May 21, 2013
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Friday, September 21, 2012
Small sample sizes do have a use. They can serve as jumping-off points for topics that deserve to be discussed. And my topic for today is Ichiro Suzuki.
Over the last couple of days, Ichiro has had one heck of a good small sample. In a doubleheader against Toronto on Wednesday, he went seven-for-eight with two doubles, and reeled off four stolen bases in the nightcap. (Never mind that twice he was stealing third with two outs.) In Thursday's game, a solo homer and a two-run double were critical contributions in a slugfest that nailed down a Yankees sweep at an important juncture of the playoff race.
For those of you scoring at home (which should be all of us), that's a .750/.750/1.250 for Ichiro, with a three-game WPA of 0.622. Nice numbers for anyone, but especially so for a player whose production fell off badly in 2011 and had climbed only partway back up this season. He is having something of a renaissance in pinstripes: His OPS+ as a Yankee is currently 117 (says Baseball-Reference), which actually beats the majority of his 11 full seasons in Mariners livery.
Of course, a third of a season doesn't tell the full story, which is that Ichiro Suzuki probably doesn't have very much time left as a productive major leaguer. B-R and FanGraphs have him as a two-plus WAR player this year, after being barely above replacement in 2011. Baseball Prospectus is harsher, pegging him at -1.3 WARP last season and a cumulative 0.3 this season. With the effects of aging on a 38-year-old player, those numbers, whichever ones you accept, are far likelier to fall than rise in future years, and fall pretty sharply.
So what is Ichiro's path forward? I see four plausible routes he can take.
The first would be to retire at season's end. This is the unlikeliest option, especially if his recent Bronx revival convinces him he can still play—which he still can, for a while, just not the way he did before. It might happen if the Yankees win the title: It's more palatable to bow out when you're on top. He could avoid the indignity of playing out the string, of finally having to be told his time is up. Most players can't walk away from the game on their own terms, though. Most, but not all.
Which raises the second option, or perhaps 1-A: Go out like Chipper Jones. Take a one-year contract with whatever team makes the best offer, and announce in advance that this is his final year. Bask in the appreciation of the league on an extended farewell tour. He may not be a first-ballot Cooperstown shoo-in like Chipper, but he's got a serious argument (and my vote if the BBWAA is ever dumb enough to give me one), so such a victory lap isn't egotistical presumption. Going out that way might even slightly burnish his image as a Hall of Famer.
The third option is just to keep playing, as long as he can. This is how most major leaguers do it, of course, but for high-profile players it can mean an undignified end. That's how fellow countryman Hideki Matsui went out, designated for assignment after hitting below .150 (!) for Tampa Bay this year. That's how Ichiro's fellow Mariner Ken Griffey Jr. went out, a spent player, his home run power gone, having to be nudged into retirement by Seattle brass.
I still feel a sting from that. Ken Griffey Jr. is a year younger than I am, and it was galling to see that youthful, dynamic, grinning kid close out his slam-dunk Cooperstown career as a tired old man. Baseball is wonderful, but it can be cruel too, and not only to the players. There are lots of fans in Ichiro's age cohort right now who could stand to be spared a repeat of that story.
Yes, he could be productive for a couple more years, or he might not. Anything he does in 2013 and beyond is unlikely to build a stronger Hall case for him, so he oughtn't worry much about that. A bad end might even hurt his case a bit, and if you play until you have nothing left, the end is almost sure to be bad.
But there is one more option floating out there. For most major league players, it would be another way of denying the inevitable end of their careers, spinning things out as long as they can. For Ichiro, it would bring things full circle.
He could go back to Japan.
Ichiro is an equivocal icon in Japan: an icon because he's gone forth and thrived in the toughest baseball league there is, equivocal because he had to leave his homeland behind to do it. Japan's baseball fans have loved him all through his journey through America. Maybe they deserve to have him back at the end.
Ichiro would have no problem finding a team in the NPB, Japan's majors. The slightly lower level of competition would mean that he should perform respectably in his return, at least for a year or two. If he's going to have a Chipper-style farewell tour, Japan would be even more appreciative of it than North America.
I like this idea for the narrative it creates, and you can probably tell I fear how playing to the bitter end must end. But the decision can only be Ichiro's. And he is a great enough player, near enough to the close of his career, that it's worth starting to wonder what that decision will be.
Thursday morning, an Adam Hayes-penned an article appeared here at The Hardball Times regarding relievers and the shortcomings of the mainstream stats used to evaluate them.
Thursday evening, the Pirates lost their game against the Brewers to fall below .500 on the year as Pittsburgh continues to do a nifty imitation of last year's collapse.
These two items are related because of the box score that game produced.
After climbing out of an early 4-0 hole to take a 7-4 lead, the Buccos coughed up their late lead and fell by a score of 9-7. One of the pitchers most responsible for this loss was Chad Qualls, who surrendered three runs on three hits while retiring a single batter.
Qualls was credited with a hold.
Chris Resop came in next and gave up a run on two hits and a walk while recording two outs.
Resop took the loss.
Obviously, neither hurler pitched well, but Qualls clearly was worse. It is absurd for him to receive positive credit for his "contribution" while Resop was on the hook for the loss.
