I’m a Mariners fan, and like more Mariners fans, I just sort of assumed that Ichiro would never change. He’d never age, never decline. He’d just always be out there hitting .300 and manning right field forever. It was going to be awesome! Maybe once he hit 48 or something he’d transition into the bullpen and become a closer if he felt like it, but one way or the other, he’d be around. And then there was last season, and things changed, and Ichiro looked older, and it was all really quite a bummer. Last season was a season of lows for the future Hall of Famer. Ichiro posted his lowest career batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and BAPIP. His five home runs were a career low. He failed to surpass 200 hits for the first time in ever. His 0.2 fWAR total was the lowest of his career as well, his previous low mark being 3.4 in 2005. Not only did Ichiro underwhelm at the plate, he seemed to struggle in the field for the first time in memory. Usually an effortless Golf Glover, Ichiro seemed to be a step behind on his reads and routes as the season wore on. As a Mariners baseball game watcher, the typical response when a ball is hit to right field is “Oh, Ichiro’s got that.” He almost always did. Last season, balls began to fall in front of him that never had before. He failed to produce the spectacular catches we’d all taken for granted as routine. UZR bears this out as well. Since his introduction to MLB in 2001, Ichiro has graded out as a spectacular to above average fielder every season, until, you guessed it, 2011 when he posted his first negative run effort. Oh boy, this is all getting very depressing. Quick, look at this!
The good news for Ichiro and Mariners fans alike is that the 2011 season ended. It would have been peculiar had it not. We’ve all be treated to some time to clear our heads and now the 2012 season is about to start, fresh and anew. So what’s the deal? Does Ichiro await the typical fate and eroding skills most 38-year-old players experience or will he prove he’s a superhuman yet again and buck the trend? My vote is for a bounce-back, age defying performance. The guy stretches like crazy, so he’s probably way younger in body than the dates suggest. I seriously think he stretches for like thirteen hours a day. He probably hangs from a bar when he sleeps. The main reason for optimism regarding Ichiro resides in last season’s BABIP. His career low mark of .295 was drastically below his career mark of .351. Of course, once a player enters the twilight of his career we can’t expect him to continue posting insane BABIP numbers ad infinitum, but Ichiro was able to lay down a .353 mark as recently as 2010. Plus he’s a freak, and remember, all that stretching. Even if we just split the difference and figure for something in the .323 range, Ichiro will still see a positive spike over last year’s numbers. You might be thinking, Hey, but Ichiro gets so many infield hits due to his speed, and now that’s he’s all old and slow, I bet that’s why his BABIP took a dive. I apologize if I’m putting words in your brain, however, his 42 infield hits in 2011, while not his highest total, is also not his lowest, and falls somewhere pretty near his career average. It’s certainly not a number drastic enough to account for the huge dive altogether. No doubt Ichiro is aging, and his bat might be a tick or two slower, but he was still probably the victim of a bit of poor fortune last season, and there’s reason to believe he’ll be able to right the ship a bit.
There’s also the matter of Ichiro hitting third in the batting order this season, with a newfangled stance to go with it, no less. It’s almost impossible to predict how these changes will affect Ichiro’s performance, but I’ll venture to guess that he’s not about to start hitting .240 and make a run at the Home Run Derby. If we can rely on Chone Figgins for anything, the smart money would have Ichiro back in his customary lead-off spot before the All-Star Break. As for the swing adjustment, I’ll just have to trust the career .326 hitter to know what he’s doing. His speed and instincts on the basepaths also seem to have survived in tact, considering the 40 bags he swiped last season. The defense may not come back to the elite levels we’ve seen in the past, but no one expects another MVP campaign from Ichiro in his age 38 season. League average defense with an uptick in offensive performance would be just fine, thanks. Looking at the projection systems, it seems I’m being a bit optimistic. That’s alright with me, it’s so rare I’m accused of being optimistic that it’s sort of a thrill. I’m also a raging homer.
Steamer: .296/.338/.376, 6 HR, 29 SB
Bill James: .303/.347/.377, 7 HR, 32 SB
RotoChamp: .286/.327/.355, 5 HR, 32 SB
Marcel: .288/.329/.374, 7HR, 31 SB
ZIPS: .278/.317/.354, 6HR, 35 SB
The Homer: .310/.350/.385, 6 HR, 35 SB