...because I found myself with a few minutes of free time, and what better way to spend them than slapping together a spreadsheet about the Mariners' most popular player?
A year ago, Ichiro was putting the finishing touches on an absolutely incredible season, and people started to whisper about his chances of hitting .400 in 2005. "If anyone can do it, he can," they said, pointing out that he hit something like .751 after the end of April. You knew it sounded absurd the minute you heard it (and oh, did we ever hear it), but after watching him terrorize everyone he faced for the better part of an entire season, you couldn't help but keep the idea in the back of your mind.
2005 came and went, and Ichiro fell a whopping 66 hits shy of batting .400. Commence panic. What's happened to our beloved superstar? His batting averages are all over the map:
(That counts as "all over the map" for a guy who consistently hits above .300)
But then you dig a little deeper and stumble across his groundball/fly ball ratios, which you find pretty interesting, because like me, you're a total nerd:
"Gee," you say, "those seem to correlate pretty nicely with his batting averages." You're right.
That's a strong correlation right there. In fact, you can take it a step further and say that Ichiro's offensive value is totally dependent on his ratio of grounders to fly balls (note that this is not a chronological plot):
That's an even stronger correlation - almost perfectly linear. (EqA, for those of you less well-versed in baseball statistics, is a measure of productivity kept on a batting average scale, where .260 is average, .280 is good, and .300 is great. I use it here instead of VORP because I generally don't like counting stats.)
So the question then becomes, if Ichiro's offense is directly related to how frequently he puts the ball on the ground - and, presumably, he knows this - why was he putting the ball in the air so often this year? Other guys tend to have pretty consistent GB/FB ratios, and Ichiro's supposed to have the best bat control in baseball.
We can't know for sure, but we can certainly hypothesize. As such, allow me to present to you another piece of information:
Percent of Ground Balls Turned into Infield Singles:
For whatever reason, Ichiro's seen a steady decline in the number of groundballs that he turns into infield hits. It's too early for him to be losing a step, and it's unlikely that this is just random noise, so that leaves you with the theory that opposing defenses are positioning themselves better and better, peaking in efficiency this past summer. Ichiro, taking notice of the fact that fewer grounders were turning into hits, switched to a more flyball-oriented approach, seeing an uptick in power to go with a decrease in singles rate.
The main problem here, aside from the fact that it's all really just speculation, is that, in theory, it shouldn't take this long for defenses to figure out how to play a guy. However, it's not like there's been a sudden change - the decline in infield singles rate has been consistent and gradual, suggesting that teams are improving their infield positioning every year.
So, is Ichiro going to rebound in 2006? I want to say yes; after all, he followed up the lowest GB/FB ratio of his career with a crazygood record-setting campaign two years ago. That said, while I think he's going to remain a damn fine player who's been called overrated so often that he's become underrated, I'd say the peak is gone. That decline in infield singles is real, and it's unlikely to suddenly reverse direction. Ichiro knows when he isn't collecting as many infield singles as he used to, and when that happens, he's going to change his approach until he finds something that works. There's some bounceback potential here, but it's not as significant as many people will lead you to believe over the winter. Going forward, the power's legit, but so is the drop in BA.
Ichiro's an evolving hitter. Instead of criticizing the guy for what feels like a letdown season, we should be thankful that he was able to make such a huge change in his approach while remaining a dependable, productive player.
(And since everyone loves throwaway mathematics, based on the equation of the best fit line in the GB/FB vs. BA graph above, Ichiro would need to have a 3.96 GB/FB ratio to bat .400. So there.)