Ichiro Still Runs Real Fast


A reasonably-worded argument against Ichiro's defense as he moves into his late 30's.  And we give it the respect of a little point-by-point:

I think what happened is this.  In April, he was trying to get to stuff, failing, and showing up as a bad defender on ESPN.  So, as the year progressed, he recognized earlier that he wasn't going to be able to reach balls, and positioned for the rebound or cut-off.  Visually, he looks competent, but his actual outs remain well below average all season.  He was not getting to the same balls from May to October -- he was just doing so "prettier".

But, my final point is this.  Ichiro has never been a "dive for the ball" defender.  He relied on his speed and attention to allow him to get to so many balls that diving wasn't necessary.  IMO, this goes directly to the "embarassment" mentality.  He doesn't want to "look" bad in the field.  If that is indeed the case, then I would posit that the most obvious reaction to a minor decline in ability is a decline in urgency to get to the ball.

Good 'put amigo.  And for what it's worth, I also did see some balls that he was pulling up on, rather strangely.  Without a doubt, the factor that you mention, that played in.

The question is the proportion involved.  I remember when the blog-o-sphere predicted that Mike Cameron's loss would cost the Mariners 80 caught fly balls per season...


Yes, it IS possible for a guy to miss an extra 80 balls in a season and fans remain completely unaware. 

Here are the innings and total chances for Ichiro in 2010 and 2011:

  • 1412 - 365
  • 1333 - 274

Ichiro himself reached 91 fewer balls in 2011 than 2010.  

Well, sure, in terms of raw results.  His range factors were down by one ball every two games.  

That's what we stated right off, and then asked:  is it possible that this could be all the fielder's fault?  As opposed to an unusual number of "marginal" batted balls?

I don't even know if there ARE that many marginal batted balls in Safeco in right field.  One ball, every two games, that lands 3' away from an outfielder?  I think not.  Most games that I see, there are no balls that a Safeco right fielder has to run hard for, that he catches, whether it's the visitor or home RF.

Check it on Opening Day.  Tell me whether the RF has an uneventful day, or not.  Just watch that one game, and tell me whether a RF made (or missed) an exciting chance, or whether nothing much happened out in that area.

Only 2-3 balls per game are hit into that area at all, much less into the tiny space that give a RF a marginal chance.

80 marginal chances, last YEAR, that Ichiro would have made in 2010 but didn't in 2011?  No way in the world.  If that number were 30, it would be a miracle.


Even taking 2011 as an outlier, the previous maximum down-skew from average was only -7 -- (+11 to +4).  This was a skew of -18.  It was an outlier more than double his worse previous performance ever.  If he were only 32, perhaps you write it off as just a career bad year.  But at age 37, you simply have to factor in age.  The fact his fielding *AND* hitting both tanked so badly in 2011 suggests 'cause' more than 'fluke'.

If age 37 is the problem, then we should see this catastrophic physical decay --- > reflected in his SB's and speed scores, right?

The guy is now 37.  He's now slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter, but ... he did steal bases at a 40-and-7 clip.  

Is it even possible for a player of truly mediocre footspeed to steal 40/47 bases?  Could Jay Buhner, let's say, possibly have stolen 40 bases without running 100 times?

Both the SB rates, and the eye from the third deck, confirm that Ichiro still runs extremely well.  He can run much, much faster than Jayson Werth or Nick Swisher can.  


I always wonder whether people actually watched Ichiro, in 2011, tear around second base on a single and stroll into third.  Did you watch him run the bases?  Have you watched Nick Swisher run the bases lately?

Here is the list of RF's again, sorted by SB.  You sit in the 3rd deck and JUST WATCH!  And tell me whether Jeff Francoeur can go 1B-to-3B like Ichiro does.

It's like presenting statistics that say Andrew Bynum can get down the court faster than Steve Nash can.  You know what?  If that's what the stats say, the stats are wrong.  If the stats say that Ichiro, right now, runs slower than Nick Markakis, the stats are wrong.

Yes, you have to take his age into consideration at 37.  But you had to consider it at age 36, too, didn't you?  At age 36, Ichiro had a tremendous year defensively.  Wasn't he old at 36?


