I’ve come to learn that the best way to get under a baseball fan’s skin is to tell him or her that a player that they love and feel is a great player, is merely very good. Man that gets peoples’ Wilson A2000’s in a bunch.
I’ve never understood this mindset. Hell, I wrote a blog about my favorite player (Donnie Baseball) who as it turns out wasn’t nearly as good as I thought he was. And to complicate things further, now he’s a God awful manager. That doesn’t mean being a very good player and a hell of a lot of fun to watch is a criticism. Players who are great for two decades are the exceptions, even among Hall of Famers. There’s only one Mays. There’s only one Rivera.
I guess at this point, there’s no need for a spoiler alert, as you see where I’m going with this. Analyzing and looking back on Ichiro’s career is a complicated task. Not like calculus complicated, but just with many items to consider.
Let’s get the non-analytical opinion out of the way first:
He was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. He played hard. He acted in a professional manner on and off the field. At his best, he was very good player in terms of his production. His impact on future generations on foreign born players can’t be quantified, but is obviously enormous.
He was also as unique of a player as I’ve ever seen. He was like watching Pete Rose at the plate, Dave Winfield in the outfield and Willie Wilson on the bases. I recall vividly, just prior to his arrival in MLB, the ESPN talking heads at the time asked Bobby Valentine – who had seen Ichiro play in Japan – what Major Leaguer was Ichiro most like. “Kenny Lofton?” they queried. Valentine responded with his usual condescension and said “Oh no, he’s better than Kenny Lofton.”
Arrogance, not listening to the question and being dead wrong: Three things at which Bobby V. was great. I digress…
But before we get too gushy, let’s look at how valuable a player he really was…or wasn’t.
Ichiro’s career was really a tale of two separate players. From 2001 through 2010, he was a very good player. From 2011 to 2018 he was useless on a baseball field.
These are two matters on which we need to be clear before moving on: A) He was very good – not great from ’01 to ’10. And B) Most players see their career averages drop by hanging on a little too long. Eight years of sub-par play isn’t a little too long – it’s way too long, and unfortunately is a factor in this discussion.
From ’01 to ’10 Ichiro averaged 224 hits, .376 OBP, OPS+ of 117, 5.5 WAR and nabbed an MVP, a rookie of the year award, 10 All Star appearances and 10 Gold Gloves.
That’s a very good player. But again, not great. Even at his peak, he was a tick above average as a base runner and a fielder despite the flash of speed and arm strength. (Seriously – being on base approximately 275 times per year and scoring an average of 105 runs isn’t a great ratio.)
And I won’t belabor it, but just to frame exactly how ineffective he was for the 8 seasons after that, consider:
From ’11 to ’18 he averaged a .310 OBP, .343 SLG, 83 OPS+ and .6 WAR per season. That is a very long stretch of very poor play. Basically for an eight season stretch he was the offensive equivalent of Cookie Rojas, Rich Dauer and Bill Russell…while playing a corner outfield position.
“Ignore the 2nd half of his career and look at his peak” you say? OK…
From 2001 to 2010 – Ichiro at his absolute best – among 56 players with 5,000 plate appearances, Ichiro is 27th in OPS+ (tied with Pat Burrell and a tick above Aubrey Huff).
“What about his base running and defense?”
For starters, if you play right field, you need to hit first, everything else second. If he were a catcher or short stop this would be a different discussion. That being said…
He was 15th in dWAR, among that group of 56. He also scored fewer runs than Johnny Damon over that stretch and only one run more than Bobby Abreu.
So even with cherry picking numbers from his peak against everyone else who may or may not have been at their peak from ’01 to ’10, he was a very good player, but not one of the best by any means.
Bottom line: If you have 3,000 hits, an MVP, Rookie of the Year, and 10 All-Star appearances, you’re going to the Hall of Fame. But as we’ve seen, those distinctions become more trivia than measurements of player performance every year. And I doubt you can name me a hall of famer who went an 8 season stretch with an average of 0.6 WAR per season.
Ichiro was a very good player. But his legacy should be more about how fun he was to watch and his impact on international players instead of being an all-time great, because he wasn’t.