Whatever Happened to Ichiro?

Whatever happened to Ichiro? Remember that guy? He set the major league record for hits last year, batted .372, and was going to hit .400 this year? Where’d he go?

I haven’t seen Ichiro in the media in ages, so I decided to do some investigating. What I found was shocking: Ichiro is not even hitting .300 this season! I’m as surprised as anyone; wasn’t this supposed to be the greatest hitter since Pete Rose? Rose was not declining precipitously at Ichiro’s age—in fact, at 32 (Ichiro turns the big 3-2 in October), Rose won the National League MVP.

So what happened? How has Ichiro’s performance fallen off so fast? Well, it hasn’t, really. Take a look at a graph of Ichiro’s batting averages from his major league debut in 2001 to 2005:


That black line is a linear regression that ignores Ichiro’s 2004 season, the big outlier in the top right part of the graph. Ichiro’s decline has been almost linear, and wholly predictable! This year is no fluke; last season was.

Last season, Ichiro’s ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was 3.29, an extreme, Derek Lowe-like rate. Ichiro was hitting everything on the ground, but that helped. Because of his incredible speed, Ichiro just kept getting singles; a record 225 in total. In fact, if you look at his G/F ratios, you’ll see that they have an almost perfectly linear relationship with his batting average, with an R-squared value of .88. Ichiro isn’t putting the ball on the ground this year, so he hasn’t been particularly effective:

Year      G/F      AVG
2001     2.63     .350
2002     2.48     .321
2003     1.77     .312
2004     3.29     .372
2005     1.86     .299

The effects of Ichiro’s new style this year have shown, and not only in his batting average. Ichiro has already set a career-high in triples (11) and home runs (15), and if the season ended today he would also have a career-high Isolated Power (.147) and Secondary Average (.248).

But why is Ichiro putting the ball in the air so much more this season? I think it has to do with how teams are playing him. Using MLB.com’s fabulous spray charts, I was able to find some interesting answers:

YEAR      AB       H     2B     3B     HR      AVG      G/F     BAGB
2001     692     242     34      8      8     .350     2.63     .351
2002     647     208     27      8      8     .321     2.48     .298
2003     679     212     29      8     13     .312     1.77     .306
2004     704     262     24      5      8     .372     3.29     .372
2005     556     164     15     10     15     .295     1.86     .274

The last column is Ichiro’s batting average on ground balls. Look at how low it is this season! Ichiro’s batting average over the course of his career has remained nearly equal to his batting average on ground balls, so it should be no surprise that his batting average has dropped below .300 when he’s only hitting .274 when he puts the ball on the ground.

But why would Ichiro’s batting average on ground balls drop so much? It could be one of two things: Either defenses are playing him differently, or Ichiro has lost a lot of speed. I’m almost positive it’s the former. If Ichiro has slowed down, then why are his triples up, and his stolen bases and stolen-base percentage nearly equal to his numbers from last year? Why is he posting a career high Range Factor (2.56) and a much better Zone Rating (.883) than last season? His defense hasn’t declined and neither has his speed on the base paths, so it seems unlikely that Ichiro has lost so much speed.

Much more likely is that teams are playing him differently. Ichiro has many fewer infield hits this year than last, and his batting average on ground balls seems to be telling us that teams are playing for the grounder—probably positioning their infielders a couple feet further in against Ichiro than they have in the past.

To try to take advantage of this, Ichiro is hitting many more fly balls, but it’s not helping much. He’s getting a few extra triples and some additional home runs, but he’s on pace to create 30 runs fewer than last year. Ichiro is not a fly-ball hitter and it’s showing.

So, returning to the question I posed at the beginning of this article, what happened to Ichiro? Nothing, really. His career path is following a pretty normal decline rate, save for last season. Having grown accustomed to his style, teams are playing him differently, and that’s contributed to Ichiro’s falling batting average. But Ichiro is still an above-average player, and a good leadoff hitter. He just isn’t the MVP-caliber player he was last season or in 2001.

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