But, the real key here is that wear and tear accumulates.  At age 34, Ichiro's body could repair daily damage from exertion.  It is unlikely that it still does.  You give him 30 games off and do away with day games after night games and allow his aging body enough time to recover from pro-level effort ... and he might very well be able to run a +7 "rate".  

If I'm projecting Ichiro defensively for 2012 - I peg him for dead average.  I think that factors in regression to the mean plus his continued aging.  The big variable for 2012 I see is whether his move in the lineup becomes a detriment to his defense.  In the end, I think the move to 3rd in the lineup will ultimately get all the attention.  If my guess there is correct, (that the increased desire for RBI and power will negatively impact his BABIP), then the OPS+ dropping to 90 or below as the year unfolds will render the defensive questions moot.

Which is actually middle ground, in a way.

If Ichiro is an average defender in RF in 2012 ... if the elderly and infirm Ichiro can run no better than Swisher, well ... that's +1 WAR to his contribution.

It's certainly possible that Ichiro will be middle-of-the-pack defensively, even though the pack consists of Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, and Jayson Werth.  But if he is, that IS a big rebound for him.

Somehow, UZR and range factors told us that the 2011 Ichiro was slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter.  But UZR and RF were wrong.  Ichiro, in his late 30's, still runs real fast.



Do not count who is in fielding center.
You should have watched bottom of 5 against Giants with Figgins at center less than 2 outs and runner at 3rd.
There was a fly ball just in front of Figgins. But Ichiro run all the way from right to catch the ball and throw a strike to catcher.
If Figgins get some time (I hope not so much) Ichiro's UZR and range  factor will go up. I am sure of that.


Fangraphs has Ichiro BIZ (Balls In Zone) which I'm pretty sure is a static 1/3 of the outfield, and plays made, plus OOZ (Out Of Zone) plays.
BIZ:  281, Plays:  260, OOZ:  95
BIZ:  190, Plays:  178, OOZ:  85
That looks like fewer balls were hit anywhere near him.

IcebreakerX's picture

Yeah, just one game. But he nearly shot down an overzealous runner at second after a single to right and he also kept the bases loaded on what would have been a sac fly for lesser Right Fielders (as mentioned above by Dr. Naka).
I think we'll see a return to grace for the man this year.


And your numbers do jibe with Fangraphs' site ... 
... then I need an explanation as to how Ichiro had a +14 runs score in 2010, and a -7 runs score in 2011.
If he got to 94% of balls in zone last year, vs. 92% the year before ... and if his Out Of Zone (OOZ) count was higher (proportionally) in 2011 than in 2010 ... how could the UZR be worse?
I don't understand the UZR calculations, obviously.  In 2004, he got to only 71% of balls in zone, and had only 35 OOZ plays.  Yet his UZR was +19 runs.


and one thing I do understand, is that 2011's out-of-zone plays were EXACTLY the same, pro-rated, as were his 2008-10 plays.
Sandy, or somebody, will have to explain to me how he got catastrophically slower, but this loss of footspeed was not reflected *at all* in his OOZ count.
One thing though:  the fans did drop his footspeed, first step, and instincts down from "great" in 2001-10 to "good" for 2011.
UZR does have its glitches, and you're looking at one here.  -7 runs defensively, compared to Swisher, Francoeur, Werth, et al?  No possible way.


