Tuesday, 6 December 2011

I've been away from here a few days.

I'm not going to be able to go down to Kansas City for the Mariner games this week, as I'm going back to school on Sunday anyway. Which means this series came a week too early for me. Regardless, it will be good to finally watch a whole Mariners series on live television, rather than an internet video broadcast.

Ichiro, currently in the midst of a season which will likely be his best yet, has taken the criticisms that he was slowing down with age, and shoved them write back in everyone's face. And, like any person who is forced to eat their words, but doesn't have the guts to say "I was wrong," many critics are firing up the Ichiro backlash once again. Faced with undeniable evidence that Ichiro is a valuable offensive player, many people are coming up with biased statistical formulas and other inane tactics to discredit Ichiro's value.

Great. Can't you guys just let us have one good thing this season? We get shot down by everyone who says Edgar shouldn't be a Hall of Famer... Including idiots like Phil Rogers who claim Edgar doesn't have much offensive value, and puzzling statements from Jayson Stark, saying that before Edgar gets in, some more relief pitchers should get in first... Now you're going to begrudge us this one chance at history in an otherwise dismal season? What are you going to give us, Justin Upton? Or are you going to complain that we're drafting a high schooler?

Now we've got Ichiro, with some pretty good offensive numbers, including an OBP of over .400 (14th in the majors), getting stuck in a list with some pretty god-awful hitters. I don't like to diss other bloggers, but in this case I can't help it. There's a "study" on a couple of blogs, Mike's Baseball Rants is one of them, that sets the paramaters to include Ichiro's least desirable characteristics, notably his low walk-rate and high singles-rate, and ignore his valuable characteristics, notably his high contact rate, low strikeout rate, high batting average, and high on-base percentage.

In other words, the study is pure, 100%, grade A bullcrap.

They could have said that Ichiro's value was mostly his ability to hit singles, his speed, and his defense. But instead, they made a study that set the paramaters to include the worst of the worst. Players like Ozzie Guillen, whose career OPS+ was 69. Ichiro's, by the way, is 121. Players like Juan Pierre (81), who couldn't even hit for power in Colorado. They set the paramaters to include a list of players so bad, that any reasonable person could look at the list and say, "wow, those guys really suck." Fortunately, a reasonable person also would conclude that Ichiro is far more valuable than any of those players.

And it's where we reach the fundamental misconception in sabermetrics today.

The offensive value of a player is not measured in his ability to draw a walk. It is measured in his ability to get on base, and, in doing so, help his team score runs.

Tony Gwynn's 162 game avg: 617 AB, .338/.388/.459, 209 H, 36 2B, 6 3B, 9 HR, 21 SB, 52 BB, 29 SO, 283 TB, .306 EQA
Ichiro's 162 game avg: 696 AB, .334/.379/.439, 233 H, 30 2B, 8 3B, 9 HR, 41 SB, 46 BB, 64 SO, 306 TB, .299 EQA

There's an inherent problem in comparing these two stat lines, obviously, as Gwynn has a long, Hall of Fame career, and began his career earlier than Ichiro. Ichiro is just finishing his fourth season.

This contention, however, that Ichiro will somehow be relegated to the Japanese leagues by the time he is 35, is absolutely baffling, and it's difficult for me to find much of an explanation for it, other than a bunch of stat geeks thinking that their way is the only right way. This attitude of contempt the sabermetric community has to tools scouting and "tools" players is absolutely ridiculous.

Speed stays with a player a long time. The idea that, in 5, or even 10 years, Ichiro's going to be reduced to Edgar Martinez on the basepaths is pretty laughable. Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, and others got larger as their careers progressed. Ichiro's 30 years old, and 160 pounds.

Ichiro's predecessor in the leadoff spot, Rickey Henderson, stole 31 bases for the M's in 2000, at a near 75% success rate. He was 41 that year.

Ichiro will never display the kind of power statistics we're used to seeing from a corner outfielder. That's fine. If the Mariners were smart, they'd put him in centerfield, instantly giving them one of the best centerfielders in all of baseball. Anyone who wants to dispute that fact is free to look it up.

He's probably the most unique player in baseball. He's on a Hall of Fame career path. He's overrated by the media, underrated by the statheads, adored by the fans, and has become an icon. The phenomenon is not without merit.

And, despite all of the criticism, the facts remain very clear: Ichiro's one of the top 15 offensive performers in baseball this season. No one's talking about him for MVP. The ship sailed on that one some time around April, when the M's were off to their worst start ever. He is the best leadoff hitter in baseball. To claim that Ichiro is a "lousy hitter," as one of these studies did, or that he is like Alfonso Soriano (thus ignoring the whole strikeout issue), is missing the point by a mile and a half. He's one of the most exciting players in baseball, he clearly can hit the ball, run, field, throw... Hell, if he were a centerfielder, I doubt any one of you would have a problem with it.

Ichiro won the 2001 MVP award because he was viewed as the leader of a team that won 116 games. You want to blame the writers for that? Fine. Go right ahead. But the bitterness that comes across, to this day, about that 2001 award, is not extended to players like Miguel Tejada or Juan Gonzalez, who robbed Alex Rodriguez of MVP awards in 2002 and 1996, respectively.

Ichiro's going to be making a run at 257 this year. If you can't acknowledge that as an accomplishment, then perhaps you need to find a new line of work.

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