I am an Ichiro fan. I want to see him succeed, I want to see him break records, and I want to see him in the HOF.
The man makes millions of dollars per year, his jersey is the most popular baseball jersey in Seattle, there's a museum dedicated to him in Japan, and broadcasters routinely refer to him as a future HOFer. This is a man I never feel the need to defend from internet tough guys who act as if his negatives are so horrible that he should be sent down to single A. But there's one criticism that merits real discussion: never drawing walks.
So are walks that big of a deal? If your job is to get on base, who cares how you do it? Well, let's take a look at the AL's leadoff hitters this year, sorted by various categories: (I've left out the WhiteSox, because they're sort of rotating leadoff guys at the moment).
As of 5/19/09, we see that Ichiro is leading in batting average, tied for third in hits, smack dab in the middle for OBP, and at or near the bottom in RBI, BB, and R. I know that Ichiro missed a few games early in the season, but I don't feel it was enough that these comparisons aren't fair enough for our purposes. Anyways, there's lots of interesting analysis here that I will leave up to you all. But here's some things I want to kick start the discussion with:
1) Clearly, OBP does not guarantee runs. There are guys with OBP's lower than Ichiro's, and yet have scored more runs. Orlando Cabrera has a dismal OBP of .283 but he's scored 3 more runs than Ichiro. However, Marco Scuturo will tell you that it's no surprise that the highest OBP in the AL has also scored the most runs. (.415 OBP, 36 runs). The more often you're on base, the more chances to score.
2) Looking at the list sorted by walks, it's interesting that there are so many low batting averages who augment their OBP by drawing a high number of walks.
3) Looking at the list sorted by hits, it's interesting that there are hitters with much lower batting averages than Ichiro, and yet have nearly as many hits.
Let's compare Ichiro vs. Scutaro, the best BA vs the best OBP:
The difference between Scutaro's BA and OBP is .131 points. For Ichiro, it's .037. Scutaro drew 28 more walks, scored 22 more runs, and has 1 less hit than Ichiro. Clearly, one can still get a lot of hits while drawing a lot of walks.
But let's not hop on the un-crowded anti-Ichiro bandwagon just yet! Taking a look at the best BA's right now, we see that a LOT of batters do not have a huge discrepancy between their BA and their OBP. Keep in mind, that list is mostly middle of the order guys, who draw a lot of intentional walks.
So to Ichiro I say: if Marco Scutaro can get on base 41.5% of the time, so can you.
Let's try an experiment! For one week, try to draw as many walks as possible. The only exception: a meatball right down the middle. If you get one of those, send it hell. Other than that, work the walk. Let's see if OBP goes up while BA stays the same, or if OBP stays the same while BA goes down.
And if it does work out, don't fall in love with the walk. Because you'd never get me to pay for a ticket to the Walk Derby during All-Star Weekend. But when you're about to make the record books with hit #200 for the ninth year in a row - I am SO there!