Ichiro Suzuki seemed like he had a pretty big down year in 2008. FanGraphs listed him at a .339 wOBA and just 6.6 runs above average, barely above his worst offensive season in 2005 (6.5 runs). On the first year of his 5 year, $90 million contract, it seemed precipitous and would usher in even more loud chatter about the need to trade Ichiro. For most people, that's where the evaluation ends.
But we're just a bit more deep into numbers and so we first chip away by trying to control for the home park. Of course, Safeco Field plays a hand in depressing Ichiro's offense, and you have to adjust the offense upward, endung up around 9.5 to 10.0 runs above average. I believe most lay-people will grant you this adjustment, even if they do not make that adjustment themselves. Still, it's not that big of a difference.
Of course, we know that batting is only one side of a position player's job and that we want to value defense. So we go to add in the players range ability, of which Ichiro gets a boost of another 2 runs by UZR. Again, this is probably something most people will grant you after you bring it up, though they'll be wary of putting numbers to it. We don't stop there though, knowing as we know from Tango how the different positions are valuable. Thus, we factor in the positions that Ichiro played, a mix of center and right field which came out to three to four runs below average (center field is +2.5, right field is -7.75). It's more than enough to wipe away his positive gain from the glove.
All in all, we would say Ichiro was about 10 runs above average last year and you might even get most people to agree with that assessment. Finally, we added an adjustment for replacement level, which because of the high number of plate appearances gives him a boost of 25 runs.
Adding that all up gave us a value of about 35 runs over replacement, 3.5 wins, worth just over $15 million by 2008's $4.4 million per win standard. Not too shabby, but not quite worth his $17 million salary^. So maybe there is something to Ichiro being over-rated/over-paid/over-whatever right?
Well... FanGraphs added in arm ratings, along the lines of the emminent John Walsh's formula and Ichiro gained another 5.5 runs and it pushed Ichiro's 2008 value up to $17.5 million, surpassing his salary. Still, that's not a great sign that in year one of five, Ichiro just barely matched his salary right?
Well... We still have one factor missing and that's base running. We know Ichiro is a fantastic base stealer, no matter how often other members of the Seattle Mariners think he should be attempting to steal. Dan Fox, one of the good guys at BP, has put together some base running figures and 2007 and 2008 data is freely available here. Ichiro came in with an additional seven runs in 2007, tenth best in baseball. However, in 2008, Ichiro topped even that, notching a whopping 12.7 runs, tops in all of baseball. 12.7 runs is huge! And it's split about evenly between the value of his incredible stolen base success rate and his ability to take the other base.
If Dan Fox's formula is credible (I don't know what it is, but coming up with values for base running is not new and so I assume it's a rather standard valuation), that pumps Ichiro's value to 5.2 wins last season, worth a tad under $22 million.
Even when Ichiro has a down year with the bat, he does so many other things well that he makes up for it and then some. Ichiro is a fantastic baseball player, one of the best in the game, and people that do not realize it are just robbing themselves of a chance to appreciate Ichiro's ability while it is on display in front of them. Seriously people, Ichiro is awesome, don't wait until he's finally gone to come around.
^A decent portion of Ichiro's salary is deferred which comes out to a net present value of $17.1 million per year
(Hat tip: BtB)