Monday, July 23, 2012

From Seattle to New York to Cooperstown?

Late this afternoon, it was announced that the Seattle Mariners have traded away the face of their franchise to the New York Yankees for what amounts to filler; basically, they gave him away. According to Ichiro's statement during the press conference that ended a few minutes ago, after determining that Seattle was no longer a good fit for him, he quietly requested to be traded a few weeks ago. The Mariners would have been in a tough position this off-season; Ichiro will be a free agent, there would have been strong sentiment to re-sign one of the greatest players in franchise history, but his production the during the last year and a half does not really warrant much of a commitment from any team. That scenario is now avoided, Seattle's front office is spared that difficult decision his departure can be spun as allowing him to play for a contender during the twilight of his career.

The Mariners would not have given him away if he were playing better, and for that reason it is hard to expect him to be much more than a role player in New York. I, for one, would not be surprised to see him do pretty well there. Not that he'll turn back into the great player he used to be, but I think the change of scenery might lead to improved production in whatever role he finds in the Bronx. We'll see. In any event, the trade makes me want to take a moment to reflect on what Ichiro has accomplished in his American career, since coming over from Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball in 2001.

In that first season, Ichiro broke onto the American baseball scene in a huge way, winning the American League's batting title with a .350 average, leading the league in hits and stolen bases, and winning both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. He was a phenomenon, drawing large crowds in every new city (to say nothing of the large Japanese media contingent that followed him everywhere), easily being voted into the All-Star Game, and leading Seattle to the best record in baseball.

During his first decade here, Ichiro was among the very best players in baseball. He easily led the Major Leagues in hits during those years (in fact, no player has ever had as many hits over a 10-year period as Ichiro's 2,244 between 2001-2010), was tied with Albert Pujols for the best batting average, at .331, and ranked 3rd, behind only Pujols and Alex Rodriguez in bWAR, with a total of 52.7. He was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove in every one of those seasons. Even including his disappointing 2011 and 2012, Ichiro has a career batting average of .322, which ranks 7th in all of baseball over the last fifty years. He is the Mariners all-time leader in hits, triples, and stolen bases, and is among the top 3 in doubles, runs scored, and total bases.

Ichiro's will be an interesting Hall of Fame case, with the arguments against him being 1) career totals in the counting stats that are not staggering, and 2) he has never shown much power as a hitter. To the former, I would point out that he was 27 years old before he came stateside; if you include his Japanese numbers, he has over 3,800 total hits. Even if you only give him "half-credit" for the hits in Japan, he's at nearly 3,200. Just looking at a player's production from the age of 27 on, Ichiro ranks 7th all-time in hits and in batting average. His totals in other categories also rise if you include his Japanese career, of course. To the latter issue, I submit that while his skill set is fairly unique for a right fielder, what he didn't give you in power, he more than made up for with his speed and glove. There is a good case to be made that he is the best baserunner of any right fielder in history and he is also among the very best defensive players ever at the position.

With the Yankees sporting the best record in baseball, Ichiro will certainly get his first chance to play in the postseason since his first year in Seattle. One or two big plays in October can go a long way, so perhaps his legacy is not yet entirely written. But even if he continues to stumble, Ichiro has certainly been the finest American League right fielder during my lifetime, and with a little credit for his play in Japan, I think it's fair to rate him among the 10-15 best players at the position ever. In my view, that's enough to merit induction in the Hall of Fame.

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