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.