Leandre: Ichiro Suzuki was Overrated

Sep 26, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners former outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) signs autographs for fans during batting practice against the Oakland Athletics while wearing a t-shirt honoring starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (not pictured) at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is going to go down in history as one of the best hitters this game has ever seen. Accumulating 4,367 hits between Japan and the United States, Ichiro has the most hits in the history of Major League-level baseball.

But was he overrated?

I came across this question for the first time on Wednesday afternoon from @GregBirdRBW on Twitter.

Even though I’m a Sabermetrics nerd, I dismissed this by saying, “You’re punishing Ichiro for playing too long.” But, as people do, I decided it would be best to do some research on the matter, and not getting blinded by counting stats such as batting average and hits.

So, I took a look at Ichiro’s 10-year peak as a Major League Baseball player, which was conveniently the first 10 years he played in the league. While Ichiro was busy leading the league in hits in nine out of those 10 seasons, he compiled a slash line of .331/.376/.430 (.806 OPS), as well as .348 wOBA and 115 wRC+.

Don’t pay attention to the batting average, though. Just look at the wOBA and the wRC+. While both of them are certainly above average, that’s all they are according to FanGraphs.

For reference, the list of qualifying players in the 2010s with a wOBA between .340-.350 and a wRC+ of 115 is as follows:

Aubrey Huff – (.340, 115)
Mark Teixeira – (.345, 115)
Kyle Schwarber – (.347, 115)
Curtis Granderson – (.341, 115)
Joe Mauer – (.343, 115)
Trey Mancini – (.346, 115)
Michael Cuddyer – (.352, 115)
Jorge Soler – (.345, 115)
Dustin Pedroia – (.348, 115)
Joey Gallo – (.355, 115)
Eugenio Suarez – (.349, 115)
Wilson Betemit – (.345, 115)

A list of very good ballplayers, but how many of them would you say are Hall of Famers?

Probably zero. At most, maybe two?

But that could just be a matter of coincidence. Aside from Pedroia, Cuddyer, and Mauer, that list is full of guys who prided themselves on hitting the ball out of the ballpark. It’s not fair to compare Ichiro to guys who hit 30-plus home runs a season.

I figured a good player to compare him to would be outfielder Kenny Lofton, whose lone year on the Hall of Fame ballot was 2013 before he got removed for receiving just 3.2 percent of the vote.

I decided it wouldn’t be fair to punish Ichiro by including any season after the age of 40, especially since Lofton’s final season was 2007, his own age-40 season.

Here’s how the two compare:

Lofton: 9,234 PA, .299/.372/.423 (.795 OPS), 109 wRC+, 62.4 fWAR, .352 wOBA, .124 ISO, 10.2 percent BB-rate, and 629 XBH
Ichiro: 9,663 PA, .317/.360/.411 (.771 OPS), 107 wRC+, 57.9 fWAR, .334 wOBA, .094 ISO, 5.8 percent BB-rate, and 533 XBH

That’s roughly the same sample size. Ichiro holds a significant advantage in batting average, but the rest of the numbers favor Lofton. One of them was off of the ballot after one season, and the other is likely going to be a first-ballot inductee.

Ichiro is no question a Hall of Fame player. However, people look at him and put him on a pedestal as one of the best hitters of all-time. But when you look at the numbers, there’s a lot of evidence that would indicate that the 45-year-old was just an above-average hitter who benefitted from luck through the duration of his career.

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