Baseball by the numbers: Ichiro great, but not generation’s best
BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI For Sun-Times Media September 2, 2013 10:24PM
Updated: September 2, 2013 11:18PM
At age 39, Ichiro Suzuki is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career as he and the Yankees take on the White Sox tonight and tomorrow. With 2,729 career hits, including 123 this season, 3,000 is possible, but not certain, within two years.
He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer, without even considering the hits in Japan that pushed his total as a professional past 4,000. In an MLB career that began in 2001, his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 218 is more than double the 100 that indicates a likely Hall of Famer. With seven times leading the American League in hits, a major-league record 262 hits in 2004 and a .320 career batting average, Ichiro is a near-certainty as soon as he becomes eligible for election.
Has he been the best hitter in baseball? That’s a different story.
Ichiro’s primary offensive value has been the ability to hit singles. With extra-base hits in 5.6 percent of plate appearances, he’s below the major-league average of 7.9 percent during his career, and he’s homered once per 76.9 at-bats, compared to once per 33.1 for the average major-leaguer. He’s walked in 5.9 percent of his plate appearances; major-league average is 8.4 percent.
One bottom line figure that takes all that into account is runs created per game. It starts with the Bill James formula for runs created: (H + BB - CS + HBP - GIDP) x (TB + (.26 x (HBP + BB - IBB))) x (.52 x (SH + SF + SB)), all divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH + SF). It’s then pro-rated per 27 outs to calculate RC/G.
In Ichiro’s best season, the 262-hit explosion and .372 average in ’04, Baseball-Reference.com shows his RC/G as 7.9. That means a lineup of nine Ichiros would be expected to score 7.9 runs a game. That would win an awful lot of ballgames.
Was that the best in the AL? No. The Indians’ Travis Haffner hit .311 and layered on 72 extra-base hits, including 28 homers, compared to Ichiro’s 38 extra-base hits with nine homers. Nine Hafners would have beaten nine Ichiros 9.1-7.9. In the NL, Barry Bonds was at 22.0, but Bonds was in a different baseball universe at the time.
On a career basis, Ichiro’s RC/G has been 6.0, again a figure any team would love to have. Albert Pujols, who also broke into the majors in 2001, is at 8.9. Pujols has more doubles (524) than Ichiro has extra-base hits (516), and has 492 home runs to boot.
Among those who have been in the majors for the duration of Ichiro’s career, the top five RC/Gs — including years before Ichiro’s arrival — belong to Pujols, Todd Helton (8.6) Lance Berkman (8.2), Alex Rodriguez (7.9) and David Ortiz (7.6).
None of that is to suggest Ichiro is overrated or anything so crass. He’s a well-deserving Hall of Famer-to-be. But by the extraordinarily high standard of the best hitter in baseball, there are others at the front of the line.