Ichiro Suzuki, despite his standing as one of the greatest, most beloved and longest-lived Mariners in team history (he would have passed Edgar Martinez for the team lead in career plate appearances had he played out the 2012 season, and got 1200 more PA there than Ken Griffey, Jr. did), had worn out his welcome during the team’s recent, especially lean years. He’d grown sullen, selfish, uninterested. In fact, he’d become kind of a jerk.
Then the Yankees came calling; Ichiro was suddenly back in a pennant race, and was revitalized, rediscovering his prime-years self at age 38. Even after a pedestrian 1-for-5 in Sunday’s loss (though he did throw in his 27th stolen base) broke a string of six straight multi-hit games, Ichiro is hitting .331/.347/.481, which falls pretty well in line with the .333/.378/.434 he put up during his stateside prime from 2001-09.
So Ichiro is back with a contender, back in the spotlight, and back to his old self, or so the narrative goes. As Michael Schur/Ken Tremendous put it:
Ichiro’s OPS through 56 games with the Yankees is .849. He has had an OPS of .849 twice in his career. He is about to turn 39.
— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) September 23, 2012
Well, we’re not big fans of narratives around here, and while I love Ichiro and wish him nothing but success (even on the Yankees), this one struck me as quite the stretch.
Ichiro has had 193 PA in pinstripes (188 when Schur tweeted that). That’s less than a third of a season’s worth, and by the standards of Ichiro’s career as an unreasonably healthy leadoff hitter, it’s more like a quarter of a season. His line for the season is still just .283/.309/.393, well below average for a corner outfielder. Sure, it might be that he was so miserable in Seattle that he just stopped trying, or forgot how or something, and that that explains how he put up a .642 OPS in Seattle in 2012 (and .645 in 2011) and has topped that by nearly 200 points in New York.
But whatever his perceived or actual faults in Seattle, Ichiro has always been known as an intense, fierce competitor (as, I think, are the vast majority of professional athletes), and one who jealously pursues and protects his own personal statistics and achievements. It’s simply not plausible to me that a guy who has spent his whole life like that would suddenly be unable to motivate himself to play baseball well, simply because he’s playing for a bad team or sparse crowds, because he doesn’t like his teammates or owner or manager, and so forth.
He’s not a guy who’s ever needed something to play for, and he’s got 3000 MLB hits to play for, among other things, and it’s not like he’s been faking injuries or taking unnecessary time off — his 475 games played since 2010 are tied with Prince Fielder for the most in baseball.
If Ichiro could have put up better numbers in Seattle over the last two years than he did, I feel confident in saying that he would have put up those numbers. Isn’t it more likely that Ichiro is playing with the same amount of energy and effort as ever, but is just having a pretty good 200 PA or so?
Well, I took a look, and it turns out that in virtually every year of his career, Ichiro has had a stretch of a similar number of plate appearances in which he’s played well above his overall season numbers, most of them considerably better than his current Yankees numbers; we just didn’t notice, because he didn’t change uniforms right before the streak started. Behold:
2001: July 28 to September 22 (.406/.440/.471 in 204 PA). An enormous multi-national rookie sensation almost from day one, Ichiro’s star had actually started to wane a little bit, his average falling to .325 and OBP to .357 before this incredible streak started. This was his Rookie of the Year and AL MVP year, of course, and he had also hit .380/.403/.525 in 186 PA from April 6 to May 17.
2002: April 16 to June 6 (.406/.473/.497 in 204 PA). In early or mid-June 2002, you could be forgiven for thinking Ichiro was set to completely dominate the next decade, Ty Cobb style, rather than settle in as the merely-great player he became. It wasn’t exactly a slow start prior to April 16, and by the end of this streak, he was hitting .384/.454/.478 in 57 games on the year. He fell off quickly after that, though, hitting only .287/.349/.395 over his final 100 games, and the Mariners, 37-22 and two games ahead in the AL West as of June 6, went 56-47 the rest of the way and finished ten games behind the Moneyball A’s (and six behind the eventual world champion Angels).
2003: May 9 to June 24 (.425/.454/.603 in 184 PA). The disappointment of the end of 2002 continued through the first 33 games of 2003; on the morning of May 9, Ichiro was hitting .272/.331/.346. Then he went on one of the best forty-game stretches of his career, ending June 24 with a .358/.399/.490 line. Those 40 games made his whole season, as he hit just .274/.312/.390 the rest of the way, yet ended with a solid .312/.352/.436 for the year.