1) My point about the 91 catch decline was not to say the decline was all Ichiro's fault.  My point in regard to that stat was that said decline is completely and totally invisible to the casual fan.  Without stats, no fan can "tell" the difference between a 200 vs. 300 catch season for any RF. 
2) If age 37 is the problem, then we should see this catastrophic physical decay --- > reflected in his SB's and speed scores, right?
No.  It is a different skill set.  Not every fast base runner is a good defender and vice versa.  How many SBs did Guti get in 2009 when he was running a 2.9 defensive WAR?  Barry Bonds had 7 steals without getting caught at age 38 -- and was 5 for 5 at age 42.  Yes, Ichiro is still fast.  But, he is also very, very smart.  He can probably "think" his way to an extra 15-20 steals a year - if he's motivated.  IMO, his poor offensive and defensive numbers were in fact a motivating force that made him more aggressive in regards to SBs.  His 262 hit year was one of his worst in terms of total SBs, (only 36 stolen - and caught 11).  It is important to remember that in addition to his defensive collapse, his infield hit total swooned also. 
The longer term look - in regards to speed - look at his 3B totals starting at age 31:
2005 - 12
2006 - 9
2007 - 7
2008 - 7
2009 - 4
2010 - 3
2011 - 3
The only season in his first 5 with less than 8 triples was 2004 - his 262 hit year.
My real point here is that Ichiro can still be fast ... but still suffer defensively.  But, as is normal with HoF caliber players, Ichiro *can* (and did) adjust to his aging where he can.  The arena where he has the most control over chances is SBs.  He doesn't control how many balls are hit to RF.  He does largely control how often and in what conditions he attempts SBs.
3) Utlimately - while I do expect all things being equal, 2012 would "normally" be an excellent candidate for a bounceback season for an aging superstar, I see many variables working against Ichiro in this regard - mostly psychological:
Unwillingness to look foolish -- goes counter to defensive rebound
Move to 3rd in order - goes counter to BABIP rebound
Unwillingness to rest -- exacerbates issues with aging
Distate for walks -- limits arenas for late career adjustment
Many greats who start declining extend their careers by becoming more selective.  They have the experience to know what they can hit "well" - so they start holding up on borderline swings they might have taken in the past.  Ichiro has a unique distaste for walking.  I believe the RBI slot in the lineup is more apt to enhance his weaknesses.  More men on first will cut down on infield hits - reduce his SB opportunities - and encourage him to try and get hits rather than draw walks.  The change in lineup will also draw most of his attention, thereby naturally suppressing concentration and conern about his defensive performance.
The subtle truth about Ichiro is this --- he has been staving off decline by utilizing his speed.  For his career, Ichiro has 569 infield hits out of 2428 total hits.  That's 23.43% of his hits have been infield hits.  As a rookie: 23.96%.  In his 262 year: 21.75%.  But, his two biggest seasons for infield hits were 2009 and 2010: 
2009 - 63 of 225 = 28.0%
2010 - 64 of 214 = 29.9%
In 2011, it was 42 of 184 = 22.82%
He was HIDING his age-releated decline by accentuating his speed.  That's precisely what hall of famers do.  Except, his speed didn't save him in 2011.  He has GIDP in 5% of chances for his career.  It was 12% in 2011. 
He has lost a step.  But, in SBs ... he can use experience and guile to overcome that.  What he cannot do is get that step back on grounders.  He might be able to get 'some' of that step back in the OF, if he had room to better position himself, or 'cheat' in certain situations.  But, he was likely maxed out with reading and positional skills before the decline, (precisely why he was the best RF around). 
My sense is that while a 'typical' Hall of Famer at this age could access some unused optimizations, I think Ichiro is almost unique in the psychology that underlies his skills.  He can't improve his conditioning routine at age 38, because his conditioning has always been top flight.  He cannot be more selective at the plate, because it simply is too far removed from his basic psychology of what "success" is at the plate.  He cannot 'try harder' in the OF, because he spent his career maximizing every other aspect of defense to be great - and is inately opposed to "effort" based defense, (diving for balls).
In the end, where other great hitters could "tweak" their way to an extra few years, I think Ichiro, being the consumate tweaker is more likely to be limited.  He's been tweaking all along to maximize his production.  That limits the doors to open that might stem the tide of age.  This is why I think he tried - and abandoned - the Ackley swing. 
I'll be more than happy if I'm wrong.  I used to make hay each year drafting bounce back years from aging players in fantasy ball in the mid-rounds.  In Ichiro's case specifically, I think his psychology - coupled with the move in the lineup - both work against his odds of having a 'major' bounce.
I think his upside this year is a 100 OPS+, with something in the low to mid 90s the likely result, (which is better than last season, but still not good).  And I think his ceiling for 2012 is probably +7 runs, while his bottom is probably -7 runs.  That would put expectation at roughly zero.  Still competent.  Better than replacement level, but an aggregate of something like 1.0 offensive WAR and 0.0 defensive WAR.  I think his "upside" might be 3.0 WAR ... but his likely is closer to 1.0.

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