As Ichiro Suzuki’s career winds down, his historical standing and Hall of Fame credentials will be closely examined, with traditional and newer analytics heading for a noteworthy clash.
Ichiro is a 10-time MLB All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, the all-time record holder for hits in a season (a ridiculously high 262 in 2004) and has a sparkling .319 career batting average. Accordingly, most fans regard him as a certain Hall of Famer, possibly a first-ballot inductee.
Modern analytics (sabermetrics), however, show a completely different picture: a marginal candidate for the HOF. Ichiro ranks 629th lifetime in career on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) and 1,095th (over the last 100 years) in fangraph.com’s weighted on-base average (wOBA is a derivative of OPS, which applies fractional valuations to walks and every type of base hit). That bears repeating: In a representative sabermetric batting valuation, Ichiro ranks 1,095th.
His best seasons weren’t much better by the newer criteria; his highest single-season OPS is not close to the top 500 of all time.
The challenge to Ichiro’s HOF credentials may seem absurd to his many fans but OPS is widely accepted as a valid statistic and wOBA just tweaks it. These statistics suggest that hitters with high batting averages but limited power and modest propensity to draw bases on balls (such as HOFers Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, and Tony Gwynn, as well as Pete Rose) have been overrated. These players best illustrate the difference between traditional (emphasizing base hits and batting average) and modern thinking (emphasizing reaching base safely and on-base percentage) about batting.
But there’s more to baseball than hitting. Ichiro was inarguably outstanding on the bases and in the field, and greatly admired for his all-around play.
Sabermetricians gauge overall performance with the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, which combines measures of hitting, baserunning and defense to yield a single cumulative value. WAR is not particularly reliable, but in this instance it tracks OPS. Ichiro ranked in the top 10 in baseball in WAR for a season (third in 2004) only once. His career WAR value ranks 124th for position players. This is much better than 629th or 1,095th, but there are more than 20 players significantly ahead of Ichiro in career WAR who have fared poorly in HOF voting and have no significant support for induction (e.g., Willie Randolph, Willie Davis, Sal Bando, Reggie Smith and Buddy Bell). Thus, a discrepancy remains between traditional and sabermetric evaluations of Ichiro.
We should also consider factors in HOF evaluations emphasized by Bill James: performances in pennant races and post-season play; comparisons with other HOFers or candidates; MVP and All-Star voting; significant intangibles; and notable contributions to the game.
Some of these criteria do not advance Ichiro’s candidacy. His rookie season MVP was his only year in the top five, and he was in the top 10 in MVP voting only three times — overall, an unspectacular MVP record. In addition, his post-season performance was brief (only two seasons and no World Series games) and lacks any memorable moments.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Kenny Lofton are close comparisons to Ichiro, and neither are serious HOF candidates (Lofton was named on a paltry 3.2% of HOF ballots last year). They were as fast and as accomplished base-stealers as Ichiro, and their slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS (Lofton .794, Ellsbury .789, Ichiro .775) are essentially the same. Ichiro had the strongest throwing arm but Ellsbury and Lofton were both solid fielders who played center field, a more important position than Ichiro’s right field. Ellsbury has a superior post-season record, including outstanding performances in two World Series and in the 2013 ALDS. All things considered, not enough separates the three players to advance Ichiro’s case.
Other considerations do support Ichiro. His unique style as a slap-hitter and his grace and élan captivated many fans. His courage in leaving Japan and his success in MLB accelerated the movement of talented players like Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara and more to come. He was an ambassador for the game. Perhaps he should also receive some credit for his play in Japan.
All of these factors, alas, do not seem definitive in either direction. In contrast, breaking the seemingly unassailable, all-time single season hit record seems the stuff of legend, the sort of rare accomplishment and contribution to the game’s history that should make a HOFer out of a borderline candidate.
But not so fast — from the sabermetric perspective, the same reservations that pertain to Ichiro’s entire career hold for the record-breaking 2004 season: few extra base hits (only 37), few walks (only 49), and a large number of outs (464). His 262 hits in a season is undoubtedly impressive, but had it occurred in 2013 when sabermetrics was more entrenched, it would have seemed less significant in the eyes of many.
Thus, Ichiro’s evaluation returns us to an elementary issue raised by sabermetricians: Were singles and batting average traditionally overrated?
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which votes on the HOF, clearly embraces traditional thinking, having twice voted Miguel Cabrera MVP over the sabermetric-favored Mike Trout. That suggests the writers will not pay heed to the re-evaluation of Ichiro’s numerous singles, and will induct him into the HOF.
However, sabermetrics continues to gain sway among managers, front offices, media and fans. Ichiro is at least six years away from formal consideration, during which time sabermetrics might yet infiltrate the BBWAA and regulate access to baseball’s Mecca. If that takes place, Ichiro’s induction, contrary to popular perception, might actually be in jeopardy. If he is denied induction, this would mark an important expansion of sabermetric influence and portend a change in future MVP and HOF voting.