History in the Making

Ichiro

Ichiro


Ichiro Suzuki, a surefire first ballot hall of famer, is closing in on 3,000 MLB hits. This is a momentous achievement for any player, all the more so since Ichiro played in Japan for 9 seasons before making the trek to Seattle in 2001. Adding up his numbers from both leagues and you get the all time hit king of baseball. And even with all of this, as one of the greatest baseball players ever, he has found a way to astonish here in his age 42 season.

His walk rate this season is 11.3%.

Is your mouth agog? No? Really? It’s 11.3%. Still nothing? No reaction? This is not a player who walks much. It would easily be a career high if he maintains it for the season. Moreover, it is virtually unprecedented for a player of Ichiro’s stature to increase his level of production in any capacity so deep into his career.

Frankly it’s shocking for any player to produce at a high level at such an age. How shocking you ask? If we compare to the best age 42 seasons in the history of baseball, excluding the dead ball era, Ichiro, is on pace to have the best batting average, third best on-base percentage, seventh best slugging percentage and second most stolen bases to name just a few standard batting stats. The reality is, if we toss out the dead ball era and Barry Bonds, there have only been a handful of players at this age who were any good at all as regular or even part-time players.

Now, of course not too many guys played into their 40’s, so it’s a small sample size to look at his level of production in the proper context. But what if we look at every player in the 3,000 hit club during his final two seasons? This is with the exception of Alex Rodriguez, given his playing career continues despite the Yankees best efforts to the contrary.

Anyway, here’s a list of how many posted a career best in any major statistical category, which includes home runs, walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated power, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, WAR and wRC+ (according to fangraphs and with 150 minimum plate appearances).

Pete Rose (walk rate)
Tris Speaker (strikeout rate)
Lou Brock (strikeout rate)
Paul Molitor (strikeout rate)

And that’s it. Ichiro is on pace to do it in two categories (strikeout rate along with the walk rate) and he’s also knocking on the door of accomplishing it in OBP and wRC+. It’s not quite the all star break, so there’s plenty of time still to tank and/or start acting his age, but he’s positioning himself to have one of the greatest age 42 seasons in the history of baseball and one of the most impressive late-career seasons of his peers in the hall of fame. He’s always been a unique player, and now, in the twilight of his career, he’s adding value to his game we’ve never seen before. Incredible.

What makes the walk rate all so much more bizarre is that Ichiro has always had a pathological obsession with base hits at the expense of power and walks. In fairness, the latter is partly a result of his preternatural ability to make contact and put the ball in play, limiting the number of swings and misses and foul balls, and thus, limiting the number of pitches he would see in his at bats, a crucial component in drawing free passes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given how exceptional he has been in reaching base safely through singles.

As to the former, much like Wade Boggs, another hit machine who eschewed (attempting) knocking pitches out of the ballpark for a few extra percentage points on the batting average at the end of the season, there isn’t as good a defense for choosing singles over (potential) extra-base hits. Brass tacks – both players likely hurt their teams by refusing to swing for the fences more often. A few more strikeouts, sure, fewer singles, definitely, but more home runs, doubles and triples (and the likely result of more walks with the threat of power) would almost certainly have increased their value.

More valuable, maybe. And yet, it would have made Ichiro less fun to watch. He’s a singular phenomenon, there really is nothing else like him in baseball. Watching him at the plate, slapping at the ball and beating out grounders to the shortstop, is one of those indelible images of the game for the last fifteen years.

Plus, I can’t complain now that the kid is walking at a healthy rate and getting on base at a rate 70 points above the league average. Now I get it all, the singles machine and an advanced metrics analyst’s dream come true. Good lord, at this rate of production, he might not need to retire until he hits 50.

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