2004: July 18 to August 31 (.476/.505/.614 in 201 PA). This was his best season by any measure, the one in which he batted .372 and set the all-time single-season hits record with 262. So it’s fitting that his best 200 PA would come in this season, too. He was actually kind of ho-hum over the first half or so — .319/.366/.394 through July 17 — before going on this unbelievable tear. You can make it look really silly if you shrink the sample even further. He batted .534 over twelve games from July 18 to 29, and hit .508/.536/.636 in 29 games and 141 PA from July 18 through August 17.
2005: April 4 to May 16 (.346/.401/.494 in 172 PA). That’s how Ichiro started 2005. He then hit .246/.266/.347 over his next 174 PA and saw his average dip to .294 on the season, before salvaging his season with a more typical .312/.365/.452 in his final 363 PA.
2006: May 22 to July 2 (.411/.464/.571 in 181 PA). The 106 OPS+ made it his worst season to date, and it would’ve been a lot worse without those six weeks or so; he hit .314/.367/.382 before the hot streak started, and .284/.325/.361 after, in a season in which, even adjusting for Safeco Field, a league-average hitter hit .272/.336/.436. He hit five homers during that hot streak, the same number he’s shocked everyone by hitting with the Yankees this season (but without the benefit of Yankee Stadium).
2007: May 15 to June 30 (.426/.471/.511 in 208 PA). It was a relatively slow start (.767 OPS entering the hot streak), but a great early summer propelled Ichiro to one of his better overall offensive seasons (.351/.396/.431).
2008: May 17 to July 3 (.339/.402/.390 in 200 PA). This is the first year of only two in which I can’t find a stretch that’s significantly better than his current performance with the Yankees. He got off to another, much slower start (.688 through May 14), hit well but with no power during this streak, then went .316/.359/.395 over the last 77 games. His overall 102 OPS+ was his worst until last season.
2009: May 31 to July 19 (.385/.418/.511 in 196 PA). Great offensive year beginning to end for the now-35-year-old Ichiro. He was hitting .346 when the streak began, and if you extend the streak out to August 7 (275 PA), he still hit .382/.410/.490. He ended it with the second-highest batting average (.352), third-highest OBP (.386) and highest SLG (.465) of his career.
2010: April 16 to June 6 (.383/.437/.473 in 208 PA). It looked like Ichiro was going to carry 2009′s momentum right through 2010, but he hit a huge slow streak after this (.269/.318/.356 over his next 334 PA) and ended with a comparatively disappointing 113 OPS+.
2011: August 19 to September 21 (.308/.344/.427 in 155 PA). Okay, so 2011 was an all-around suckfest for Ichiro, the worst season of his career, and the second for which I can’t find a stretch comparable to or better than his Yankee numbers. He had a solid month in there, though, one that probably compares pretty closely, once you adjust for the difference between Safeco and Yankee Stadium, to what he’s done as a Yankee.
So: you can say that Ichiro seems rejuvenated, and you can say, as Howard Megdal did a few days ago, that “The Yankees are getting peak-level Ichiro Suzuki, even though he is now 38.” Just, please, don’t do it without noting that hitters have peaks and valleys like this without a convenient explanation almost every single year. Ichiro certainly has. And please also note that Ichiro established that peak level, over full seasons, by putting together streaks of lengths similar to his Yankee career to date, in both his great seasons and his comparatively poor ones, in which he was much better than he has been so far with the Yankees.
Ichiro has been very, very good — surprisingly so — and he’s been instrumental in keeping the Yankees from falling behind the Orioles (still so weird to type that) in the AL East. None of this is to take away from all that stuff that actually happened; we just shouldn’t be so quick to attach too much significance to it, or to assign reasons for it. These are things that happen; in this case, it turns out, it’s happening for the Yankees at the best possible time. Here’s what Megdal (in the piece linked above) had to say about it:
This was exactly the resurgence the Yankees were hoping for, and not without cause. Great players don’t usually cease being great all the time; they simply do great things less frequently, driving down their overall numbers. The Yankees needed Suzuki to play like peak Suzuki for a couple of months. Now, with the playoffs near, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
I really like that, as long as you don’t give the Yankees too much credit for the resurgence actually happening. They made a pretty smart, low-risk gamble, and for now, they’ve won.