Early in the year, looking at the UZR scores for the Mariners and seeing Milton Bradley with his ugly -40 Defense, and Ichiro, somehow competing with him at -30, and each week they released the new scores, Ichiro's negative number dropped a bit. It took until September to get under -10 if I remember right. I think Ichiro missed some gimme's early in the year that weighed heavily against him.
John Dewan published his Fielding Bible III, and he projects the 2012 Seattle Mariners to be the #2 defense in baseball. I think this article is in front of the pay wall, accessible to everybody.
Not only does he have the M's #2 of 30 teams, but he has them (and the Rays) wayyyyy out in front of the pack, comin' around the rail - the M's projected 32 runs saved are 50% more than the #5 defense in baseball, that being the Angels'.
This stops you short. UZR had them #17 last year, and Dewan also had them solidly mediocre, at +1 run saved defensively. What happened? We'll save the reverse engineering for tomorrow's article, but for the moment let's consider just one component of that 2012 defense.
Dewan figures Ichiro, in RF, to be a good defender in 2012, rather than the bad one that many defensive metrics said he was in 2011. Let's think about that for a second.
=== Ichiro 2001-2012 ===
Ever take an IQ test? How about an SAT? Ever just wish there was a petition you could sign against giving electricity to 'net rat Young Frankensteins with their intellectual pretensions?
Okay, in the right column, pick the number that doesn't belong. You have six minutes to answer this question (or to try to find a Japanese-subtitled video feed for the Hanshin games).
|Year||UZR runs saved / 150 gms|
|2007||played CF (career +7 there)|
Take your time. Which number is the outlier?
Q. Yeah, but maybe Ichiro's legs were hurting last year, or something. Maybe he's lost a step.
A. Ichiro has lost a step, actually two steps, compared to himself. But where does that leave him, compared to Nick Markakis, and Nick Swisher, and Lance Berkman, and the other right fielders against whom he's supposedly -7 runs defensively?
Here, check this table. It gives you the stolen base leaders among major league right fielders in 2011. Ichiro had 40 SB's last year; Nick Swisher had 2. Yet: Ichiro shows as a -7 runs right fielder, and Swisher as a +7 runs defender.
If Ichiro's legs were hurting, they didn't slow him down past Nick Swisher, I'll tell ya that.
BTW, Ichiro's legs weren't hurting. He does yoga, literally yoga, right in front of the stadium, right before every at-bat. But you probably knew that his legs weren't hurting, since he stole 40 (!) bases and was caught only 7 times.
Somebody asked Ichiro, how do you play, at your weight? He laughed and said, what is amazing to me, is watching the large players, and wondering how they move their bodies to do what they do.
Q. Yeah, Ichiro's the fastest RF except for maybe Justin Upton. But speed isn't everything defensively.
A. Right, there is technique, for which Ichiro is famous internationally. You wouldn't be able to find a scout who didn't label him "a clinic out there," and you don't figure that at age 36, he forgot how to read the spin on a sliced fly ball.
Look, we're having a sandlot game Saturday ... or workup, or a defensive baseball variant, or something. All the right fielders line up with their gloves. You're not taking Jayson Werth with your first pick as team captain. You're taking Ichiro. Maybe you're taking Upton; that's it.
Q. How does he wind up with a -7 on UZR?
A. Your guess is as good as mine. Certainly his range factors were down. The M's had weirdly good pitching from the rotation in 2012; maybe Ichiro was freaked out by the sight of batters whiffing against his team's pitching.
Maybe there's some statistical fluctuation, in which the little humpack liners were in the air 3.2 seconds average in 2011, rather than 3.4 seconds average in 2002-10, or something.
There were a few plays early on which Ichiro's eyesight seemed weird, or something, like four or five plays in the first half on which he didn't seem to see the ball well. This seemed to clear up in the second half.
It was a star-crossed year in a lot of ways for the lad. Maybe his karma was coming due to balance out 2001?
Q. Leaving us where?
A. Leaving us, as Mariner fans, with the only stolen-base king ever to play RF (Rickey and those guys didn't have the arm for it).
The Mariners have a right fielder who runs way faster than the right fielders for other teams. If it's random fluctuations in the batted balls, you figure them to normalize. If it's some sort of eyesight problem, you figure an adjustment.
In any case, Dewan has the M's going from #17 in defense last year to #2 this year. Ichiro doing better than -7 runs is one premise in that projection.
He's the least of our worries on defense. I think the projection for Ryan is unlikely in the extreme given his health problems (which he largely did not have while he was posting those massive numbers the last three years...at least not the back and neck problems)...but Ichiro will be a good fielder as long as he stays focused. I think he was off his game last year early on...didn't appear focused at the plate or in the field.
