I don't know how true it actually is, but a lot of people still believe that a baseball player's peak comes between the ages of 27 and 29. It makes sense. By the age of 27, a player is fully developed physically, and he's gained enough big league experience to know how to handle himself day-to-day and week-to-week. By 30, the experience is only greater, and the body's still in good shape, but things begin to hurt a little easier than they used to, and other things begin to move a little slower. Somewhere around 30, a player will have to start doing more just to maintain, and, ultimately, it's always a losing battle.
So it's interesting to me to compare age 36 Ichiro with age 27-29 Ichiro. Granted, age 27 Ichiro didn't have any big league experience at all, but he made up for that over the next two years, and he was fresh off a completely dominant reign of offensive terror in Japan. Age 27-29 Ichiro - we'd expect that to be Ichiro at his best. By 36, we'd ordinarily expect some things not to work, and other things not to work as well.
When you look at the actual numbers, though, what's startling is the lack of evidence that Ichiro's actually gotten older like the rest of us get older. You don't see it in his batting average. From 2001-2003, he hit .328. In 2010, for a miserable team with absolutely zero offensive support, he hit .315.
You don't see it in his steals. From 2001-2003, he stole an average of 40 bases, with a success rate of 77%. In 2010, he stole 42 bases, with a success rate of 81%.
You don't see it in his games. From 2001-2003, he averaged 158 games and 730 plate appearances. In 2010, he played 162 games, with 732 plate appearances.
You don't see it in his defense. We don't have UZR for 2001, but from 2002-2003 he averaged a score of +14.6 runs in right field. In 2010, he posted a score of +15.6.
You don't see it in his infield hits. Again, we don't have data for 2001, but from 2002-2003 he averaged 38 infield hits. In 2010, he racked up 53 infield hits.
You don't see it in his double plays. From 2001-2003, he averaged five double play grounders. In 2010, he hit three double play grounders.
You don't see it in his bat control. One more time, we're without 2001 data, but from 2002-2003 he put up a contact rate of 87.2%. In 2010, his contact rate was 89.0%.
The evidence that Ichiro is getting older - it just isn't there. I mean, his overall numbers in 2010 were a little below what we've come to expect, but again, he was batting leadoff for one of the worst lineups in modern baseball history. Pitchers had little reason to give Ichiro much to hit, and Ichiro had every reason to try and do too much. He only hit six home runs, and he only slugged .394. Those are substandard marks. But in 2009 - leading off for a bad, but by no means historic lineup - he hit 11 home runs, and slugged .465. He was 35. You look at his 2009 numbers, or you watch him in batting practice, and it's plainly evident that he still has that surprising power he's always had.
Ichiro isn't completely ageless. He's sporting a few more wrinkles than he used to, although you probably shouldn't remind him. The game's a little more draining. Missing out on the playoffs is getting to him, and he knows he's running out of time to win a World Series.
But when you watch him on the field, he's just that same guy he always was. He still fights ridiculous pitches off. He still sprints out of the batter's box while he swings. He still puts the ball on the ground and runs like hell. He still throws harder than all but a handful of outfielders in the league. He still plays with the energy of a child and the maturity of an elder, and he still looks like he could play this game another 20 years. Maybe he will. Would anyone be surprised by anything Ichiro does anymore?
Happy 37th birthday to the biggest reason thestill remain popular. To a unique superstar in a pool of duplicates and approximations, and to one of the greatest pure players I've ever had the privilege of seeing. If only for today, Ichiro, I urge you to let baseball slip from your mind and enjoy whatever weirdass avant-garde futuristic shit you probably enjoy when you celebrate something. The galaxy clown isn't going to transmogrify the porcupine starship by itself.