(The sixth in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)
LL Community: .280/.351/.440 (n=14)
Bill James Handbook: .279/.346/.444
Leave it to one of the most consistent and predictable players in baseball to pull a year like that out of his ass. In a season during which he turned 34, Raul Ibanez put up the best numbers of his career, far surpassing even the most optimistic LL member projection and sitting around his 75-90% PECOTA batting lines. The LL community missed the boat here, but so did everybody else, as no one saw this kind of performance boost coming. All five predicted batting lines were virtually identical, and all five were equally wrong. Point, Raul.
It's not just that Ibanez improved when he should have gotten worse; it's that he was the best hitter on the team for much of the season while the rest of the supposed big guns were trying to find their consistency. Ibanez posted an .890 OPS before the ASB and .844 afterwards, the highlight of his summer being an incredible June in which he batted .326 with a third of his hits clearing the fence. For an entire month he was one of the top five hitters in baseball, almost singlehandedly propelling the Mariners into the pennant race before falling off (along with pretty much everyone else) in July. On June 29th Ibanez hit a game-tying homer to straightaway center off Jorge Julio in the ninth inning, and two games later he took a leadoff bomb away from Jamey Carroll before going deep in the bottom of the first. Raul played a huge part in two of the Mariners' most dramatic wins of the year, and I owe him many thanks for keeping the season enjoyable for as long as he did.
In the three years since signing what many of us thought was an objectionable contract, all Raul's done is bat .290 while supplying enough power and on-base ability to be an important cog in the middle of the lineup. He hasn't been great, but for a little over $4m a year no one was asking him to be, and he's proven to be a rare bargain on a team with a lot of wasted money. The two-year extension he signed in February was more than a little hasty, and I don't know that Raul's going to be a $5.5m player in 2008, but as far as players who're going to retire as Mariners go, you could do a lot worse. Besides, I think he's proven me wrong enough times to earn the benefit of the doubt. Raul's perfectly suited for Safeco Field, and I'm happy to have him on my favorite team.
All that said, though, it's important to remember that, aside from the artificial and chemically-influenced exceptions, every player declines with age. It may not necessarily be a smooth decline, but generally speaking, a guy'll be worse at 35 than he was at 30, and worse at 40 than he was at 35. Bodies take a beating over the years, and you can only put off the downhill sleigh ride to mediocrity for so long. With Ibanez, the question isn't if he'll begin to slide, but when it'll start.
There's evidence that he's begun his adjustment towards becoming a guy with old-player skills. As hitters age, their bats slow down and they start guessing more and swinging harder, with the result being more strikeouts, more walks, more power, and more extreme platoon splits (you need a quicker bat to hit same-handed pitchers). Raul's got three of the four, as his strikeout rate was at its highest in eight years, his extra-base hit rate was at its highest in four (the previous high coming in what was then a hitter's paradise), and there was a nearly 300-point difference in OPS between his performance against lefties and righties (along with a sharp decrease in BB/K versus southpaws). Small sample sizes play a big part in shaping individual season platoon splits, so we probably shouldn't pay too much attention to that part quite yet, but the fact that Raul was hitting more flyballs and more homers while simultaneously swinging through the ball more often suggest that his bat is slowing down, and that he's adopting the skill profile of an older player.
So how long can he keep it up? That part we don't know, and since his Baseball-Reference historical comps are all over the map and his PECOTA page hasn't been updated for 2006, it's difficult to even hazard a guess. On the one hand he's only 34 and guys like Jeff Conine and Wally Joyner were able to keep going for several more years, but on the other Ibanez isn't much of a natural athlete, and the aging process will leave him with less than someone blessed with a broader skillset. When his time has come, I wonder if it won't be painfully and embarrassingly obvious.
In the meantime, here's to Ibanez remaining a steady contributor for as long as he can. In the interest of both aiding the team and Raul's longevity, it would be wise to move him back to DH and supply a platoon partner in case his decline against lefties is for real, but that's a different post. The only other thing I want to say here is that the list of players who fell apart after years like Raul's 2005 is far longer than the list of players who fell apart after years like Raul's 2006. He may be nearing the end of the line, but I'm not convinced that forecasting doom and gloom for 2007 makes any more sense than it did the last few seasons. I don't see too many ways in which Raul Ibanez doesn't help next year's Mariners, with the only real question being to what degree he'll make the team better. In a winter of questions and roster turnover, it's nice to have a little dependability.