The Stats Say Ichiro's Resurgence Should Last
Every Tuesday, I go to a neighborhood bar here in Chicago to play trivia. Normally, I dominate the sports trivia questions - writing about sports for a living has a tendency to fill your head with facts that are utterly useless unless seven trivia points are on the line. Last week, though, I was almost stumped by what seemed like a simple question:
Who holds the MLB single-season record for hits?
Well, crap. I knew it wasn't that long ago. Miguel Cabrera? Nah, too recent. Derek Jeter? No, he had a solid number of hits but never an exceptional amount. A-Rod? But he was always about the homeruns... and it was about at this point that "Turning Japanese" starting playing as a hint. Oh, duh: Ichiro broke the record in 2003.
At this point, Ichiro's dominance seems like (literally) a decade ago. It has been 12 years since he won his only MVP. It has been three since his OBP last topped .360. He hasn't been an All-Star since 2010. At times, I almost forget that he's still in the league.
But then, the end of June happens. In a nine day stretch between June 19 and June 27, the 39-year old outfielder managed hits in eight of nine games (all but the second game of the June 19 doubleheader), multiple hits in three of those games, three HR, seven RBI, and three SB. The old Ichiro is back! That's what the 36.1 percent of fantasy owners who picked him up in ESPN leagues over the past week hope, anyway.
You know what? Normally I'm pessimistic in these articles, but today, I'm here for a little Monday optimism: those people are right. Ichiro can absolutely add value to your fantasy team. Just don't expect him to find the holes in the defense he once did.
Consistency's the Key
Perhaps it's surprising considering Ichiro was seemingly born in the shogun era, but he's still one of the most consistent players in the entire majors. While he might not be hitting .350 and grabbing 56 steals like he did his rookie season, his advanced analytics really aren't that far off his career averages.
In most conceivable categories, Ichiro is the same player that he always was. He doesn't strike out, he'll hit some (but not a lot of) homeruns, and he'll steal bases at an excellent clip. This year is nothing new in the long line of Ichiro successes.
So why, then, are his overall numbers down, with his .270 BA and .307 OBP the worst marks of his career? It has everything to do with his balls in play no longer finding holes.
Ichiro's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) sits at just .288 this season, the single-lowest mark of his career. Back in his hit domination days, Ichiro would routinely hit above .333 on balls in play, including an incredible .399 BABIP in 2004. The past couple of seasons, however, that number has dipped. Ichiro held a .295 BABIP in 2011 and a .300 BABIP (.279 in Seattle but .337 in New York) last year.
Considering his 2011 and 2012 BABIPs, we don't see his current batting average rising too much. However, with his strikeout, walk, homerun, line drive, extra-base hit, and stolen base rates all about his career average as well, there's no reason to believe his production will dip from its current point, either.
Looking Towards the Future
With the above stats in mind, it's not hard to guess what you're going to get from Ichiro. That dip in BABIP will bring his overall average down slightly, but the rest of his positive characteristics from his heyday are still shining bright.
These numbers don't make me jump for joy, but they do provide serviceable stats as a replacement outfielder. As it stands, Ichiro is our 90th-most effective fantasy batter over the rest of the season, and he's No. 34 on our top outfielders list.
That means Ichiro is a valuable replacement outfielder or utility player the rest of the way. We have him ranked slightly lower than similar players Norichika Aoki and Torii Hunter, but thanks to those stolen bases and projected runs, we also see him as more valuable than Angel Pagan or Michael Bourn in terms of overall value.
If he's not picked up on your waiver wire yet (available in about 30 percent of ESPN leagues), make sure to snatch Ichiro while you still can. Hot streaks like this will come, and he's worth plugging into the lineup on occasion or due to injury. If his consistency is any indication, you won't regret it. And maybe this time, I won't forget who owns the single-season record for most hits.