The seventh 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: .329/.374/.447 (n=22)
Bill James Handbook: .326/.374/.431
In this world, nothing is certain but death, taxes, and Ichiro's annual slump that makes everyone freak out. The following is a chronological list of Ichiro's worst months, along with his final batting averages if you exclude them:
2001: July, .268 (.366)
2002: September, .248 (.335)
2003: August, .242 (.327)
2004: April, .255 (.392)
2005: June, .243 (.315)
2006: August, .233 (.340)
Because Ichiro doesn't have a consistently bad month year-to-year, his slumps tend to take people by surprise and make them think all kinds of silly things, from "he's lost his bat control, he's useless" to "he's lost his desire to play in Seattle, he's useless." He takes an incredible amount of heat for his slumps, because when he's not going well, it looks like he isn't even trying, but that's just the thing - that's how he always looks. His record-breaking 2004 seemed every bit as effortless as his terrible August this past summer. He's been blessed with such tremendous athletic ability and grace that he does everything smoothly and succeeds while hardly breaking a sweat. There's a reason why he draws such a reaction when he gets ahead of himself and swings awkwardly at a breaking ball; your jaw drops because you never expect Ichiro to look that bad, ever. He's so reliably on top of things that people notice when he makes even the smallest mistake. I can't imagine what it'd be like if fans held Richie Sexson or Mike Cameron to the same standard. Step back for a minute to consider your level of expectations for Ichiro and you'll realize just how amazing he is.
I wonder if part of the problem is that Ichiro succeeds in such a way that he seems easily beatable, and that he's lucky to be on base. You see him leg out an infield grounder or bloop one over the second baseman and you wonder why pitchers can never figure him out, but it's precisely that ability that separates Ichiro from the rest of the crop. He's put up six consecutive seasons of 200+ "ugly" hits, and at some point you have to concede that maybe it's not all luck. Maybe Ichiro knows what he's doing after all. Forget style points; his .322 average last year is just about as good as anyone else's. Being unconventional and terrific aren't mutually exclusive.
Ichiro's success doesn't stem from good luck - it's his slumps that stem from bad luck, brief periods during which opposing defenses turn a higher percentage of his balls in play into outs than you'd expect. Sure, some of it is Ichiro's fault - he falls into the occasional flyball spell, negating his greatest strength - but the rest is just the inevitable fluctuation of a singles hitter's batting line. It's not that he isn't getting deep in the count - he never does that. It's not that he's aging - this is an annual phenomenon that disappears overnight. It's not that he isn't hitting the ball hard - Ichiro's 18.6% LD% this August was the same as it was for his entire eye-popping 2004 season. And it's not that he's giving anything less than 100% effort - that's both absurd and insulting. A few bad weeks are just part of the package, and they're well worth the fantastic final line. I don't think David Ortiz got much crap when he underachived in May, and I don't think Ichiro deserves half the criticism he gets for his own struggles. Give him time and he'll win you over.
Ichiro's unusual approach and singles-heavy batting lines have made him one of the most unique hitters in the history of baseball, making it difficult to project his performance based on comparable players. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, PECOTA's top two Ichiro comps are Matty Alou and Lance Johnson. There's just no one who's ever played the game who even comes close to approximating what Ichiro brings to the table. His results may look similar to another guy's, but they each got there in completely different ways, and when it comes to forecasting future performance the means are more important than the ends. And so we're left with PECOTA continually undershooting his performance. Other projection systems that rely less on player comps tend to do better (kudos to ZiPS on this one), but I still think it's inherently dangerous to let a computer try and predict the future for someone so totally unique. Of course, the computers did better than the LL community here, so whatever, maybe I'm wrong, but one year of success does not an accurate projection system make. We'll see what 2007 has in store.
So I guess the only question left is, how will we know when the aging process is catching up with Ichiro? He keeps himself in spectacular shape and might be one of the healthiest 33 year olds on the planet, but eventually the wear-and-tear of 162 game seasons gets to everyone, and Ichiro won't be any exception. At some point his body just won't let him do what he wants it to do anymore, and that'll be the beginning of the end.
With that in mind, though, I'm not sure we'll be able to tell. Not from the numbers, anyway. Ichiro's groundball and strikeout rates have gotten progressively worse over the past three years, but in 2006 they were almost exactly where they were in 2003, right before he flipped out and broke George Sisler's record. So who knows? It's not like we can expect Ichiro to follow the "typical" aging process, anyway, since he's anything but a normal player. We all have our suspicions that as he gets older he'll start hitting for more power to make up for an unavoidable reduction in singles, but we don't know that for sure. The truth of the matter is that no one knows how Ichiro's going to age, and no one knows when we'll even need to start worrying about it. If speed's the first thing to go, then based on his triples, steals, and infield hit rate, Ichiro's still in the middle of his physical prime. Who's to say he won't be able to keep this up for another four or five years? If anyone's going to put in enough effort and hard work to stave off old age, it's Ichiro. It just doesn't make sense to expect someone who puts as much into every play as he does to succumb to the aging process without a fight.
It's been said that fans of bad teams tend to focus their frustration on their best players, and Ichiro - like Alex Rodriguez (ha!) - is a perfect example. Too often people see him struggle for a few weeks and immediately forget about all the good he's done (like, say, shifting to center field), and how he's come back from every single slump of his career to put up the same gaudy numbers the next month. Ichiro's not a perfect ballplayer by any means, but in terms of performance and work ethic he's the closest we've had in years, and for that he deserves praise, rather than criticism and relentless trade proposals. For as long as he's been around, Ichiro's never been one of the team's problems, and at this point I'm not sure he ever will be.