The seventh in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.
LL/USSM Community: .337/.385/.434
Actual Line: .310/.361/.386
Honestly, it wasn't that bad of a projection - the only significant difference is that, instead of going ten points over his career BABIP, Ichiro instead fell twenty points under it, which dragged down his final line. There was also a bit of a discrepancy in the power department, but at the end of the day, four missing doubles and three missing homers aren't really meaningful. Players vary. That's well within the range of error, no matter who you're talking about.
Looking back on everything, it'd be hard to compare Ichiro's year in 2008 to his other seven and not come away thinking that it was the most trying all-around season of his career. For one thing, his slugging percentage was the lowest it's ever been by thirty points, and his overall offensive production was as low as it was in 2005. For another, he got off to a slow start and didn't really get going until the team was out of contention. The fact that the team dropped out of contention as quickly as it did was another factor - Ichiro just wants to win, and the collapse of a highly-touted roster around him must have been psychologically devastating. Like anyone who's either watched or been a part of this team over the years, Ichiro's sick of disappointment, and it couldn't have been easy coming back to the ballpark every day when almost overnight your dreams were dashed.
Those weren't the only things that made 2008 especially difficult for him, though. There were whispers of certain strong opinions of Ichiro in the clubhouse, and whether or not things ever actually boiled over, there was almost undoubtedly some degree of jealousy and resentment present in the room. He was always kind of by himself. On top of that, over time he started to catch flak from fans and the media for not pulling his weight on the field or off of it, and Ichiro gave some of these mouths more material when he made a few uncharacteristic defensive mistakes down the stretch. People were calling him overrated. People have been calling Ichiro overrated since he first broke into the big leagues, but this time, some of those statements were coming from the same fanbase that had previously held him up on a pedestal. By the end of the season, Ichiro seemed less like an icon and more like a target.
It was tough, and it was tough in every single way. It certainly didn't help that Ichiro's favorite manager got fired in June. What did he have to enjoy? What could he possibly have looked forward to? As bad as it was to watch this team, and as torturous as it was to try and write about it every day, I can't for the life of me imagine how beaten down Ichiro must've felt the whole time. It's a wonder people weren't killed.
Fortunately for Ichiro - fortunately for everyone - the season ended. The season ended, and almost as quickly as people started to criticize him for underperforming they tried to erase their memories of the past and turned their eyes to the future as a new and more forward-thinking front office was installed. Brighter days had arrived in the Pacific Northwest just at the onset of winter, and all of the things that had been spoken and published about Ichiro during the season were written off as just part of the crash landing. So 2008 was a rough year for Ichiro. So what? 2008 was a rough year for everyone. Zduriencik knows what he's doing. All hail Zduriencik!
It's funny the way a little splash of optimism can make such a world of difference. Ichiro isn't going anywhere. We know this to be true. He's a Mariner now, and for all intents and purposes he's a Mariner for life. And where last season these reminders were a frequent source of conflict (No! Trade him! Trade him now! While he might still have value!), now by and large we're back to simply taking this knowledge for granted. Ichiro's here for a long time, and people are much more willing to accept that today than they were three or four months ago. Because they aren't as angry anymore. Fans of bad teams may focus their frustrations on the team's best players, but fans of bad teams with a direction tend not to be frustrated. Cooler heads prevail, and cooler heads are able to see through the negative hyperbole characteristic of bad seasons past.
Ichiro's sticking around, and at least for the next few years, I think he's going to be fine. He hit .351 in 2007 and .310 in 2008 without anything really changing. Diagnostically, he was the same player. Same swing rate. Same contact rate. Same groundball rate. Same line drive rate. Same walk rate. It was pretty much the same everything, but for one exception:
2007: .389 BABIP
2008: .334 BABIP
For his career, he stands at .356, so he was about as unlucky in 2008 as he was lucky in 2007. That's all it was. Luck. Even with that midseason hamstring injury, it's not like there's evidence that he got any slower - he stole more bases and he recorded just as many triples and infield hits. So we're left with luck.
Here's another way of looking at it:
Grounders: .285 BABIP
Fly Balls: .127 BABIP
Line Drives: .634 BABIP
Grounders: .301 BABIP
Fly Balls: .117 BABIP
Line Drives: .701 BABIP
Grounders: -6 hits
Fly Balls: +1 hit
Line Drives: -9 hits
That's the breakdown, and even if you think Ichiro's less able to single on groundballs than he used to be (with which I wouldn't agree; that BABIP was .368 in 2007), 36% of his line drives were caught last year, compared to 30% for his career. That's not sustainable. Brandon Fahey's BABIP on line drives is .734. Willie Ballgame's is .691. Tom Goodwin's was .733. .634 is unheard of. More than anything else, Ichiro was unlucky with his line drives last year, and that's not going to keep up.
Offensively, I think Ichiro's as solid as he's ever been, and his year to year fluctuation is simply the result of the vagaries of being a ball-in-play hitter. His single-season BABIPs have run the gamut between .319 and .401, and there's no pattern to be unconvered. It's just randomness, or something approximating randomness. The best we can do is say that Ichiro's skillset seems to have remained stable, and that going forward he's as likely to be a tremendous asset as he is to be a disappointment. Odds are in favor of 2009 being a kinder, gentler season.
Defensively, who knows. Plus/minus loves him, UZR hates him, PMR thinks he's okay. I'm comfortable calling him 0 < x < +10 in right field, including a little bonus for his arm. He did make a handful of mistakes down the stretch last year, and those can't be forgotten. On the one hand, I'd like to think those were simply the result of a lack of focus due to it being a lost year, because that's a non-physical explanation. But on the other, I feel like Ichiro has too much pride to give less than his all, so whatever, I don't know. It did seem like his mistakes had more to do with bad split-second decisions as opposed to deteriorating skills, so I think his range is intact. He should be peaches.
Overall, Ichiro's still a heck of a player. He may never again approach the kind of season he had in 2004, but that's not the player we expect him to be, nor is that the kind of player he has to be in order to remain productive. All he has to do is hit .320-.330 while playing solid defense every day, and there's no good reason to think he's any less capable of doing that now than he was three years ago, the last time people thought he might be losing a step. Ichiro's fine. The question shouldn't be whether it's possible to build a winning team around Ichiro; the question should be whether we'll ever be able to surround Ichiro with the winning team he so rightly deserves.