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July 18, 2008 at 10:32 AM

The Ichiro conundrum

Conundrum: 2 a: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer b: an intricate and difficult problem
— Webster’s definition

So, the Mariners tonight embark on the “second half” of their 2008 schedule, trying to make folks forget about how bad the opening 3 1/2 months was. Good luck with that. Trade talk continues to percolate, though, as I said yesterday, the odds of Erik Bedard now being moved by July 31 are somewhere up there with the odds of the lefty winning a Cy Young Award. Jarrod Washburn is now more likely to be the only Seattle starter dealt by then and who would have figured that a couple of months ago?
Another guy who almost certainly will not get traded is Ichiro. There are ample baseball reasons both to trade and to keep Ichiro, summed up nicely in this article from yesterday, though I feel there were some notable points left out of it.
First off, the idea put forth by the writer that clubhouse chemistry — or, as some of you tried to define it last week, clubhouse culture — is a non-factor, seems to me like taking the easy way out here. It may be impossible to predict, or to measure in statistical form, but I think that the fact so many Mariners insiders have discussed elements of it this year makes it tough to argue it doesn’t exist. Can you plan chemistry in advance to try to help you win? Maybe not. But can clubhouse culture blow up on you and help you lose? From what I’ve seen with the M’s this year, yes it can. Stinks doesn’t it? Something like the best laid plans of mice and men? You can’t plan everything. You can’t predict everything. But it can sneak up and bite you. Sort of like life itself, I gather.
I prefer this blogger’s take on chemistry.
So, you might not be able to plan good clubhouse chemistry. But you can, perhaps, take steps to mitigate it from blowing up in your face. How? I don’t claim to know for certain. By choosing players who play the game the right way? By having some who can show others how to play the game the right way? By making sure you have a few with the fortitude to tell others — even forcefully — when they are playing the game the wrong way? Those would be my three suggestions. Not claiming they will always work. But to ignore the clubhouse culture element, to me, seems lazy, even negligent, in light of what’s gone on this year.
As far as the on-field stuff goes, the one element I often see left out of any Ichiro discussion is the whole move back to right field thing. I still can’t see how Ichiro as a right fielder helps this team moving forward. One of the biggest problems — perhaps the biggest — this team faces is a lack of power at traditional power-hitting positions.
And right now, Ichiro is as poor a power hitter in right field as you’re going to find in the AL among regulars at the position.
Going strictly off his 106 at-bats since the move back to right field, we find him 19th at the position with a .330 slugging percentage. That’s for every guy in the AL with at least 100 plate appearances. In other words, dead last among regulars. By more than 50 points worth of slugging. He has yet to have a single extra-base hit as a right fielder.
I can hear the screaming of “sample size!” already from the Ichiro defenders. So, let’s be fair. Let’s take his statistics from this entire season and compare them to other right fielders. Right now, his .371 slugging total for the year would still rank him dead last among right field regulars. He would be 17th among right fielders with at least 100 plate appearances, just ahead of Brad Wilkerson.

