For Mariner fans, the milestones have been as reliable as death and taxes. Ichiro Suzuki makes the All-Star team in the middle of summer, then finishes the season with 200 hits and a batting average well north of .300.
That has been the case for each of his first 10 major-league seasons. From 2001-10, Ichiro appeared in 10 All-Star Games, starting nine, and he concluded each season with at least 206 hits and at least a .303 average.
Which will make the remainder of this season interesting to watch. For the first time since he came to the United States, Ichiro has failed to make the All-Star team. And for perhaps the first time since he came to the major leagues, he has spent the first half of this season looking mortal.
As Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times wrote this week: “For certain, Ichiro, the mortal, isn’t as fun to watch as his other personas: the mysterious star, the dynamo of habit and the solitary baseball savant.
“During his time with the Mariners, we’ve seen those sides of him, and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand his eccentricities because his excellence overwhelmed the desire to figure him out.”
Brewer thinks Ichiro will wind up hitting .300 this year while picking up his typical 200 hits, and mathematically that is within reason.
Through the first half of the season, Ichiro had 92 hits in 334 at-bats, a .275 average. If he has the same number of at-bats over the second half and bats .326, he would finish with 201 hits and a .301 average.
But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Because if Ichiro hits .301, he’s not a very good offensive player.
This flies in the face of more than a century of baseball wisdom. A .300 batting average long has been regarded as the mark of a good hitter, but baseball’s new math tells us differently.
Ichiro doesn’t walk much. His career on-base percentage of .373 is good, but it’s only 45 points higher than his batting average; the typical player has a difference of about 70 points.
And Ichiro doesn’t have any power. His career slugging percentage is 97 points higher than his batting average; the typical player has a difference of about 140 points.
We can talk all we want about Ichiro trying to hit .300 and reach 200 hits, but the truth is this: At this year’s rate of walks and extra-base hits, he needs to hit about .310 to simply be an average offensive player.
He needs to hit about .360 to be as good as, say, Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury has been through the first half of the season. At the risk of engaging in absurdity, Ichiro would need to hit about .500 to be as productive as Toronto’s Jose Bautista.
It is reasonable to hope that none of this will matter. The Mariners have been blessed to find themselves in a remarkably mediocre AL West, and Seattle could be in a pennant race come September. A hot second half by Ichiro could lift his team into the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season, and his shortcomings would be forgotten.
But with the Mariners having put together a sterling pitching rotation, and with Justin Smoak providing some production, and with Dustin Ackley perhaps being a big upgrade for the second half, you have to wonder whether Seattle should have signed Ichiro to a five-year deal worth $18 million a year in 2008.
You have to wonder if that money could have been better spent on two $9 million players.
Ichiro, I think, has left no doubt that he’ll someday be a Hall of Famer. And the Mariners might have a chance to win the division this year if he plays like one the rest of the way.
Questions or comments for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To “like” his Facebook page, search for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian.”