads us to ...

Ichiro is the best leadoff hitter in baseball. Even if he hasn't always hit leadoff. I say this for a number of reasons -- his sick steal numbers, his baserunning acumen, his obvious craftiness, the fact that he has averaged .70 runs scored per game for his career, the fact that he grounds into an average of 5 double plays per year -- but I'll make my primary argument one dear to your heart:

Ichiro gets on base. Now, granted, everybody's favorite Asian (well, male Asian...) doesn't do it in the right ways, according to Diesel. He doesn't walk a whole lot or hit home runs. He just, you know, gets more hits over a five-year span than anybody in the history of baseball. But that said, his career OBP is still 26th among active players -- which would make him tops among leadoff hitters (assuming he's going to hit leadoff wherever he winds up) and is just 3 ten-thousandths lower than Doyle's only acknowledged Lord and Savior, Adam Dunn. (By the way, .377 is also a far cry from the sub-.350 career OBP you extemporaneously quoted, Diesel.)

And, further, I'll take my Ichiro rove one step further: Of the available free agent CFs (Jones, Hunter, Ichiro, second-tier guys like Cameron and Rowand), I'd rather see my team sign Ichiro than any of the others.

I'll start from the bottom. We've got Rowand right now, and as great as he's been this year, I don't think he'll maintain it. I like him, love his attitude, think he's an above-average center fielder and a guy I would want on my team. But he's not in the same league as Jones or Ichiro. Same thing with Cameron: good power, good defense, but doesn't get on base enough (although it would be interesting to see him play in CBP).

I also like Torii Hunter as a player. However, we're talking about a guy with a career .324 OBP and a sizable injury history. He's also not in the same class as Jones or Ichiro defensively, despite his reputation. His RF numbers are actually worse than the league average.*

Which leads us to Andruw and Ichiro. Andruw's got better power numbers, obviously, by far. But that is the only thing Andruw Jones brings to the table that Ichiro doesn't. Ichiro's as good or better defensively*, far more consistent in his production, and, I would argue, something that's harder to find in baseball these days: a near-perfect leadoff hitter. I'll admit that I hate Andruw Jones and the Braves, but consider this: if defense is a wash (and I think it is), which of these career single-season averages is more singular and harder to find in an outfielder?

Jones: 96 R 156 H 34 HR 103 RBI 13 SB 66 BB 128 K .264/.343/.501

Ichiro: 114 R 230 H 10 HR 62 RBI 40 SB 48 BB 65 K .332/.378/.439

Let's also not forget that Ichiro has played his entire career in one of the consistently worst hitter's parks in the majors. At CPB, I'm convinced he'd be good for 20 homers a year -- hell, Shane Victorino's on pace to hit that many. (Which leads us to another reason I'd rather have him on my favorite team: my favorite team is the Phillies, who need an Ichiro much more than they need another slugger.)

For me, though, a pair of unquantifiables cinch the deal: his international stardom and his attitude. Wherever Ichiro goes, he's taking the attention and money of a massive Japanese fan base with him. He's also taking his personality. Namely, unlike Jones, Ichiro is both eminently quotable and fanatically committed to being the best baseball player in the world -- see this McSweeneys' article for some choice examples, such as this gem after the throw to get Long: "The ball was hit right to me. Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?"

Yes, Ichiro is older, but he keeps himself in better shape than maybe anybody in the majors (certainly more than Jones in any non-contract year), so I don't think his age accurately reflects his projected contribution, even over the term of a four- or five-year deal. Ichiro has Ricky Henderson written all over him.

Plus he says he wants to become a pitcher when he turns 40. He looks better than the Phils' current bullpen arms.

* -- I realize that I'm relying too much on RF to quantify defense, but that's about my only choice in terms of available stats. Fielding percentage doesn't tell you much for outfielders, and assists aren't always a great indicator of a player's arm -- I doubt a whole lot of people tried to go first-to-third on Ichiro after he gunned Terrence Long. If anybody has access to better statistical comparisons, by all means.


Anonymous said...

Pepe is right, as usual. But don't EVER compare Mike Cameron to Aaron Rowand.

Rowand since 2001, his rookie year:
76 HR, 296 RBIs, .342 OBP

Mike Cameron since 2001, his sixth season:
140 HR, 487 RBIs, .341 OBP

Just saying. Cameron is a second-tier guy, sure, but Rowand is considerably lower than that. He's at Junior Cruz level.

Just sayin'.

Pepe B. Secessionist said...

Have you taken a look at Aaron Rowand's stats this year?

10 HR
38 RBI

Or Mike Cameron's? Even after his recent hot streak, he's at:

8 HR
31 RBI

And that's batting in a better spot than Rowand does.

I'm with you in saying that Mike Cameron's body of work establishes him as a significantly better center fielder than Aaron Rowand. However, I think that at this point in his career, he's not much more valuable than Rowand, if at all.

And regardless, neither one is in the same class as the three "top" guys I was talking about.