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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Ichiro Suzuki and Higher Math

The Ichiro countdown is on. After slowing down a bit, he went 5-5 last night to increase his hit total to 243, just an astounding number (even if he gets a bunch of infield hits, including some on balls where David Ortiz would be out by a mile, and even if he hits for relatively little power, and even if he gets not that many walks for a leadoff hitter). Now Ichiro (who in some people's minds doesn't figure into the conversation as to who the top 10 outfielders in baseball are) needs 14 hits in 11 games to tie the record and 15 games to break it. And that feat would put him in rarefied air (that is, to the extent that you don't think he's already there).

Let's see. 11 games left, he's the leadoff hitter, so suppose he gets 4.25 at-bats per game, and let's round down to 46 at-bats total. If he hits .372 the rest of the way, he'll get 17 hits and 260 for the season. And the record. He needs to hit .304 the rest of the way (assuming 46 ABs) to tie the record and .326 the rest of the way to break the record by 1 hit. That's a close call.

It's funny how little respect he gets, if only because Barry Bonds, the best player of our time and one of the top 10 players ever (okay, he's probably in a more select group than that) gets maligned too. People don't like Barry because he's aloof, or because he's not nice, or because of the Balco scandal, or because of what they suspected he was ingesting before the Balco scandal. So while Bonds puts up all sorts of amazing stats, fans, even if they respect Bonds' accomplishments, don't get too excited because they don't like Bonds. And that's their right.

So here comes a guy, Ichiro, who hasn't done anything to offend anyone. He's throwback, hits like Wee Willie Keeler, plays in perhaps the city most remote from the East Coast, and he's even opened up the Japanese market for U.S. baseball and, along with a few others, helped pave the way for other Japanese stars to come to the U.S. He doesn't speak English, he doesn't hit for power, his OBP isn't overwhelming, you name it, they'll find a flaw. Take all of that stuff together, and fans have a middling attitude toward his accomplishments. But the stark irony is that he's a fine player, a good guy, or so it seems, and yet he gets penalized because he's not Barry Bonds, or at least he's not Barry Bonds statistically.

Be Barry, don't get love from the fans. Don't be Barry, and don't get love from the fans. Not an easy spot to be in, is it?

Which compels me to ask this question: if Ichiro gets close to this record, how compelling will the drama be for the average fan? Will the average fan care to watch every moment? Will the average fan get excited if Ichiro breaks the record? I don't think the average fan will show the excitement he did say 6 years ago when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris' record. After all, we're an "event" oriented, celebrity obsessed, society, and in the U.S. the home run record is about as big as it gets. And the fans liked the freckled strongman from California who hugged his son and the publicly good-natured Dominican outfielder who pressed all the right buttons. The players embraced the moment, and the moment embraced them, and quite easily at that.

That said, I think I'll give the average baseball fan a little more credit than to say he or she will yawn the way he and she did when Barry Bonds hit his 700th career home run. People will tune in, people will watch with interest, and people will be happy for Ichiro. Perhaps not demonstratively so, but they will applaud his accomplishment if he gets there. After all, the record has stood for 84 years, and a guy of average size, not that muscular, not aided or even rumored to be aided by modern chemistry, will be breaking the record. He may not speak English, but he speaks hitting, and that language should be good enough for American fans to get excited.

* * * * *

My comments on higher math pertain to an article in the most recent edition of "ESPN: The Magazine" which is clearly written for those with Ted Williams' vision or those under 25 because of the small print they use, smaller print, say, than which appears on the back of a ticket to a professional sporting event. In any event, the article focused on Billy Beane, and it created the inference that Billy Beane and his numbers crunchers have to examine new metrics to find valuable players because now the A's have competitors who are looking for the same "MoneyBall" types of players using stats similar to those that Beane and his former deputies, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, now the GMs in L.A. and Toronto, respectively, employed in Oakland when MoneyBall took root. Those competitors, are, of course, L.A., Toronto and Boston.

I can't begin to speculate as to the type of metrics that they're using, but here's one they should examine (and it may well be that someone's already doing this). First, I think that we'd all agree that Barry Bonds is more valuable than Ichiro Suzuki. More power, more walks, better OBP, more RBIs, etc. You know it in your gut. And there are numbers to bear out this opinion. But given that the GMs are looking for new metrics, and given that there are stat packages out there than can break down each one of a player's at-bats, how about looking at a hitter's total performance in terms of a) total bases, b) bases caused to be advanced (whether by walk, hit or out, and, sure, sometimes a player will get a break because an aggressive or fast baserunner ahead of him takes an extra base, but I'd argue that but for the batter's hit, that player wouldn't have gotten the chance for that base and, therefore, the hitter itself has to get credit for helping his teammate maximize his skills on the basepaths), and c) hitting with runners in scoring position late in a game when the game is on the line. In this fashion, you'll get an overall number, which, by appropriate weighting (which I haven't thought through at the moment), will tell you who the most valuable offensive players are across the board.

Perhaps the sabremetricians have already done this. Or some college math professor. Or some 15 year-old kid with a great ability on Google and a lot of time on his hands. If you read this and you have ideas, please let me know. The numbers don't tell everything, but as Billy Beane's proven, they do tell a lot.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And 4 hits again on Wednesday. 42 AB to go and 11 hits. That's .262, Tony Graffanino territory.

Even those who think that Ichiro is not necessarily one of the 10 best OFFENSIVE outfielders will be rooting for him. Would you want him on your team? Of course!

He seems like a very dedicated player, who plays game the right way as Larry Brown would say. I think he'd get more attention if he were (1) an outgoing English-speaking guy, (2) on a contending team and (3) not in the Pacific time zone. Also, hitting singles just isn't as exciting as a home run chase. 257 is not a number that kids hear growing up, like 61 (73?) or 714 (755?). Notice also that no one will ask for an asterisk if Ichiro takes more than 154 games to beat Sisler's mark.

When a guy hits .370+, he doesn't need a lot of walks to be a good lead off hitter. Last year, when he hit .312 with only 36 walks, he was not a valuable offensive player.

Of course, his aggressive swinging is one of the reasons he's in the hunt for the hits in a year record. (Sisler walked only 46 times in his record-setting year -- the same number that Ichiro has as of today.) If Ichiro had more walks, then he'd have fewer hits assuming the same batting average.

As for your question on a more all-encompassing stat, I don't have the time or inclination to go through sabermetric analysis as I once would have. I do recall a formula called base-out percentage that intrigued me. It essentially calculated the number of bases you earned (total bases from hits, walks, hit by pitch, stolen bases, etc.) per out used, including extra outs used for caugt stealing, grounding into DPs etc. It didn't get into the other baserunning stats, like credit for runners moved up or taking extra bases. These stats don't exist very far back, but as you say, there may be someone who comes up with something.

I also think it's harder to have faith in what the statistic tells you when you add more variables.

Until then, we can appreciate a guy like Ichiro who strikes out very little, takes the extra base, and does not ground into many DPs in a non-statistical way. After all, it's more fun to watch the games than just to read the box scores.


9:14 AM  

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