Where Ichiro fares much better is in terms of on-base-percentage. His .381 as a right fielder so far places him fourth among others manning the spot for at least 100 PA. Overall, his .366 for the year would tie him for sixth-best among right fielders with Jermaine Dye of the White Sox.
In batting average, Ichiro’s .330 as a right fielder puts him second. His .304 overall this season ties him for fourth with Alex Rios of the Blue Jays.
So, not bad in the latter two categories. But terrible in the power department.
In fact, Ichiro’s placing in the above stats reminds me eerily of another player perhaps miscast in a power-hitting spot. Yes, for the umpteenth day in a row, it’s time for Jose Vidro to make an appearance on this blog. Not the 2008 version, who is obviously still fortunate to have a major league job. But the 2007 edition of Vidro who was practically run out of town for being ill-suited as a DH.
Let’s look at how Vidro fared as a DH in 2007.
In slugging percentage, he was 17th at .385, just like Ichiro (when you use Ichiro’s full-year numbers).
In on-base percentage, Vidro was eighth at .374 among DH types. Remember, Ichiro is sixth as a right fielder. So, he’s slightly better.
How about batting average? Vidro was second at .308. Ichiro as a right fielder is also second, but fourth when you take his full year into account.
In other words, from strictly a hitting perspective at two power positions, Ichiro and the 2007 version of Vidro are almost exactly the same player. Both are excellent at on-base-percentage and batting average and don’t strike out a lot. Neither is any good at power.
Jose Vidro’s OPS+ in 2007 was 109. Ichiro’s in 2008 is 103.
Yet, while Vidro was villified for this in Seattle, the Ichiro conundrum flies under the radar.
Now, please, read the next paragraph or three before writing in to spew venom.
In no way, shape or form am I suggesting Ichiro and Vidro are the same player. Absolutely untrue. Ichiro still does play his position with defensive excellence. Even those of you who believe he’s lost a step or two, you almost have to admit he’s still a step or two better than just about any defender on this team’s roster. As a center fielder, we don’t even have this discussion.
Then again, as a second baseman, we likely wouldn’t have had a discussion about Vidro last year. But he no longer plays second base. Ichiro no longer plays center. We go off what we have.
Ichiro is an above-average defender. Vidro’s position did not require defense. So, a huge edge to Ichiro in that department.
Ichiro also steals bases at a better rate than most major leaguers when healthy. He scores at least 100 runs per year as a leadoff man which is also a valued commodity.
Vidro does none of those things.
So, a big edge to Ichiro on that front.
But as a right fielder, he’s lacking. If this team had a home run hitting first baseman, two or three guys with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage beyond .800 — like any good team — and maybe some pop at a non-traditional position, we could overlook the power numbers in right field.
I just don’t see how you do that here.
Not when this team has the 29th worst slugging percentage in all of major league baseball.
Those of you who criticize this team, and rightly so, for its roster construction have to be wondering how this team moves forward with such a gaping power hole in right. There is no Bret Boone around any more to give you 40 homers at second base, offsetting the singles hitter in right the way he did earlier this decade.
Believe me, I am aware of Ichiro’s undervalued skillset. If I had not given him my first-place vote in 2001, he likely would not have been named AL MVP that year.
But this is a different team, a different roster being constructed.
There are some of you who will say things like bad teams and the media that cover them tend to target good players for criticism. On the contrary. Ichiro is still a good player, obviously. But as with team chemistry, I believe it would be lazy, if not negligent, to ignore the Ichiro conundrum in right field. Especially since, unlike clubhouse chemistry or culture, we have the statistical tools to look at what’s going on.
Does this demand a trade of Ichiro?
Not necessarily.
But it may demand a trading of somebody else. It may require dealing away Yuniesky Betancourt, or Jose Lopez at some point (before next season), in order to bring in a middle infielder with enough power to offset the lack of it in right field. It may require spending $100 million on a center fielder with the power of a corner outfielder.
It’s easy to talk about dealing away Ichiro. Heck, I’ve done it. But I don’t know if I see enough takers around the game who would have the type of roster to accomodate his particular skillset at the cost it will take to acquire him and keep him. And without those, the returns on an Ichiro trade would not be enough to offset his value as a leadoff man, a defender and a marketing tool.
And if you can’t get returns to offset those losses, why deal him? Who’s going to bat leadoff here? Who will replace your team’s best defender?
But make no mistake. The Ichiro conundrum is real and it’s out there.
This team’s offense, more so than the pitching, is what destroyed this season. And as badly as a lack of on-base percentage has hurt this club, I’d argue that the lack of power has hurt just as much. If not more. Going forward, this team needs to find power. It will be hard-pressed to adequately fill it at 1B and DH. No matter what you hear about how easy filling those positions is. Just look at how poorly the M’s have filled the DH spot with power going back several years now. It’s not automatic. With Adrian Beltre set to leave as a free agent after 2009, you’ll soon be shopping for power there.
And that’s just filling the traditional power slots. Keeping Ichiro in right field will require adding even more power. By a team having trouble just filling the minimal requirement.
It’s a conundrum, to say the least. And there are no easy answers to it.
So, those of you who advocate keeping Ichiro are not wrong. He is a very good player and you’d like to start any rebuilding effort by using good players as your base.
But keeping him and building a proper roster and lineup around him will take work. It’s not as easy as saying “just sign Mark Teixeira this winter” and all will be solved. It will take some brain power. And in the long run, it just may not work out.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (1:47 p.m.): For Resin in the comments thread, nobody said this team would be able to trade Betancourt or Lopez for a power hitting infielder. All I said was you might have to trade one and then bring in — after the trade frees up infield room — a power hitter. There’s a difference. Sorry if you misunderstood.



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