It's possible, I think, to take some solace in Ichiro's numbers.
Not the surface numbers. Obviously not the surface numbers. The surface numbers are the whole problem. Ichiro has the same batting average as Adam Lind. He has the same on-base percentage as Lyle Overbay. He has the same slugging percentage as Jordan Schafer. Throw in defense and baserunning and it all adds up to...well WAR isn't a surface number, but according to Fangraphs, Ichiro presently has the same WAR as Eduardo Nunez and Aaron Hill.
So, no, there's no taking solace in Ichiro's surface numbers. But if you dig a little deeper, if you look at the numbers behind the numbers, you might be a little encouraged.
Ichiro, right now, has a groundball rate of 59%. That's above his career average of 56%, but it's below where he was in 2004, when he set the single-season hits record.
Ichiro, right now, has a contact rate of 91%. That's a little above his career average, and equivalent to what he did in 2004 and 2008.
Ichiro, right now, has an unintentional walk rate of 4.1%. That is right on his career average.
Ichiro, right now, has a strikeout rate of 8.3%. That is below his career average of 9.2%, and his best mark since 2004.
Ichiro, right now, has a pull rate of 18%. That is just a hair below his career average of 19%.
And Ichiro, right now, has a batting average on balls in play of .286. That is way below his career average of .352, and it's his lowest mark by 30 points. Last year, he finished at .353.
If you limit your understanding of Ichiro to what it says on his FanGraphs and Baseball-References pages, you come away thinking that he's just mired in an unsustainable slump. A slump fueled by an inexplicably low BABIP that's due to rise. Sure, the slump has lasted a while, but we've seen them last longer. There was Nick Swisher's 2008. David Ortiz's 2009. Aramis Ramirez's 2010. Strictly statistically, Ichiro's BABIP looks absurd given his history and the fact that his speed appears intact, and one would expect his numbers to improve considerably, even if his power's a little down.
That's great. That is exactly the way I would analyze a player on another team. If Ichiro played on another team, I would look at his numbers for a few minutes and conclude that, yeah, he's probably going to be a lot better beginning any day now. Sure, he's 37 years old, but he was fine at 36 and fine at 35, so age would be but a minor consideration.
But Ichiro doesn't play on another team. He never has. He's always played for the, and because he plays for the Mariners, we've been able to watch him almost every night. That gives us additional information - observational information. Visual information that, at least in theory, we can use to supplement his numbers.
And I think the thing about 2011 Ichiro is that, to the human eye, he's just looked so bad. The confidence that used to be there is gone. We've seen a lot of lousy swings. We've seen a lot of lousy grounders. We've seen a lot of lousy pop-ups. What we haven't seen is the old Ichiro magic. There have been flashes, certainly - in April, and immediately after the one-game benching - but more recently those occasional flashes have only served to remind us of what has not been consistently there.
Ichiro hasn't driven the ball. He hasn't hit his sharp grounders. We've seen a few power swings, but they haven't actually done much. In short, Ichiro hasn't looked like Ichiro. He's looked like a pretty bad hitter. He hasn't even looked great in the field, which doesn't help anything. In the field, he's looked slower.
That's something that doesn't come across in the statistics. The stats paint the picture of a guy who's hitting the ball and running more or less like usual, only hitting into more outs. Nothing about Ichiro seems usual to the eye.
Given that, the temptation is to shift Ichiro's future projections down a level or two. Because he's looked so bad, we have less confidence that he'll rebound than we would if we just pulled up his player page instead. We want to use the visual information to supplement the statistical information, and the visual information is discouraging.
So here's the big question, or I guess the big questions: is the visual information, or at least our interpretation of the visual information, actually accurate? Is it worthwhile? Is it objective? Is it possible that we're too close? Do we believe too much in our eyes and too little in the numbers? Is this just what an unsustainable BABIP slump looks like while it's happening?
I don't have the answers, to any of those. There are times when it helps to be a fan, and times when it does just the opposite. I don't know how the Ichiro situation is going to work out. My eyes tell me to be pessimistic, but I don't know if I can trust them. The numbers are better. I want to trust the numbers instead.
I guess nothing that happens from here on out would come as a surprise. If it turns out that Ichiro's finished as a contributing player, it'll be sad, but the decline was inevitable. If it turns out that Ichiro goes mostly back to normal for a while, then this is a blip, and Ichiro's just Ichiro. And if it turns out that Ichiro starts batting .380 and/or mashing 40 home runs a season, we'll all look back on this summer as being the summer we doubted a tried-and-true wizard like a bunch of God damned idiots.