Is Ichiro heading for the Hall of Fame? Which one?by Sean Smith
August 03, 2009
“One day, a warrior will ride from the East to the West, and by his feats, their halls of greatness shall become one”
-Unknown drunk prophet
A few years ago, the belief came to me that Ichiro Suzuki was not only a Hall of Famer, but that he would become the first player to be inducted into Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame as well as Japan’s Hall of Fame. I’m not sure how the powers that be in Japan view him, or what their eligibility rules are, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that Ichiro will one day be in Cooperstown. For eligibility, all he needs now is to have played 10 seasons. This will be official as soon as he steps up to the plate or takes the field in Seattle’s 2010 opener. His critics for the most part do not believe he won’t be inducted; they seem resigned to that and focus their arguments on saying that he shouldn’t be inducted.
The Case for Ichiro
Ichiro, through the end of the 2008 season, had accumulated 45 wins above replacement (WAR) according to Baseballprojection.com (full disclosure: it’s my website). This is not a high enough total, by itself, to warrant induction. For eligible players, those with 70 or more WAR are 98 percent likely to be in the Hall of Fame. (The exception is Bill Dahlen, an overlooked shortstop who played from 1891 to 1911, and the calculation excludes Pete Rose, who is not eligible.) With 60-69 WAR, 64 percent are in; with 50-59 it’s 54 percent; and from 40-49 it’s 30 percent.
The players with high ratings who have not been honored are mostly players who played after 1960. Dahlen is the only exclusion that sticks out, according to WAR, from the 1870s to the first half of the century (though it can’t speak to the Negro Leagues). The next best two are Jack Glasscock, a shortstop from the 1800’s, and Sherry Magee, an outfielder from the 1900-1919 deadball era. As far as WAR rates them, they had equivalent value in their times to Willie Randolph and Bobby Bonds.
We aren’t looking at total career value with Ichiro however. First of all, he played regularly for seven years in Japan. Second, he is still active, hitting over .350 as I write this, and has shown no signs of slowing down at age 35. Since we don’t know how long Ichiro will keep turning out 200+ hit seasons, trying to evaluate him on career value is like trying to guess where a car driving 80 mph will wind up when it hasn’t even applied the brakes yet.
Comparing Ichiro’s eight completed major league seasons to the best eight consecutive years of other great players, he stacks up well. The players I picked for comparison are Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, Reggie Jackson, Richie Ashburn, Tony Gwynn, Billy Williams, and Dave Winfield; contemporary outfielders Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero, and one more, Tony Oliva.
There’s no point in bringing guys like Mays, Aaron, Mantle, and Frank Robinson into the discussion. Ichiro is not within a mile of those guys, but if the Hall of Fame were limited to players of that caliber, it would be very small indeed. In addition, I’m not bringing some of the questionable veterans committee picks into the discussion. Ichiro’s better than they are, but so are dozens of other outfielders who sit outside the hall.
Ichiro is behind Clemente, Snider, and Jackson, but ahead of Winfield, Gwynn, and Williams. The latter three aren’t in on peak value though; they are in for excellent long careers that lasted long enough for each to approach or surpass the 3,000-hit level.
Ashburn and Gwynn are the closest comparisons in player type. Gwynn was very similar in being a high average hitter with few walks and not much power. Gwynn was a strong defender and base runner in his younger days, but as he got older, he got a lot bigger, limiting his contributions in these areas. He remained a great hitter past the age of 40.
Ashburn is nearly identical in eight-year value, and without a long career, probably Ichiro’s best comp if we only look at his MLB seasons. Ashburn was similar in value as a hitter, leading Ichiro +150 runs to +132 for the eight years in question. Each won two batting titles. Ichiro was more consistent at providing a high average, never falling below .300, and had more extra base power. Ashburn drew more walks and led the league in OBP four times. Both were outstanding fielders and speedy base runners. Ashburn played a tougher position in center field (Ichiro played some center but mostly right) while Ichiro had the better arm. Ashburn was not voted in by the BBWAA, but honored by the veteran’s committee 33 years after his last game.
Among the recent contemporaries, Ichiro has shown similar overall value to sluggers Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero. They are all much better hitters. Ichiro averages 17 batting runs above average during this stretch; the three sluggers average 43 runs per year. Two of the other three were able to add some value beyond the bat. Sammy and Vlad ran well when younger, Sammy had good range in the field, and Vlad had a cannon in the outfield when he was able to move well enough to set himself up for a throw. Ramirez was all bat, though he was a notch ahead of Vlad and Sammy as a hitter.
Ichiro picks up little advantages here and there. In an average season he’s +5 runs on the bases (75 percent of that from stealing and rarely being caught, 25 percent other base running), +4 runs in avoiding the double play, +1 from reaching on errors, +9 with his range in the field, and +4 from outfield throwing. Add all that up and it’s 23 runs, compared to the 26 runs he loses in hitting. Ichiro gets a small boost for his durability, playing virtually every day, and the overall value is a wash. Seattle is justified in paying Ichiro $18 million per year, right about what Vlad and Manny average today, and what Sosa made if you adjust his peak salaries for inflation.
