This past month, I’ve heard a great deal of comparisons going on between what Raul Ibanez has done this season and what Ken Griffey Jr. did in 2009. Meaning, Griffey produced to some degree that year as he neared age 40 and then fell off a cliff and helped contribute to a disastrous season and clubhouse in 2010.
And so, the theory goes, if the Mariners bring back Ibanez, the same thing might happen in 2014.
It’s a great narrative. But unfortunately, it bears little semblance to reality. The latest post I’ve seen on this came out today, but believe me, it’s hardly the first such view I’ve seen or heard and this is not meant as a shot against the author.
Look, I understand the concern. Ibanez is 41 and folks expected him to drop off a cliff even before this season began. Now that he’s vastly outperformed the pre-season ZiPS projections that many analysts used to form opinions on how the team would fare, we’ll all have to look at other reasons — besides on-field offensive performance — if we’re to justify not keeping a guy closing in on a 30-homer, .500-slugging season over close to 500 plate appearances.
Clearly, Ibanez as a hitter has earned his keep on a squad again heading for 90 losses.
So, if you’re going to look for reasons not to bring him back, fearing another Griffey-type scenario is a reasonable thing for any fan. But there are two very important differences between Griffey back then and Ibanez today.
The first one is on the field. There may be a few statistical similarities between the pair in areas like on-base percentage and doubles. But that’s where it begins and ends. And as far as the intangibles — i.e. the ability to make in-season adjustments — Ibanez nowadays looks nothing like a fading Griffey in 2009.
First, the raw numbers between the pair:
Ibanez — 477 PA; .249 AVG.; .312 OBP; .503 SLG; .816 OPS; 129 OPS+
Griffey — 454 PA; .214 AVG.; .324 OBP; .411 SLG; .735 OPS; 97 OPS+
Ibanez has outperformed Griffey’s 2009 season with additional plate appearances. He’s outperformed him 29-19 in home runs as well, which matters if it’s power that you’ve brought each player on to the team for. Granted, some of that could be due to Safeco Field fences moving in for Ibanez and he does have 17 dingers at home compared to 12 on the road. But Ibanez also has virtually identical home/road splits in almost every category of significance and has actually been a slightly better hitter on the road. There have also been a few blasts he’s hit in August and September that missed leaving the yard by a foot or two on the road that would render all of this discussion moot had they left the yard.
But those aren’t even the splits that truly separate him from Griffey.
This one is: Ibanez has been virtually the same above-average hitter versus left-handed pitching this year as he was against right-handers.
Remember all the pre-season talk by the anti-Ibanez crowd? Keep Ibanez away from lefties? Yep. Supposedly the data was in and nothing was going to change. Here is what has actually happened:
Versus righties: .249/.309/.505/.815
Versus lefties: .250/.321/.500/.821
That’s right. Ibanez has actually been a better hitter against southpaws. The idea that he should be strictly platooned has little merit if we’re going off the facts of what has happened this season.
So, how did Griffey fare in 2009?
Interestingly, he also hit lefties better.
Versus righties: .215/.327/.391/.718
Versus lefties: .213/.310/.493/.804
Now, the glaring difference in those splits between Griffey and Ibanez? Ibanez gradually became an everyday player this season who has hit lefties over 137 plate appearances compared to 87 for Griffey, who was increasingly platooned as the 2009 season wore on.
And if we look at the right-handed hitting stats, there’s a clear “tell” that Griffey was losing effectiveness versus righties — the guys he’d have to face 75 percent of the time. When you’re considering a hitter as a part-time, left-handed hitting platoon guy, you’ll take Ibanez’s .815 OPS against righties over Griffey’s .718 every day of the week.
As for playing the outfield?
Ibanez has spent 792 1/3 innings playing the outfield this year.
Griffey only had to play the outfield for 83 innings in 2009.
Yes, I will agree with those who suggest that if Ibanez is to come back, he should not be getting a whole lot of outfield time. At least, nothing close to what he has gotten this year. But holding that outfield time against Ibanez — who wasn’t even supposed to have a full-time role with this team — is ridiculous. Ibanez only played the outfield as often as he did because players younger than him who were slotted to handle to bulk of fielding duties either could not stay on the field, or woefully underperformed.
So, if you’re going to get angry at Ibanez playing the field so much, direct the anger at the players who caused it. Not the guy who still popped nearly 3o homers at age 41 while forced into full-time outfield duty and the wear and tear that involves.
Ibanez physically is nothing like Griffey was back in 2009. Griffey wore down physically as that season moved along, being sidelined with various back and knee pains. In the end, he had to be selectively played against certain-handed pitchers and the team could no longer risk sticking him in the outfield out of fear of a serious injury.
By 2010 spring training, Griffey was getting by on talent alone. He was physically no longer able to get around on certain pitches, was visibly less conditioned than the previous year and his game-to-game adjustments were virtually nil.
Ibanez is physically in better shape than the majority of his teammates and has continued to help the team by regularly manning the outfield (somebody has to play there) when others could not and still can’t do it on a daily basis. As far as in-season adjustments, Ibanez has continued making them all year.
After a terrible opening month, Ibanez made some big changes to his swing and enjoyed three above average months after that — most notably in June. Then, when he slumped again in late-July through much of August, he made more in-season adjustments starting on a road trip to Houston and Kansas City late last month. His OPS is now .917 for September.
So, as far as these critical on-field measurements go, Ibanez now is nothing like what Griffey was towards the end of 2009. Not all of it shows up in the stats, but those who witnessed the two players up close in 2009 and today will tell you there are no similarities. Take away the wear and tear on Ibanez being forced to play the field because others can’t, his numbers might be even better.
As far as off-the-field goes, again, the comparisons stop.
Griffey did a lot of great things for people off the field — much of it undocumented — but he had a hard time handling a reduction in playing time in 2010. And he made things next-to-impossible on second-year manager Don Wakamatsu when the end was clearly at-hand.
Ibanez this year hasn’t needed his manager to dictate to him why he isn’t playing on such-and-such a day. He’s not that type of guy. When he isn’t getting the job done, he’s the first to know it. He understands that physically preparing for a season doesn’t start in spring training. It begins with off-season conditioning that goes beyond the gym workouts a layman his age might consider.
And Ibanez arrived in Seattle expecting to handle a lesser role. He told me right before the all-star break — with 24 homers under his belt — that he would be happy to be handling that part-time role he was supposed to be filling here.
That alone tells me there’s a night and day difference between Ibanez’s state of mind now versus Griffey’s four years ago. This is not meant to denigrate Griffey’s Hall of Fame career. But I’m not going to denigrate Ibanez by suggesting there’s anything in his ego and character that would lead to pouting and walking away in a huff next year if his numbers fall of a cliff and he stops being played.
Want to suggest less of a defensive role for Ibanez? I’m all ears. The rest of it is simply nonsense with absolutely zero grounding in the reality of what has actually taken place.