In the 13-8 rout, Ichiro made two tough plays, one in shallow center behind Ackley and one, almost impossible play behind 1st base. Without these two catches, the score could have been much worse.
Mostly in places that make it pretty inconvenient to play shortstop.
And, visually, despite Ichiro's obvious gaffes early in 2011, it's not like he was missing one ball every other game.
Which was the difference in his range factor: 2.3 to 1.8 in one year.
It's not possible for one outfielder to be 80 balls worse than another outfielder, same stadium, same pitching staff. If one marginal ball dropped in, every two games, the fans in the bleachers would be booing, within two weeks.
In fact that happened to Bradley, remember?
despite the whole lot of hurt.
Maybe he's just so quick and powerful, releasing the ball from deep in the hole, that he converts extra outs despite sore legs.
I'm going to have to disagree with the assessment of Ichiro on defense.
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. Did anyone not looking at the actual raw numbers notice this? Well, in April, when Ichiro was making ESPN low-light plays each week, it was noticeable. But as humans, we simply don't remember plays unless they look visually stunning, (good or bad), (which Ichiro's never have), or they happen to occur at a critical point in the game, (which Ichiro's April errors happened to do).
People accepted that Junior was fantastic, because he looked fantastic. People have accepted Ichiro as fantastic because the numbers have said he was fantastic. But, you cannot completely dismiss the numbers the instant they don't say what you want.
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'.
But, even accepting that 2011 was just a random down year ... in 2012, he is moving to #3 in the order. That's a huge change. Am I supposed to believe that moving to third in the order and being asked to become an RBI man is going to shore up his defense in some way? Because my thought is that he is going to be LESS concerned about defense in 2012.
Ultimately, here is what I believe. Ichiro is older. His body is simply not repairing itself as quickly as it used to. So, a steadily increasing number of games each year (from here on out), his body will enter the game with aches and pains that he simply did not have 3 or 5 years ago. For his bat, that means he'll be just the tiniest bit slow through the zone. For his glove, that means he'll be just a little bit slower to the ball.
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". But, I don't believe for one second that Ichiro is going to be on the bench for 30 games.
Assuming that "some" of 2011 was fluke ... I would still say that expecting Ichiro to be more than dead average is extremely optimistic. He is older. He showed decline in nearly every skill set, (SBs is about the only area the numbers don't support skill decline).
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.
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".
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 2011 was a fluke. Maybe Ichiro has a solid bounce back. But the one thing I am certain of is that Ichiro is not Benjamin Button. He isn't aging backwards. He is, in fact, a year older this year than last. And even if zero percent of last season's decline was age based - it is still an ever-growing probability that this year's performance will be.
This is not the same case as Griffey, where I am certain he's done. Ichiro is in great shape. He's an enigma making him hard to project and always has been. But, I think what gets to me most about discussions of aging is that Ichiro at age 38 is given a pass on age -- while Figgins at age 34 is viewed by most as beyond hope because he's too old to return to previous level.
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.
Now I admit it could have been a tsunami-induced funk last year, or a combination of that and a team-induced funk. But to me, whether age, or funk, or whatever, Ichiro simply declined last year.
Some are persuaded that it's an aberration. But if you look at the set produced to show it's an abberation, you cannot escape the fact that the aberration-season is the last season in the set. You can deny it is relevant in this case, but you cannot escape the fact. And you cannot escape that it corresponds with aging and losing a step. You can deny it portends further erosion of skills, or you can say that compensating skills will be developed, or you can say that Ichiro body-types will postpone serious age-decline by a number of years, but you cannot escape the fact.
2012 will be a very interesting season in this regard, that it will go a long ways towards either confirming or refuting the notion that Ichiro will defy normal aging and remain an elite or very good player for several years.
I think some admire Ichiro's unique skills so much that their fervor regarding him borders on the kind of religious devotion that is so intolerant of criticism that it simply must lash out at any critics as racists. Others just really believe he is himself so unique in his physique and skills, and so devoted to his game that he will overcome any obstacles.
Count me among the skeptics. To me, Ichiro is just not the player he was up through 2007. If you look at the set of his seasons, to me it's more easy to explain 2009 as the aberration among his recent years, and that 2008 (his first year slugging less than .400), 2010 (a near mirror of 2008), and 2011 (the first signs of serious decline, but affecting both offense and defense), three out of the last four years, are a trend, and one that corresponds with what we might expect for someone Ichiro's age.
Regarding stolen bases, a slower Ichiro is still a fast Ichiro compared to most MLB players, but we need to reckon with the fact that Ichiro seems to engage in stealing only in optimum situations (for his success rate, not the team), and that he rarely attempts to steal the tough base when game circumstances warrant the attempt but the odds of success are reduced.