Ichiro, The DH, Fielding and Regression

I get that we’ve all kind of danced around the issue of Ichiro. I mean many of us just don’t knows what to say or even think. It’s an unusual issue for sure and really we all just keep waiting for him to “break out”. We all know he hasn’t fallen that far down the hole and really it’s not been that he’s bad, like say Chone Figgins.

Rather, it’s just been unmistakable un-Ichiro like moments. He had a few poor fielding plays early on which are just not like him and then of course his fielding range has killed his UZR this year. But, it’s not like we should really use ONE single year of UZR as a significant factor in trying to determine if he’s still good in right field.

I loved seeing a soft ground ball get through the Carp-Ackley hole in the second base side last night. Howie Kendrick may have been able to go from first to third on it. But, Ichiro is right and Kendrick knows better than to try and pull something like that on Ichiro.

Over the last two years it’s something that I’ve seen show up in advanced fielding stats and that’s his arm slipping. Though fans gave it a high rating and so I just attributed it to some poorly played out situations. Which does happen with UZR, thus why you don’t take one years worth of data.

Though DRS (total defensive runs saved) sees him as a negative factor in the field as well. So may it is Ichiro on the down turn. What do you do with a poor field aging out fielder? Move him to DH!

Now, Ichiro isn’t like most people and I’m not saying he’s done in the field. But, with the young and very capable defensive out fields that we’ve accumulated over the last couple of years it wouldn’t be a terrible move to use Ichiro as the DH next year.

Well of course everyone points out the fact that he’s had a “terrible” year at the plate. Sure, it’s not be his per usual great, 200+ hit season (I’m sorry it’s better we realize now he’s not going to make 200 hits). But he’s still a capable hitter. I know Geoff Baker will love the idea of putting a “weak hitting” player at a “power position”.

But the problem is that we look at certain positions as “power” and look at others as “defensive” if either one can help you score runs and do some more than league average what’s the point?

I get that everyone wants to have a home run hitter, I do too, but it’s not some thing you can just put on a shopping list and go pick one up. Colby Rasmus would have been cool. I think Matt Kemp, Andre Either and Just Upton are all exciting names. Then of course you have the epic Prince Fielder name that just won’t go away and people will of course clamor for all off-season.

The problem is comparing where those guys are at and matching them up with what assets we have going forward and it just doesn’t seem feasible right now. I’m not saying that can’t change and may it does it, there are a lot of young hitters out there that I like and I think are certainly available within our price range (either prospects or money).

Using Ichiro, a competent hitter, at a position we’ve had little success filling since the departure of Edgar just works. Again we fall back to the he’s a terrible hitter now “argument”. Okay, so let’s do this, let’s talk about it in front of God and everybody.

Ichiro currently has a wOBA of .286, wRC+ of 81 and -9.2 batting runs above average this season. Quickly you can say that’s not good. Even the average fan could you that if something is in the negative that player has no longer been useful at this juncture. It’s all absolutely true. Ichiro just has had a bad season.

But let’s look at a few things. I really liked this fangraphs post written about Ichiro “bad luck or bad age” in which it shows the lack of characteristics of old age syndrome, such as a steady decline. Instead Ichiro has just stepped off the edge of a cliff and into Clayton Ravine.

But while we know he’s been bad it’s back to the inconsistency. Looking at his WPA+ (basically everything he’s done good to help the team win) he’s second to only Justin Smoak. His infield hit percentage is the second lowest of his career but he’s still near the top of the leader boards. His speed score is below average but higher than what it’s been the last couple of years. So, while he may have lost a step it’s not that much.

We know that he’s still hitting rather it’s just been the un-Ichiro like accumulation of hits and as you would expect it equates to a low batting average. Ichiro as we know all derives much of his value from those singles. He doesn’t walk much and he’s only posted one season out of his last five with an ISO north of .100.

So what I’m saying is I don’t think he’s done as a hitter and while I’ve thrown out all those examples of why for whatever reason this is the one that has really sold me above the rest.

Looking at Ichiro’s current BABIP it’s sitting just south of .300. A shocker for sure as most of us know Ichiro has a crazy career high BABIP (.353). If you run the stats on his xBABIP (expected batting average on balls in play) you’ll see it’s sitting nearly .40 points north.

Which would not only put his batting average at .310 it would put (potentially) put his wOBA at .326 obviously better (though not in the clear) just yet. While this is nothing different than what Bradley Woodrum did I needed to get that number so I could do this.

Thursday there was (as per normal) a great article on Fangraphs about something called “defensive independent hitting or should hit (ShH for short)“. This really interests me as it was more than just xBABIP and it’s more than just saying LD% that is purely based upon one persons interpretation of a hit.

If you want to avoid reading the article to find out what ShH really is here is a “brief” encapsulation.

I call it Should Hit, as in: Yuniesky Betancourt should hit 80 wRC+ with a normal (career) BABIP. Of course, if you put in a players present BABIP instead of their career, then you should get something like above, where there’s a nearly one-to-one relationship.

The formula is simple, which is why I love it. Regressing K%, BB%, HR%, and BABIP on wRC+ (from 2009 through 2011), we get (approximately) this:

Should Hit = -60 + 277(BB%) + -184(K%) + 1133(HR%) + 465(BABIP or xBABIP)

Walks and strikeouts and home runs normalize way more quickly than BABIP, which can go crazy for whole seasons. Should Hit — or ShH (pronounced shh, as in shut up) for those who love acronyms* — allows us to use the three more stable (and more adjustable) elements of hitting to our advantage.

Not only do walk, strikeout, and homer rates stabilize quickly, they also have some of the highest variations through a player’s career as individuals are constantly changing their approach or dealing with pitchers adapting to them. Whereas BABIP is a slow swinging pendulum — constantly based around a consistent point, but never quite there — BB%, K%,and HR% are small needles quickly finding exact points which change slightly almost every season.

 

So let’s do this. Let’s see what Ichiro should have hit this season.Inputting all the day I get the following.

So while Ichiro has been a poor hitter this year it’s easy to see there is plenty of data that points to him still being competent at the plate. Removing the defensive issues and allowing him to focus back at hitting could even help him.

I know everyone feels like this would be “punting” the DH. Matt Klaassen wrote something about this back in May that I’ve kind of had in my cap and been thinking about in detail.

Getting back to the original point, when someone says that a player has to hit for power to be valuable to be a DH, assuming they mean at least average by “valuable,” they might be taken to imply that a player can’t (or is not likely to) be 20 runs above average (which we can measure using wRAA and it’s park-adjusted variant “Batting”). How can we check this out? The nice thing about linear weights-based metrics like wOBA is that they get away from confusions about the relative value of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, power, speed, and so forth, and properly value each event. What this lets us do is to take a pool of hitters and see how often they manage at least 20 Batting (park-adjusted wRAA) runs above average prorated 600 plate appearances without hitting for a ton of power.

Ichiro for consistency sake has only posted a wRC+ below 110 twice, 2005 and than again this year. Ichiro is still driving the ball hard and it’s not hard to see Ichiro making a comeback next year at the plate.

Maybe, I’m crazy. Maybe, I’m just blind to his coming decline. But, I just don’t see how Ichiro can be considered done just yet. I think he’s showing signs of being human and at his age it was going to come. But this year has been more about bad luck as it has really been about age.

 

Tags: Ichiro

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