Finally, there is Tony Oliva. Oliva was a great hitter during his peak, and had more power than Ichiro. He was a five-tool player as well, helping his teams on the bases, with his range and his throwing. Then severe knee injuries took their toll, reducing his ability as a hitter and limiting him to designated hitter. As a result, virtually all of Oliva’s value is concentrated into that eight-year stretch. While he has his supporters, Oliva has not been elected to the Hall of Fame. With similar value in an eight-year stretch, Ichiro is a questionable candidate if you only look at those eight years.
What I see is a player with a peak value that measures up to the standards of non-inner circle Hall of Famers. It is not so great that it must put him in by itself; in other words, he is not the Sandy Koufax of hitters, or comparable to Albert Pujols, who would go in on peak value alone if he retired after the 2010 season. In Ichiro’s case, we need to look for value beyond those eight years.
What about his value beyond his first 8 ½ years with the Mariners?
“Like the wind, the earth, and sea, Ichiro is timeless. He is immortal as time has no meaning.”
-unknown drunk prophet, after a few more beers.
For one thing, Ichiro is still playing great. If he keeps hitting .320-.350 for another five years, then we won’t even need to look back at his Japanese stats. But if he doesn’t, or in any case if we want to truly appreciate his whole body of work, it is necessary to investigate how good Ichiro was during his seasons in Japan.
I’ve looked at many years of players moving from Japan to MLB, and from MLB to Japan, and have been fairly accurate in predicting how players who cross over will do. For hitters coming from Japan, they will hit just as many singles, doubles and triples as they do in Japan, and they strike out no more often. They will however lose much of their home run power and walk significantly less.
In Japan, the fences are shorter than in the US by an average of about 10 feet. Whether this is enough to explain the loss of 44 percent of their home run total I don’t know, but that’s the drop that has been observed. Since Ichiro’s game relies less on homers and walks, he has been the perfect player for maintaining his game over here. He lost much less of his relative value than Hideki Matsui did.
I use the following adjustment factors to translate players from the East to West:
HR: .56 (home runs lost become outs) BB: .72 2B, 3B, 1.10
Other stats are held constant. Playing time is adjusted for the shorter schedule, though I’ve noticed that far more players in Japan play the full 162 games.
I didn’t think it was likely that they would all do so over here, and prorated the schedule to 150 games instead of 162. So here’s an estimate of what Ichiro’s
numbers would look like had he been born in Jacksonville, Fla.:
I left off Ichiro’s cup of coffee seasons at ages 18 and 19. The rules are different over here, and I doubt that a team would want to place him on the 40-man roster so quickly, and they don’t really add much value anyway. Ichiro completely dominated Japan’s minor leagues at those ages though. His age-20 season is a top-range Ichiro season, much like 2001 and 2004 were. Would he have been in the majors from the start at such a young age? I say yes, especially if we assume American Ichiro plays for Seattle the whole time. This would have been 1994. Five years earlier the Mariners started a 19-year-old center fielder with Hall of Fame talent. Two years later they’d do the same for a 20-year-old shortstop.
What I see here is the lack of a clearly defined aging pattern. Ichiro’s skills, and the magnitude of his play, appear to be the same at age 20 as they were at age 27, and remain so at age 35. He is the timeless warrior. He has up years and down years. With a constant ability of a .335 hitter, some years he’ll hit .310 and some years he’ll hit .360. Some years he gets on a good power streak and swats 12-15 homers. Other years his hits stay on the ground and he only hits six. Those seasons also appear randomly interspersed through the years, with no detectable aging trend.
If you give him credit for his play in Japan, his career length and excellence certainly meets the standards for Cooperstown, and of course, he’s still going strong. He may even reach 3,000 hits for his U.S. career alone. Not everyone is in favor of giving credit for seasons played in Japan, for the purposes of the Hall of Fame. My personal opinion and standards are as follows:
- To warrant consideration, a player must play major league baseball. (This does not apply to the Negro Leagues; it’s a different issue). Saduhara Oh may have had a HOF-worthy career, but Japan has its own Hall of Fame to honor him.
- The player must demonstrate a Hall of Fame level of play in the United States. If Saduhara Oh played his HOF career in Japan, came to the U.S. at age 38, hit .260 with 15 homers, then went back, I would not vote for him. I would not vote for Hideki Matsui, who has been a good player, but not a HOF-level one in the U.S. I stand by this even as he approaches 500 combined home runs. He is certainly worthy of Japan's Hall of Fame, where his record is much more impressive compared to his peers.
- If a player has demonstrated a HOF-quality peak in the U.S. but lacks career length, it is appropriate to investigate how many years he played at a high level in a league outside the U.S.
- As of now, this applies only to Ichiro. He is the first, but there will some day be others. It doesn’t seem so likely right now as he’s had all sorts of problems in 2009, but if a pitcher like Matsuzaka had 175 wins or so in the U.S., I would fully support looking at his Japanese record to add length to his HOF case.
Are these WAR numbers any good? Do they accurately rate Ichiro?
Let’s look at these by components.
