Earlier this week the Mariners traded Ichiro to the Yankees for two pitchers who are pretty uninteresting. Presumably the Yankees are receiving some chunk of Ichiro’s salary as part of the deal, but the real question is whether or not Ichiro will actually be better in a Yankees uniform.
One of the major premises that has been tossed around is that because Yankee Stadium helps left-handed hitters hit homeruns that Ichiro is bound to regress back to career average numbers and potentially outperform his power numbers. This theory follows the same parralels as the idea that Ichiro could be a power hitter if he chose to, a theory that has been debunked to some extent this year, and that probably never had a lot of validity. Ichiro has an isolated power rating of .093 on the road for his career at home, and .091 on the road. Not to mention, in 179 less plate appearances at home than the road, Ichiro actually has seven more homeruns in his career at home.
Ichiro isn’t a power hitter. He’ll never be a power hitter. But there was a time when he was a much better hitter.
Another theory is that Ichiro will have more with better players around him. There’s certainly an anecdotal truth here, we often tend to magnify the cases where players improve when surrounded by better players without examining causation, all while forgetting the failures in the same category.
Even if we assume however, that environment will have as much influence on Ichiro’s production as proponents of that theory would suggest, the idea that he’ll improve as a result of it may be a fallacy. Ichiro is a very unique player, and it’s entirely possible that playing for the Yankees may actually hurt his production, or have very little effect on him at all.
You see, Ichiro isn’t a guy that hits a lot of extra base hits, and even at the best in his career his best skill was his ability to make opposing infielders rush throws, or to beat their throws out entirely. Of all the aspects of Ichiro’s game that have slipped in recent years, it’s almost unarguable that his ability to beat out infield singles has slipped the most.
Ichiro got infield hits in 10.0 percent of his batted balls last year, and so far his at 7.9 percent this year. Those are the lowest rates he’s posted since 2005, which was also the year when he achieved a career high Isolated Power (.133).
And for the last four years Ichiro has begun swinging at more pitches outside the zone (35.5 percent this year compared to 27.9 percent for his career), less pitches inside the zone (66.3 percent compared to 67.7 for his career ), and pitchers have begun to realize that he’ll chase balls out of the zone and are throwing more pitches out of the zone (53 percent pitches outside the zone compared to 49.2 percent for his career).
But the most damning evidence against this theory rests in the flaw in it’s cultivation. The concept of players performing better in better lineups assumes that with more men on base the batter will be in a better position to succeed.
But Ichiro’s an odd hitter. He breaks some molds truly, at his best and at his worst.
For Ichiro’s caree he’s got a wRC+ of 111 with the bases empty, 102 with men on base, and 101 with men in scoring position. Ichiro gets 10 percent worse with men in scoring position.
You see, Ichiro’s game has always been to put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses to execute. Ichiro made a habit of hitting the ball to the left side of the infield and has had a lot of success doing so. However, with men on base, execution often means a shorter throw to put out a slower runner.
When combined with the idea that slip in his skills, and with no advantage received by Ichiro playing in a lineup that is on base more often, the chances of Ichiro reviving his career in New York seems considerably unlikely. Ultimately, Ichiro’s issues likely have less to do with a string of bad luck or a bad supporting cast, and instead seem to indicate he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.