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Ichiro is Choosing to Not Hit Homeruns. Good Call?
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
July 27, 2007
This is something I’ve been wanting to get to for a while, but kept putting it off.
Apparently, during batting practice at some point during the All-Star Break, Ichiro Suzuki put on quite a show for the fans, hitting numerous balls out of the ballpark. In fact, according to one of the announcers during the homerun derby, Ichiro easily hit the most balls out of the park of all the All-Stars.
Obviously, batting practice homeruns are of limited utility, but anyone who has ever arrived two hours before a game so that they could watch this pre-game ritual knows that homeruns during batting practice do not come as frequently as one might think. Even though one might think that any major leaguer who got balls thrown to him by a 50 year old pitching coach would hit every single one out of the park, it doesn't usually work that way.
So what gives? Why was Ichiro’s performance significant?
Well, Ichiro has never been known – in Major League Baseball at least – as a power hitter. Rather, he is the finest example in the game today of what is known as a “pure” hitter, one who goes up and tries to put the ball in play, aiming to maximize his value by getting as many base hits as possible. For his part, Ichiro is one of the best pure hitters in recent memory.
But apparently, this doesn't have to be the case. In Japan, albeit with its lesser competition and its compact car stadiums, Ichiro was a 3-4-5er, and hit between 12 and 25 homeruns in each of his full seasons. And after winning the All-Star game MVP, he came right out and indicated that this is the case. Speaking to a reporter through his interpreter, Ichiro was asked the following question (thanks to Scout.com for the transcript):
“If you concentrated on hitting for power, how many home runs do you think you could hit?"
His answer was borderline controversial:
"Tough question. If I'm allowed to bat .220, I could probably hit 40. But nobody wants that.”
Maybe I am alone on this, but I have always assumed that Ichiro did not hit homeruns because he could not hit homeruns. But even as I say those words to myself, I realize how foolish a notion that is. As the baseball world has become obsessed with the performance enhancer controversy, we as fans and commentators have begun to give tacit approval to a notion which has never been true - hitting homeruns is all about strength.
Don't get me wrong - I firmly believe that being very strong can make it easier to hit the long ball. But it has never been the case that great strength was required to hit a baseball over the outfield wall. Being strong as an ox helps, but a good hitter can hit the right pitch out of the park no matter how strong he is.
For the record, Ichiro, whose career high for homeruns in the MLB is fifteen and who has finished four different major league seasons of 700 plate appearances or more without breaking double digits, is five-foot-nine and weighs 160 pounds. But size is really irrelevant.
Joe Morgan was 5’7” and 160 and hit 268 career dingers, including four seasons of 20 or more.
Hack Wilson was 5’6” 190 and was once held the National League record with 56 homers in a season.
Mel Ott was 5’9” 170 and was one of the first players to hit 500 homeruns.
Size truly does not matter.
But the realization that a player doesn't have to be strong to hit homeruns is not what makes Ichiro's statement so shocking. Indeed, my first reaction to his statement was not "Wow, Ichiro could hit 40 homeruns with that puny frame? Unbelieveable!"
Rather, my first reaction to Ichiro’s statement was – “My God, he is choosing not to hit homeruns in order to save his batting average.”
Ichiro talking about being able to hit 40 homeruns if he sacrificed his batting average reminded me of the story of an aging and pissed off Ty Cobb (I guess I could have just said "an aging Ty Cobb") responding to the offensively explosive 1920s era baseball being forced on him by the emergence of Babe Ruth as the game's premiere star. The following is from Wikipedia:
“On May 5, 1925, Cobb began a two-game hitting spree better than any even Ruth had unleashed. He was sitting in the dugout talking to a reporter and told him that, for the first time in his career, he was going to swing for the fences. That day, Cobb went 6 for 6, with two singles, a double, and three home runs. His 16 total bases set a new AL record. The next day he had three more hits, two of which were home runs. His single his first time up gave him 9 consecutive hits over three games. His five homers in two games tied the record set by Cap Anson of the old Chicago NL team in 1884. Cobb wanted to show that he could hit home runs when he wanted, but simply chose not to do so. At the end of the series, 38-year-old Cobb had gone 12 for 19 with 29 total bases, and then went happily back to bunting and hitting-and-running. For his part, Ruth's attitude was that ‘I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs.’”
This story has a funny moral, doesn’t it? Ostensibly, the moral of the story is “See, Ty Cobb was just as good as Babe Ruth, he just didn’t play like him.” The moral of the story could also be “Babe Ruth wasn’t that good, he was only doing what anybody else could have done if they swung for the fences all day like he did.”
But you get extra points if you can spot the true moral of the story:
Ty Cobb’s performance during those two games should have convinced him to swing for the fences every single day?