Offense: I have Ichiro at +132 batting runs. Baseball-Reference lists him at +130 through 2008, as does Fangraphs. Ichiro gets a huge number of infield hits, which are worth less than standard singles because they don’t advance base runners as well, but Colin Wyers on a Baseball Think Factory thread posted Ichiro’s numbers based on situation specific run expectancy. The result: 132 runs. Offense is the easiest thing to measure.
Speed: Ichiro’s base running is +43 runs. Of that, about 30 runs is due to stealing 315 bases and only being caught 70 times. For the rest, which depend on hidden calculations (not because they are proprietary but because they would take a book to explain) I’m just saying Ichiro’s speed is worth about two runs a year. This shouldn’t be controversial since nobody is going to suggest Ichiro is a poor base runner, and suggesting he’s average would seem strange given how fast everyone can see he is.
Avoiding the double play: He hits into five double plays per year. My numbers say that’s worth four runs. If the average player in his opportunities hits into 14 per year, that’s seven times where Ichiro’s speed beats the relay throw to first, saving his team an out and gaining a base runner, essentially equivalent to the opposite of a caught stealing (.44 runs). Nine x 0.44 = 3.96
So far, nothing that should be controversial.
Defense and Arm: TotalZone has Ichiro at +74 runs and another +34 with his throwing. TotalZone is not the state-of-the-art defensive system, judging by detail of inputs. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, available on Fangraphs) accounts for more detail. UZR has Ichiro at +54 for range and errors, and +28 for arm. It’s close, but Fangraphs only includes seasons 2002 and on. For those seasons only, my numbers show +61 for range and +32 for throwing. Even closer.
Zone rating, as published by STATS (Fangraphs uses Baseball Info Solutions data) does not like Ichiro so much, rating him as about an average defender. Zone rating does not attempt to measure the impact of a throwing arm. The Fielding Bible Vol. 2 has data for 2003 to 2008 and shows Ichiro at +48 range and +32 throwing for right field and center field combined. Those who observe Ichiro, such as the fans who respond to Tango Tiger’s scouting report for the fans, consistently rank Ichiro as a great defender.
One criticism of the arm ratings is that they aggregate too much and do not consider the hit location of the ball. It is true that Bengie Molina will score on a sac fly caught by Roberto Clemente if it is caught 375 feet from the plate. And Juan Pierre will hold Carl Crawford at third if he catches the ball 150 feet from home. (Well, maybe.)
But the data show that these things even out over a long season. Large sample size is our friend. We may not be able to trust throwing ratings compiled game by game or week by week. But the season ratings are reasonable, and the career ratings look very good. If the problems were as bad as the critics say, we’d have random data, with the leaders in arm rankings changing year to year and bad throwers likely to put up good numbers by accident, and good throwers looking bad. This does not happen. The guys who are observed to have the best arms, like Roberto Clemente and Jesse Barfield, rate well. Those who don’t, like Juan Pierre and Bernie Williams, rate poorly. Sometimes a big slow guy like Frank Howard will rate poorly despite a great arm, and a guy like Tim Raines or Kenny Lofton will rate well. In these cases, what we are seeing is that arm strength is only one factor that affects base runner advancement. How fast you get to the ball matters too.
Conclusion: the TotalZone ratings for defense and arm are similar to such ratings by more advanced systems and backed by observational data. Zone rating, as regards to Ichiro, stands on an Island by itself. Quantifying defense is difficult. I don't expect everyone to trust the results of these systems. I do think it is much more likely than not that a player with great speed, who looks great playing the outfield, and who wins a gold glove every year is in fact the outstanding defender that these metrics claim he is.
I am convinced that not only will Ichiro be inducted to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, but he will deserve to go.
Will Ichiro be elected to Japan’s Hall of Fame?
This is a tougher question for me as I’m not as familiar with the eligibility requirements. The rules are similar as Cooperstown’s in that players must be retired for five years and receive 75 percent of the votes. I did not see a requirement for a minimum number of years played. Ichiro played seven full seasons in Japan and parts of two others. He has more playing time than Randy Bass, who has been eligible for election though he did not receive the minimum number of votes.
JapanBaseballDaily.com, which is an incredible resource for statistics, lists the leaders in batting average with a minimum of 4,000 at-bats. The leader is Leron Lee, at .320. Ichiro has 1,278 hits in 3,619 at-bats for a .353 average. Ichiro could return to Japan, collect the extra 381 at-bats, and need only three hits to claim the top spot from Lee by percentage points. I’m not sure where his .422 on-base percentage ranks, but it must be up there, with a 30-point edge in batting average and a higher walk rate than he’s shown in the U.S.
I don’t know if the Japanese Hall of Fame voters will hold it against Ichiro for leaving to play in the United States. With the fans, he could not be more popular, and he certainly has not hurt his national standing with his play in the World Baseball Classic.
I believe that in the end he will be the first player to be enshrined in the Halls of Fame of two nations, and I look forward to that day.
Sean Smith is a lifelong Angels fan despite never visiting the west coast until April 2006. His work can also be found at baseballprojection.com and Anaheim Angels All the Way and he can be contacted by email.