When the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki mid-way through the 2012 season I was unimpressed. Suzuki is a star who had played his entire career to that point in Seattle, so there was considerable fanfare after the deal was completed, but this wasn’t the Ichiro of old, the perennial 200 hit machine with a high average. This was the Ichiro of 2011, a player who managed a 79 wRC+ and a .310 OBP. He was a big name, but no longer a big player.
I proceeded to eat my words. Suzuki returned to form with the Yankees. Over 240 plate appearances Ichiro hit .322/.340/.454 in pinstripes. He hit five homers and thirteen doubles, essentially matching his output from his time this past season in Seattle, in half the plate appearances. He stole fourteen bases. Seattle traded the Yankees the Ichiro in decline and the Yankees got vintage Suzuki. Can he keep it up?
Bill James is uncertain. His projection system sees Ichiro batting .294/.331/.370 next season, which translates to a .304 wOBA. The good in the projection is the OBP. Ichiro’s speed is a valuable asset. If he can get on base at that clip he’ll do damage regardless of whether he’s hitting for power or not. The bad is the complete lack of power. Suzuki has never been a power hitter, but for his career he has a .419 SLG. He hits mostly singles, but not exclusively.
There are two x-factors that make any projection of Ichiro next season difficult. First, he’s old. 2013 will be Suzuki’s age 39 season. When his service in Japan is taken into consideration he has a lot of mileage on him. While his skill set – contact hitter, solid defender, smart base runner – ages well, any 39 year old ball player is borrowing time. If he can’t cut it anymore at 39 it should be expected, not surprising.
The second factor is Yankee Stadium. Ichiro is not known for hitting home runs … during games. During batting practice and exhibitions, however, he is famous for knocking them out of the ball park, which means he has the ability to do it. Yankee Stadium plays perfectly to his swing. Ichiro will never have power like, say, Raul Ibanez, but he could easily juice his SLG next season abusing the short porch in right.
Taken as a whole, it is clear why the Yankees made a play for Suzuki. He gave the Yankees a vintage performance during his short tenure with the team, and made that potential available to the Yankees at a discount over the next two seasons. It was a gamble worth taking. The Yankees don’t need Ichiro to maintain the pace he put forward towards the end of last season to be worth the money. They just need him to be a slightly better than average hitter who gives them plus defense and base running. All-in, Ichiro seems more likely to be a plus asset for the Yankees in 2013 than not, an asset the Yankees got at a discount.