A Couple Of Ancient Mariner Emails, Or, Ichiro Then And Now

by A.J. Coltrane

Before the CSE I’d bulk email friends with thoughts about sports. Here are two Ichiro-centric emails from the early oughts. (Ichiro’s rookie year was 2001.) The first email is dated April 1, 2002:

There’s a cool website that uses Bill James’ similarity scores to compare players. Basically the more statistically similar two players are, the higher the score. Max is 1000, anything over 900 is high.

For fun, I ran I similarity score lookup on Ichiro. The interesting thing that came up was that the most 10 similar players to Ichiro had careers that started between 1884 and 1924. Very odd. Most of them had short careers too, although I don’t think that means anything.

These are almost all players of the “dead ball” era. The baseballs of the time were soggy and gray, and they never put a new one in play. Guys would spit tobacco juice on the ball to make it harder to see. Pitchers weren’t afraid to walk anyone, because the ball wasn’t going far anyway.

Now look at what Ichiro does offensively: great batting average (.350), great speed (56 SB), no power (8 HR), no walks (692 AB, about 20 unintentional walks).

The 10 most similar players:
Roy Carlyle (944)
Fred Nicholson (934)
Showboat Fisher (934)
Pete Scott (927)
Dick Cox (927)
John Sullivan (923)
Harry Moore (922)
Joe Knight (919)
Maurice Archdeacon (915)
Juan Pierre (914)

A bunch of nobodies. Personally, Ichiro reminds me most of Rod Carew… a career .328 hitter, who has Hall of Famers for 7 of his 10 “comps”, along with Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, who aren’t eligible yet. We’ll see how it plays out.

The “cool website” was baseball-reference.com, back when that was a new thing. The text above looks maybe I had a clue. Ichiro’s current career batting average is .319, and his top four comps are Kenny Lofton, Lloyd Waner, Richie Ashburn, and Willie McGee. Two HOFers, a fringe HOF, and another guy who had a high peak but falls short of the Hall.

Maybe I should have stopped when I was ahead (May 4, 2003):

He hit .350 as a rookie, establishing himself as a superstar (American League average is .275, meaning that on average 27.5% of At Bats result in hits). He hit .321 last season, including .281 after the All-Star break (which is loosely the halfway point of the season). Ichiro is currently hitting .250 this season.

There have finally been a number of articles over the last few days about his lack of hitting. The local media seems to be pretty evenly split between:

a) “Something’s wrong, he’s in a slump, he’ll snap out of it.” and

b) “The league finally caught up to him.”

I’m taking “b”. When he came into the league conventional wisdom was that he’d be a career .270 hitter or so. He has no power and never takes a walk, so his batting average is very “empty”. If he hits .270 the only thing that will keep him in the league is his defense, as he doesn’t do anything else well.

I’m figuring career .285, tops.

Whiff!  Good defense + great speed resulting in a bunch of infield hits = long career. Really, right now he’s about where I figured he’d be for the bulk of his career — he just had to turn 40 to get there.

I should have stuck with the first impression.

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