Ichiro Suzuki may be a Seattle Mariners icon and a future Hall of Famer, but that does not mean that he is not overrated.
On Friday, Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto confirmed that future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki will be on the roster when the Mariners play the Athletics to kick off the 2019 regular season in Japan. The two games in Japan will most likely be the last of Ichiro’s career, fittingly coming in his home country. There is absolutely no doubt Ichiro will be enshrined in Cooperstown on his first ballot, and his list of accomplishments is long. He’s a 10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, and had 10 consecutive seasons with 200 hits to begin his MLB career. On top of that, he was the first successful Japanese position player in MLB and is an incredible ambassador for the game.
However, Ichiro had some shortcomings as a baseball player. Ichiro finished with 57.6 Fangraphs WAR, which places him 11th among players since 2001, his rookie season. It’s worth noting that he didn’t debut until his age-27 season, so he probably missed out on some of his prime seasons, but he still has the second-most plate appearances of all players since his debut. 11th-place is nothing to dismiss, but it also doesn’t exactly make him one of the greatest players of all time. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why his WAR doesn’t align with the public conception of his ability.
First, Ichiro was a singles hitter. More than 81 percent of Ichiro’s 3089 hits were singles. It’s nothing noteworthy to say that singles are valuable but not as valuable as extra-base hits. A player like Barry Bonds ended with a similar number of hits to Ichiro but singles only made up 51 percent of his hits, making him a much more valuable player.
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There’s an infatuation among fans with the “pure hitter,” the kind of guy who makes a lot of contact, hits for a high average, but doesn’t hit for power. It’s a reductive assessment of a player that doesn’t account for one of the most important parts of being a productive hitter. Players like Ichiro and Tony Gwynn have gotten the benefit of the “pure hitter” distinction, which is why their place in the public consciousness is greater than their statistics suggest. Especially since he played in an era in which several home run records were broken, Ichiro’s status as a unique player is part of what makes him so revered among fans, but remember: unique isn’t always good.
Ichiro was also below-average at drawing walks. Drawing walks is a hugely important skill which is still somewhat undervalued among baseball fans. Barry Bonds drew an insane amount of walks, but it’s easy to dismiss that fact by saying that Bonds was pitched around, and there is some truth to that.
But behind Bonds in the all-time walk leaderboard is Rickey Henderson, who no one in their right mind would ever want to walk. During Ichiro’s MLB career, the average walk rate ranged from 7.6 to 8.9 percent, while Ichiro’s career mark stands at six percent. For players with 5000 plate appearances since 2001, Ichiro’s .311 batting average ranks sixth in MLB, while his .355 on-base percentage ranks 50th, behind players like Jason Bay and Luis Castillo.
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NPB is a fantastic baseball league and his tremendous statistics before he came to the U.S. cannot be completely dismissed. He played long past his prime and brought his numbers down when one looks at his career MLB statistics. And his status as likely the greatest Japanese baseball player of all time is important to his overall legacy. But his shortcomings as a player cannot be completely ignored when it comes to understanding his baseball career. A player can be great and still be overrated.