In reality, Cobb’s performance over those two games did nothing to validate Cobb’s style of play and everything to validate Ruth’s. During the only two days that Cobb swung for the fences in his career, he performed at a higher level than he had ever performed before or after. He set an American League record and tied a major league record.
If Cobb had gone 3 for 19, with three homeruns, ten strikeouts, and 6 deep fly outs and the Tigers had lost both games, we would all be saying, “Sure, he hit more homeruns, but because he was swinging for the fences he was less valuable overall.” But Cobb went ballistic in that series.
The only lesson to be learned there is “Man, if only we could convince that jackass to swing for the fences every time up, he would be unstoppable!"
Which brings me back to Ichiro.
Ichiro claims that he could hit 40 homeruns per year if he let his batting average drop to .220. Obviously, this is not the Ty Cobb scenario, because Cobb’s average while swinging for homeruns actually went way up. Thus, we can't assume that Ichiro would be more valuable swinging for the fences in the same way Cobb was. Nevertheless, is it possible that Ichiro would nevertheless be more valuable even if he did hit .220?
If only we could find another player, ideally a contemporary of Ichiro, in Major League Baseball to use as an example of the player that Ichiro might be if he swung for the fences. Hmmm.
Okay fine, we’ll use Adam Dunn.
In 2006, The Dunner hit 40 homeruns and finished with a batting average of .234. Dunner ’06 is a good season to use because, frankly, it was one of the worst 40 homerun seasons in major league history, so it is essentially represents the worst that Ichiro would do if he hit 40 homeruns in a season.
The question is thusly presented: would you rather have had Adam Dunn or Ichiro Suzuki in 2006? Let's compare:
| G || PA || Outs || AB || R || H || HR || RBI || RP* || BB || SO || AVG || OBP || SLG || OPS || OPS+ || RC || RC/27 || LWTS |
| 160 || 683 || 442 || 561 || 99 || 131 || 40 || 92 || 151 || 112 || 194 || 0.234 || 0.365 || 0.490 || 0.855 || 110 || 99 || 6.05 || 29.73 |
| 161 || 752 || 478 || 695 || 110 || 224 || 9 || 49 || 150 || 49 || 71 || 0.322 || 0.370 || 0.416 || 0.786 || 109 || 106 || 5.99 || 22.50 |
|*RP=runs+RBI-HR; LWTS adjusted for ballpark and league using baseballreference.com's AIR; LWTS does not include stolen bases and caught stealing|
In the words of the old Christmas song, “Do you see what I see?”
There is no standard – other than batting average – by which it could be said that you would rather have had Ichiro Suzuki over Adam Dunn last season. From the primative runs+RBI-homeruns to Bill James' runs created to OPS and OPS+ to the linear weights measure. And remember, this is probably the worst case scenario. With the marginally better non-homerun offensive production Ichiro would bring to the table - his speed, namely - Ichiro would be even more valuable swinging for the fences. Even with The Dunner’s death defying strikeouts, alarmingly low batting average, and shocking OPS+ (110 with 40 homeruns is atrocious on a historic level), it would have been better to have the offense of Adam Dunn than Ichiro Suzuki in 2006.
Think about it - One of the worst 40 homerun seasons in major league history was more valuable than Ichiro’s .322 average, 224 hit, 110 runs scored performance.
One note - an essential part of Adam Dunn's value is his bases on balls, and Ichiro has never been known as a guy to take a walk. I have always assumed - perhaps erroneously - that Dunn walks so much because of his power. Thus, I assume here - again, perhaps erroneously, that Ichiro would also likely walk a fair amount if he suddenly had 40-per-year homerun power. But I digress; where was I? Ah yes:
If what Ichiro claims is true - that he could hit 40 homeruns if he were allowed to let his batting average fall into the gutter - Ichiro would be more valuable swinging for the fences than he is as a "pure hitter."
Ichiro Suzuki, just like Ty Cobb before him, is actually choosing to be a less valuable player than he could otherwise be. Suzuki and Cobb both excelled at a similar style of play – the hit and run, slap single, manufactured runs offense. But unlike guys like Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Alex Sanchez (to name a disparate and odd few), Ichiro and Cobb have given us at least anecdotal evidence that they are capable of playing the game in the all-or-nothing manner which is, perhaps counter-intuitively, more productive on the field of play, but rather choose to play the way they play.
I firmly believe that in terms of playing ability and athletic skill on the baseball field, Ichiro Suzuki is second to none in Major League Baseball. But in terms of offensive value, Ichiro is probably not one of the top 50 players in the league (particularly if he is less valuable than Adam Dunn, who I definitely don’t consider one of the most valuable players in the league).
If this is not the result of natural athletic limitations but rather the result of Ichiro's own choosing, that is scandalous.
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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