Many Yankee experts were less than thrilled when the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners on July 23, 2012. And yet, despite a year and a half of far-diminished results prior to joining the Yankees, Suzuki had a bit of a renaissance in pinstripes. In 67 games for the Yankees, Ichiro put together a triple slash line of .322/.340/.454. He then was one of the few bright spots in the debacle of an ALCS and has been (cliche alert) tearing the cover off the ball this spring. The interesting question for a 39 year old Ichiro is whether we are to believe his last year and a half as a Mariner or his few months with the Yankees.
There is disagreement in the projection systems. His OPS projections range from a low of .653 to a high of .729 and a wOBA from a low of .283 to a high of .313. The interesting part of the projections was the range on his walk percentage. ZiPS has him at 3.8%. Bill James has him as high as 5.1% and Oliver Projections has him at 5.4%*. All those seem quite optimistic considering Ichiro’s actual walk percentage was a minuscule 3.3% for 2012. It seems astounding that Suzuki accumulated only 17 unintentional walks in 663 plate appearances.
And here is a number that will blow your mind. Ichiro Suzuki accumulated three walks in 237 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. And so, though he hit .284 against lefties, his OBP was .294 against them.
Ichiro Suzuki’s career walk percentage is 5.9% helping to boost his career on-base percentage to .365. Intentional walks have to be brought into the discussion of his walk percentage. Suzuki has been walked intentionally 173 times. If you subtract his intentional walks from his plate appearances and his career walk total, his career unintentional walk percentage is 4.0%. If the Yankees’ lineup had not been decimated as it is now, it would be reasonable to expect that Ichiro would not receive many intentional walks. He was given only five free passes last season, way down from his career average. Saying that, with less power brokers in the lineup–at least to start the season–he might be intentionally walked more than last year.
One of the positives is that Ichiro Suzuki absolutely loves hitting in Yankee Stadium 3. Since the new Stadium opened in 2009, Ichiro has an insane triple slash line there of (small sample size alert) .350/.374/.539 in 194 plate appearances. Ichiro also hit really well in the previous Yankee Stadium (.341/.372/.439). So he obviously likes hitting in New York. Again, a healthy dose of sample size alert has to be inserted here.
The unfortunate thing for Ichiro Suzuki (other than being 39 years old) is that he is effectively the replacement for Nick Swisher in right field. If you have to weigh the two against each other, Swisher provided more power and a much better on-base percentage. On the plus side for Ichiro is that he is probably a better right fielder and has better results in the post season. Overall, there is probably a one win difference for what Swisher brought to the Yankees (3.9 fWAR) and what Ichiro provided all of last season (2.9 fWAR).
There has always been a dubious notion that Suzuki could hit 30 homers in a season if he wanted to. While that idea has never held any weight here, 2013 would be a nice time to pull that rabbit out of a hat. Short of that happening, any offensive value he brings the Yankees will be based on how high he can hit for average and use what speed he has left on the base paths. One concern on that actually happening is the amount of ground balls Ichiro hits. He has always hit twice as many ground balls as fly balls. Despite his batting average recovering somewhat in 2012 over 2011, the difference was a jump in his line drive percentage from 2011 to 2012. His batting average on ground balls went from .293 in 2010 to .254 in 2011 to .248 in 2012.
It will be interesting to see the new-look Yankees start the season with more speed than oomph. While Ichiro has lost a step or two, he still possesses better speed than most. The ideal from this perspective is if he can hit .285 or higher and perhaps cobble together 280 total bases. If he can do that, he will help. If he hits lower–closer to his last year and a half with the Mariners–then it could be a long summer.
* Projections culled from Suzuki’s Fangraphs.com page.