Ichiro and the road ahead

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.

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  1. Ian R. said...

    The biggest reason I can see for Ichiro to hang around for a few more seasons is to make a push for 3,000 American hits. He should be right around 2,600 when this season ends; three more seasons would definitely do it if he can sustain even an average-ish level of play.

  2. Chris Waters said...

    There is a huge difference between Matsui and Suzuki: Matsui was never seen as a ego-driven individual, while even in Japan, Suzuki is considered such. For a society like Japan, it is Matsui who is really the more revered, and it would really be a loss of face for Suzuki to return before he has those 3,000 hits.

    Matsui is trying to hang on because he truly loves the game.

  3. Paul G. said...

    The fact that Ichiro is still a decent player is unusual.  To borrow from Bill James, players as they age tend to transition from relying on “young player” skills (speed, batting average) to “old player” skills (walks, power).  Ichiro is still relying on batting average and speed.  His walk rate is at a career low.  This year his home run rate is around average for him with an extra-base hit percentage and isolated power a bit over career norms, though it is higher than the past couple of years.  Since he has been with the Yankees he is hitting for more power, but his walk rate is way down. 

    I do wonder if he would have more success if he tried to change his game, especially if he remains in the Bronx and its enticing short porch.  He apparently had “Ty Cobb” power when he arrived in America, so maybe he could tap into that.

  4. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    3,000 is a good point.  Had I not already been going long, I would have noted the example of Johnny Damon.  He was rather blatantly extending his career to, or past, its limits in hopes of reaching the golden number.  It ended in grief, as the Indians released him outright last month, still more than 200 hits shy.  Ichiro might profit from that lesson.

    And for someone who played his first MLB game at age 27 to aim for 3,000 may be asking too much.  He passed a combined 3,000 for NPB and MLB a while back.  He can rightly be proud of that.

    As to egotism, the Japanese have a lower threshold for what they consider ego, but I do take your point.  I’ve laid out the options; it’s up to Ichiro to choose by his lights, wisely or not.


    Chris, what is your evidence for him being an ego-driven player?  You imply that Ichiro is not hanging on because he loves the game, but for selfish reasons.  I’m Ichiro’s age and a lifelong M’s fan and this year’s trade has caused me to listen to several Yankee games on my XM radio.  I hope he comes up every time with 2 outs and bases empty and triples so he can do well without actually helping the Yanks win.  : – ) 

    I’ve heard unsubstantiated rumors and innuendo like this several times over the last 10 years or so.  At first, in spring of 2001 it was “He can’t hit, he can’t pull the ball, just a slap hitter” etc.  Then it was “He can’t keep this up” (see Dibble, Rob).  Then finally when it was clear he was an incredible all-around player and won the MVP it was “He’s a me-first player.”

    That was never voiced more loudly than when there was a contingent of latin players on the M’s who were griping off the record (and then outed) to reporters about Ichiro.  Guys like Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Carlos Silva.  Yeah, real winners right there.  Anyway Chris, just wondering if you have any actual evidence or…  I believe most of the conflict and resentment toward Ichiro revolves around cultural clashes and misunderstandings.  He is not Shiggy, playing in America but speaking perfect English, assimilating into the culture in many ways.  He has remained a proud Japanese man, not trying to “fit in” with the culture of America nor the locker room.  Think about the difference between the latin culture and Japanese culture.  Is there any surprise there was friction there on a terrible team??

    And yes Lopez and Yuniesky were our up the middle infield “defense” at one time—shudder.  Made our woeful pitching even worse.  And Jose Vidro at DH with an OPS+ of 65, Silva with an ERA+ of 66, what a horrible team.  I’m looking at baseball reference 2008, and who was fun to watch on that team?  I enjoyed watching Rowland-Smith, RA Dickey,  Felix, an aging Arthur Rhodes, Beltre, and Ichiro…and maybe Ibanez?  Not much else there.  They were horrible and there was little hope.  Now we’re just pretty bad but at least we have a bunch of kids with promise for a better future…

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