Holds, saves, wins, losses, blown saves—these traditional counting stats we attribute to pitcher performances simply don't do a sufficient job of assigning credit and blame. Yes, those with a sabermetric bent are well aware of this, so situations like this simply serve to provide more ammunition in the assault on these stats and the significance many fans—and mainstream media—attribute to them.
Nationals 4, Dodgers 1: Congrats to the Nats for clinching the first postseason berth for a D.C. team since 1933. Pour one out for Joe Cronin, Moe Berg, Lefty Stewart and Heinie Manush.
Reds 5, Cubs 3: And congratulations to the Reds too, who clinched their spot hours before the Nats did. The Reds are the best team in baseball that no one has paid a lick of attention to all year. It'll be awesome if they win the World Series and the guys who make those season retrospective videos have to hire 10 extra interns to go back and see what happened with this club all year.
Cardinals 5, Astros 4: The sweep. Allen Craig with a three-run homer and Carlos Beltran with a two-run pinch hit double. The Cards remain two and a half ahead of Milwaukee and three ahead of L.A.
Royals 4, White Sox 3: Blown chance by the Sox to put some distance between themselves and the Tigers. Eric Hosmer drove in the winning run. Before that, though, Robin Ventura thought it was smart to intentionally walk Jeff Francoeur with two outs. Why anyone intentionally walks Jeff Francoeur is beyond me.
Athletics 12, Tigers 4: Seth Smith homered, doubled and drove in four to help the A's salvage one. The Road Trip of Death continues today, as Oakland heads into New York.
Rays 7, Red Sox 4: Walkoff for B.J. Upton of the three-run homer variety. The Rays rallied for six in the ninth. The homer came off Vicente Padilla, but Andrew Bailey poured the gas on the kindling before he came in.
Brewers 9, Pirates 7: For the first time since May 29 the Pirates are below .500. For the 20th time since 1992 it appears as though they'll finish the season that way. Just a crazy fall after being 16 above even earlier this season.
Phillies 16, Mets 1: The Mets played the Phillies evenly for seven innings. Unfortunately, it was innings two through eight. Otherwise: slaughtersville.
Yankees 10, Blue Jays 7: A grand slam for Nick Swisher in the seven-run fourth inning and the recently-rejuvenated Ichiro drove in three.
Giants 9, Rockies 2: Two homers for the Panda. Here's the Rockies team picture, taken a week or two ago, but still representing them accurately.
Padres 6, Diamondbacks 5: Bud Black used five pitchers in the ninth innings. FIVE. I would just like those folks who are advocates of the whole "Games matter more in September!" school of thought to acknowledge that a lot of bullcrap happens in games in September.
Indians 4, Twins 3: A bases loaded single by Casey Kotchman in the 10th gives it to the Tribe. The race for fourth place in the AL Central is all tied up. The excitement is palpable. It can be palped.
Rangers 3, Angels 1: Adrian Beltre was sick before the game but he played hero in the ninth with a two-run homer. Before that: a tremendous pitching duel between Yu Darvish and Zack Greinke.
120 years ago, one of baseball’s most prestigious clubs gained a new member. On Sept. 21, 1892, John Clarkson won his 300th game.
He was just the fifth member of the club. In fact, the club itself was still in the process of being established. The first man to join was Pud Galvin, and he’d done it just four seasons earlier, near the conclusion of the 1888 campaign.
In June 1890, Galvin gained a roommate when Tim Keefe made it to 300 wins later. Less than eight weeks later, Keefe’s longtime teammate Mickey Welch made it three 300 game winners. In 1891, Charley Radbourn joined them—just two Months before the first anniversary of Keefe’s 300th win.
Clarkson’s entrance assured it was a club, but it also ended the rapid rise in membership. They were all the winningest pitchers of the 1880s, an era whose circumstances made it easier to pick up 300 wins.
Back then, pitchers worked 50 feet from home plate, and for various reasons the nature of the game back then allowed them to throw far more innings—500 innings was common and 600 not unheard of. In 1893, the lords of baseball moved pitchers back to the present distance of 60 feet and six inches. Immediately, 500 inning-seasons ended, and 400 innings quickly became quite rare, and then extinct.
That 1880s herd could stock up an incredible amount of innings in a short amount of time, and that led to huge numbers of wins. It wasn’t easy to get to 300. Most pitchers blew their arms out after just a few years. But if you could last a little over a decade of quality pitching, you had a chance to make it to 300.
This is not to say that John Clarkson was merely a workhorse. He was arguably the best pitcher of the day. His 53-win 1885 is second only to Radbourn’s famous 59-win campaign in 1884. Clarkson led the league in ERA in 1889 and was among the league leaders in almost every year from 1884 to 1892. In fact, he was among the league leaders in almost everything—ERA, strikeouts, wins, shutouts—you name it, and Clarkson was among the best at it. Most notably, WAR says he was the best player in the entire NL four times: 1885, 1887, 1889 and 1891.
Because he was so good and pitched at a time when arms racked up a tremendous number of innings per year, Clarkson was barely 31 years old when he won No. 300: 31 years, two months, and 20 days to be precise.
However, despite his youth and talent, Clarkson was pretty much through. 1892 would be his last 20 win season (and this was a time when 30 wins were still common). It was also his last year with a winning record. He’d lasted long enough to win 300, but he couldn’t last much longer. That’s what happens when you throw such an absurd number of innings.
But make it to 300 Clarkson did, and he did it 120 years ago today.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim through things.
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