Before this season started, I predicted a bounce-back season for Ichiro Suzuki. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. The pride of Japan had a fallow season in 2011 when he failed to reach 200 hits for the first time in his career and finished with a .645 OPS. After averaging over five fWAR per season for his career, he fell to just 0.2 last year and even his defensive metrics seemed to fall down. Most felt that age had finally caught up to Ichiro. But I figured it was just a bad year and he would come back strong this year. Boy was I wrong.
His defensive metrics are terrific this year. Which, of course, throws all kinds of strangled looks from this observer when it comes to those metrics. How can we trust them? What do they mean? It drives me crazy. After watching nearly every Yankee game and seeing Curtis Granderson run down every play in center, his defensive metric is like -50 or something by now. What!? But anyway, the fielding metrics say that this part of Ichiro’s game is back. Those metrics are single-handedly propping up Ichiro’s value equation. Fangraphs has him at 1.6 fWAR so far and Baseball-reference.com has him at 1.3. But if 2011 was a down year for Ichiro offensively, 2012 is much worse.
Well, let’s qualify that a bit. His OPS is actually ten points higher so far this season at .655 compared to last year’s .645. But that is largely due to this three homers propping his slugging percentage all the way up (yes, that is sarcasm) to .368. But as for his batting and on-base percentage, they are down, down, down. Last year’s .272 batting average and .310 on-base percentage were bad for him after a career that averaged .324 and .367 in those categories. But last year’s numbers look good compared to this year’s .256 batting average and .287 on-base percentage.
Ichiro was never one to take a lot of walks. His walk totals were propped up by opposing teams intentionally walking him at least fifteen times a season. He has only been intentionally walked twice this season and has eleven walks total. His career walk percentage is 6.1 percent. It is down to 4.5 percent. Pitchers are no longer afraid of Ichiro Suzuki.
Ichiro’s contact rate is actually the highest of his career this season. He has an amazing 93 percent contacts per swing this season. He is putting the ball in play. His strikeout rate is his lowest since his rookie season. And yet, his BABIP is sitting at .266. Is that bad luck or bad contact? He has a .183 batting average on ground balls this season. Compare that to his .297 career batting average on ground balls.
Is there any hope that Ichiro can recover this season and make my currently terrible-looking prediction come true? Well, his line drive percentage is up and is a healthy 24.3 percent, the highest of his career. His OPS on line drives is 1.667, just like it has been his entire career. Those ground balls can start finding more holes. He has a slightly better cast of hitters around him this season. The rather stupid experiment of batting him third is over and he is back to the lead off spot. So perhaps he can turn it around. There is two-thirds of the season left.
But as of right now, Ichiro Suzuki is following a down year with an even more down year. At the age of 38, perhaps he is succumbing to the laws of nature. He is on pace for 180 hits, which, without walks, are not enough to make him a valuable enough hitter for the Mariners. This is the last year of his contract with the M’s and you have to wonder what they will do…what he will do… There is time for him to turn his season around. But as of right now, the great Ichiro Suzuki is no longer great. It sure was a fun ride while it lasted.