Ichiro’s Speed Compared to Right Fielders

Another month, another discussion on the Hall of Fame worthiness of Ichiro Suzuki on Baseballthinkfactory. I skimmed through and didn’t see much said that hasn’t been said before, though this quote by Colin Wyers made me think:

Because, let’s be honest – the question of if Ichiro belongs in the HoF is basically a question of how good his defense is.

The opinion’s on Ichiro’s greatness generally fall into these categories:
1. He gets 200 hits per year, so he’s the greatest hitter ever. I don’t understand the alphabet soup stats you mention.
2. Ichiro gets a lot of singles, but he’s not really a great hitter. His OPS+ is OK but well below the level of greatness for a corner outfielder. His career OPS+ is the same as Ken Griffey Sr, and worse than Shawn Green’s
3. He’s a good, but not great hitter, but rises to the level of the game’s greats when you consider his defense, throwing, baserunning, and avoiding the double play. The little things in his case really add up.

As you might be able to tell from an article I did earlier this year, I fall into camp #3. But I wonder how sure we can be that his defense is really great. The evidence for is consistent high runs saved totals from UZR (using BIS data on Fangraphs), John Dewan’s defensive ratings from The Fielding Bible (using BIS data, Dewan’s company), TotalZone data (from retrosheet, my creation) and the fact he’s won a gold glove every season since he came to America. The evidence against is, to my knowledge, STATS – based defensive ratings, which were the original source data for UZR, and Zone Rating, which show Ichiro to be closer to an average fielder. Another point in Ichiro’s favor, regarding where his defense should rank, is his speed.

Outfield defense is strongly correlated to speed, and by speed scores Ichiro rates as the fastest right fielder of the last 47 years. I used Baseball Reference Play Index to find all right fielders from 1962 to 2009 who played at least 750 games in right field, and calculated their speed scores. I chose 1962 since that seems to be a good point where speed scores are valid. Maury Wills brought the stolen base back that year. From the 20’s to the 50’s, very few players attempted to run. I believe that speed scores, as invented by Bill James, were meant to be used for leagues that run as often as modern leagues do.

Anyway, Ichiro has the best career speed rating for rightfielders in this group. With a 7.5 raing, there is as much distance between him and #2 as there is between #2 and #8. The top scores:

1. 7.5 Ichiro
2. 6.7 Bobby Bonds
3. 6.5 Terry Puhl
4. 6.2 Raul mondesi
5. 6.2 Ken Griffey Sr.
6. 6.1 Claudell Washington
7. 6.1 Reggie Sanders
8. 5.9 Darryl Strawberry
9. 5.9 Michael Tucker
10. 5.8 Andre Dawson

The average rightfielder in this group has a 4.8 speed score, represented by Dan ford, Dante Bichette, and Tony Oliva.
The slowest in this group of 67 players are:

63. 3.2 Harold Baines
64. 3.0 Manny Ramirez
65. 2.9 Jay Buhner
66. 2.9 Jeff Burroughs
67. 2.5 Ken Singleton

It should not surprise us that Ichiro rates well above average in a stat attempting to measure range relative to average. Just look at the average right fielder. Ichiro can run rings around these guys.

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  1. dfan said...

    To me, Ichiro gets a significant bonus for his fame.  I’m as sabermetrically inclined as the next guy, and I don’t do this for most players, but he’s such an outlier and is so noticeable and discussion-worthy that that itself becomes a point in his favor.  It’s the same reason I had no problem with Nolan Ryan being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

  2. Dave Studeman said...

    That’s a great list, Sean.  Thanks.  I hadn’t remembered Griffey Sr. as a fast player.  Shows what I know.

  3. Pirate fan said...

    where would Aaron be?  Clemente didn’t run, never really knew why other than hitting third.

    Aaraon had quite a few steals in the 1950s (relatively speaking).

  4. pinball1973 said...

    I’m in with dfan above, and think that Sean has missed a BIG part of what a great HoF would include – #4: a career that made the game enjoyable for all sorts of fans (and that also includes the joy of “hating” a player for no reasonable reason whatsoever. E.g. “He’s a Yankee!”,  “He never won a [award/title]!”,  “His team never made the Series!”, “He was no good in [the clutch/playoffs/etc.],  and, and it is this Ichiro fan’s favorite, “He’s over-rated by[whomever I don’t like/respect]!”)  That’s a strange but wonderful part of the game as well.*

      I love that the stats guys & gals have drawn our attention toward appreciating each game in much more depth than even the most determined fan could manage.  Also that they have made us enjoy the quiet but major contributions of many players who might get overlooked.
      I snort in derision, and leave the room after mustering out a particularly rich SBD, when they TELL me Ichiro – or whomever – is NOT a great player because their numbers obsession (usually colored by personal feelings that would better suit someone deriding the young Joe D. for his Italian heritage) PROVES it.

      I frankly think, and Bill James agreed in the most casual way, that Ichiro is a HoFer – in the best sense of the expression – based only on his hitting, but not a first round choice.
      Based on his entire MLB career, the only doubt is in the weirdly, from-Day-1 prejudice a certain percentage of Numbers-Only! people have.
      Based on his story and popularity and uniqueness, as well as by allowing a nod to his NPB numbers and story and popularity and uniqueness (and the WBC titles), he’s a first-chance HoFer deserving of a very high vote total.

      And he will be.

      [taps mic] 

      [looks around]

      Am I still on?

      *I don’t actually hate many players like that, myself.  Certain ones get on my nerves (Overly talkative Born-Agains, sexists or racists, the loud-mouthed ignorant, etc. – I’m a “Lib”, y’know), which I still haven’t learned to enjoy.  And McGuire bugs me a lot – moreso that I was a big A’s fan way back when.  But many people really seem to NEED to hate Ichiro, or Ted Williams, of Derek Jeter, or Mantle, or Ty Cobb to enjoy the game.

  5. Sean Smith said...

    I think Aaron and Clemente were in the next group of 5 or 10, just below the guys listed.  Clemente did hit a ton of triples.  Aaron stole a decent number of bases, but also hit into a lot of DPs.

    I’ll post their speed scores when I get to my home computer.

  6. Sean S said...

    If you’re thinking of the Griffey who played in Seattle alongside his son, he wasn’t.  But the Griffey of the big Red machine was an unconventional right fielder, a lot like Ichiro, high average, low power, and a lot of steals.  He didn’t have the arm of Ichiro though.

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