Sep 25, 2011; Arlington, TX, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) bats in the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers beat the Mariners 12-5.Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Ichiro Part Deux: Can he even still hit?

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Last post I discussed the advantages of moving a player like Ichiro—lots of hits, very few walks—down in the lineup. The other part of the equation, though, is that Ichiro actually has to be able to hit (Oh, really?!?). Last season’s .272 average wasn’t exactly something you want to slot into any top 5 position of even a Mariners lineup (ooookay, maybe a Mariners lineup). So what can we realistically expect from Ichiro this season?

Going into last season, Ichiro had a career average of .331, and hadn’t shown any obvious aging. A reasonable expectation for 2011—a 90% prediction interval to nerds like me—would have been something like .280 to .360, accounting for a little attrition. Ichiro falling well below that expectation is a strong indication of aging without looking at any other stats, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll perform that badly again. Rotochamp develops predictions for every player based on a number of factors, and it has Ichiro up at .286 next season. Other projection systems have him as high as .300. While these figures are still worse than his career average of .325, they are significantly better than last season and would justify his position somewhere in the Mariners’ first five lineup positions.

Why the optimism for a player entering his age-38 season? That requires a breakdown of batting style, including a look at things like selectivity and contact. To the numbers!

Season

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

2007

32.20%

58.50%

82.80%

94.20%

2008

30.80%

60.70%

85.60%

94.50%

2009

34.80%

60.80%

83.40%

91.70%

2010

36.60%

62.00%

82.40%

93.60%

2011

35.30%

62.60%

85.00%

94.00%

 

O-Swing% refers to the proportion of pitches OUTSIDE the zone that a player swings at. A dramatic increase in this stat would show some deterioration in a “batters’ eye.” Ichiro went after just about as many pitches out of the zone last season as he did in 2009 and 2010, seasons in which he hit .352 and .315, respectively.

Z-Swing% is simply the percentage of balls IN the zone that Ichiro swung at. You’ll notice he has been going after pitches in the zone a little more often in past two seasons. For a contact guy like Ichiro, that’s probably a good thing. He’s swinging at good pitches.

The really interesting part of this chart lies in the O-Contact%, the percentage of swings where Ichiro actually makes contact with balls OUTSIDE the zone. Ichiro has an amazing ability to get his bat on the ball, even when the pitch is not ideal. An increase in this stat might mean worse contact in general, but it’s probably not very predictive. I would bet he falls back down closer to 82 or 83%, and that would be a good thing.

The key takeaway from these stats is that Ichiro’s approach hasn’t really changed all that much. Nothing indicates an obvious shift in his style or his batting eye. The next things to check are the specific results of his contact. Warning: more numbers on the way.

Season

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

2007

20.10%

56.30%

23.60%

7.90%

2008

19.90%

57.50%

22.60%

14.40%

2009

18.20%

55.60%

26.20%

8.80%

2010

17.30%

57.40%

25.30%

6.10%

2011

19.10%

59.90%

21.10%

14.20%

 

Line drives and ground balls are the goal of any singles hitter. These types of contact turn into hits far more often than flyballs. Taking a look at 2011, Ichiro actually improved his LD and GB rates while decreasing his flyballs. The only scary part here is that high percentage of infield pop-ups (IFFB%). However, he has done that before in 2008 (and actually in 2003 and 2006), so again we should expect some regression in a good way. Overall, our conclusion should be the same: Ichiro is showing very few signs of becoming a significantly worse hitter.

Finally a quick look at his steals numbers indicates that his speed has not deteriorated much at all. 40 steals in 47 attempts during the 2011 campaign constituted not only his 5th-best personal output in terms of total steals, but his 3rd-best output in terms of efficiency (85%).

This brings us to one of my favorite stats: batting average on balls in play (BABIP). This stat literally measures how often a player turned contact into a hit. Based on all the analysis above—Ichiro’s plate discipline and contact figures—he should have seen very little drop off in his BABIP. Basically he should have been able to turn balls into hits just about as well as he did in the last few seasons. In 2009 he posted a BABIP of .384, and in 2010 a .353. Even in 2008 when he hit a lot of pop-ups his BABIP was still .334. But last season that figure dropped all the way down to .295.

It’s easy to say that he’s getting old, and he can’t turn contact into hits anymore, but nothing above indicated that. It’s almost like his grounders and line drives wanted to find gloves for no reason other than to spite Ichiro and hard-working Mariners’ fans everywhere. Simply put, it was bad luck.

If you don’t believe in bad luck, consider this. Baseball info solutions keeps stats called “Great Fielding Plays.” Webgems, basically.  Through August 24th of last season, Ichiro had fallen victim to 31 such webgems, tops in the entire league. Had even 5 of these plays resulted in hits, his average would have risen to .279, and with 10 additional hits, .287.

I find it difficult to NOT be optimistic when it comes to Ichiro this season. A few more balls will find holes, and few less defenders will make great plays, and Ichiro could very well hit .290 or .300. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a contract year, and he has all the motivation in the world to go out and prove the aging-arguers wrong.

Plus he’s like, my favorite player, and I’m sure he wants to make me happy.

*Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for stats.

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Tags: 2012 Prediction Ichiro Mariners

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