Eating crow on Ichiro

Way back at the beginning of the season, I devoted an entire post on how overrated Ichiro is -- how he'd never be worth the $16-18 million he'd likely command on the open market, and how the Mariners would be smart to keep their money and let the selfish singles hitter walk.

As the Mariners prepare to pay Ichiro $90 million over the next five years, I just have one thing to say.

I was wrong. Really, really wrong.

I still stand by many of the things I said, put into the context of the post's April 12 date. At the time, he certainly seemed to be in the midst of what could be reasonably interpreted as a statistical decline.

Additionally, my perception that he wasn't contributing as much to the team's success wasn't entirely off base, either. After "creating" 146 runs in 2004 (the year of 262) -- runs created uses batting and baserunning to try to quantify the overall offensive contribution -- he created only 113 and 114 runs the past two years. Still pretty good, but not quintessential Ichiro.

I wondered if the Ichiro of 2001 and 2004 could ever return.

Well, he's returned with a vengeance and is a huge reason why this team seems to be overachieving this year. He's on pace to "create" 140 runs, but if fancy stats don't tickle your fancy, consider that he's on track to post his highest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2004, and his highest stolen base total since his rookie year.

Clearly, he still possesses the ability to change games the way he did in the past.

Also, upon reflection, I think I was vastly undervaluing Ichiro's defensive contribution as a centerfielder. When I wrote that original post in April, Ichiro had only played CF for a grand total of two months, and I really was still valuing him as a rightfielder. Playing centerfield everyday this year, Ichiro has proven to be an extremely valuable defensive commodity (two flyballs from Curtis Granderson notwithstanding). Defense matters -- it's the kind of thing that can take a guy from being worth $12 million a year to $18 million a year.

Many wonder if it's wise to give that kind of money to a 33-year-old. Dave Cameron at USS Mariner answers that question here, and I happen to agree with him. His argument is long, so here's the gist: Even if he declines at the expected rate -- no sure thing for a guy who Bill Bavasi said is in better shape at 33 than many players are at 23 -- by advanced statistical measures, he'll still be worth the money. And if you count yourself a person (like many in the mainstream national media and Dave Samson) who think there's no way a singles hitter can be worth that kind of money, check out this post by Cameron; it might cause you to reconsider what his skill set is actually worth.

At any rate, this team simply could not let Ichiro walk away -- not when it's experiencing the turnaround of this season and fans are beginning to flock back to Safeco Field. That's not something to be overlooked, given the downward trend in attendance the team has been experiencing. Ichiro is the main star attraction on a winning team that is winning back its fans. This signing just continues the excitement.

Had the team continued to flounder as it had the past two seasons, I still would have been first in line to say let him walk. Like a lot of leadoff hitters, he's really only as valuable as the guys behind him, and the guys behind him the past three years have been awfully bad.

But this year, he's showing what he can do when he's surrounded by some talent. Once again, he's showing just how valuable he can be on a contending team.

And that makes him worth every penny.

1 comment:

Dr Pezz said...

You're not alone. While on vacation I had to admit putting down Ichiro as a lead-off hitter, though I felt justified at the beginning of this season based on the last two years' performances.

During this conversation with an avid A's fan (poor guy doesn't even know he has a problem), we discussed Seattle's big--namely popular--years of 1995 and 2001. I felt the success of both teams stemmed from the lead-off hitters. Ichiro, in 2001, led the Mariners in an aggressive and speedy offense with a touch of power. The '95 Mariners only surged after Vince Coleman joined the team as a lead-off hitter and began putting pressure on pitcher after pitcher. The '95 team could hit homers but needed that lead-off speed.

Finally, Ichiro is doing this again. He is hitting better this year at .353 and his OBP is now around .406. About 16% of his hits are for extra bases, but I'd love to see his stolen base numbers rise. A little more aggression could help, especially with the number two hole numbers rising a bit this season.