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Is Ichiro Nearing The End?
Brandon Warne | Wednesday July 6th, 2011
The Emerald City has been rough on Ichiro in 2011 (Icon SMI)
The Emerald City has been rough on Ichiro in 2011 (Icon SMI)

As an inevitable part in the cycle of life, all good things must come to an end.  That maxim holds true for everyone, including Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

But wait, let's not get too philosophical here.  We aren't talking about Ichiro moving on to the afterlife or anything.  We're just discussing whether or not he's on the downswing of a storied career.

The 2011 season hasn't been pretty for Ichiro.  His current triple-slash line (batting average/on-base/slugging percentage) of .274/.320/.331 gives him a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of just .295 which, if the season ended today, would be the worst mark of his career by 41 points.

Ichiro hasn't exactly had luck on his side this year, though.  His current .299 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) pales in comparison to his career mark of .354, and yet he's hitting more line drives and ground balls than in recent seasons.

So what has gone wrong?  Well, for one thing, Ichiro is getting fewer infield hits than he has in recent seasons.  Only 10.9 percent of his ground balls this year are resulting in infield hits, his lowest mark since 2005.  There's a fair chance that this is happening because Ichiro is not quite as fleet of foot as he once was, and his baserunning actually graded out negatively on Fangraphs' value chart last season with a mark of 2.0 runs below replacement. 

His baserunning has rebounded fairly well this year, but he has fallen below replacement level in another speed-reliant facet of the game: defense.  Ichiro's defense is 7.0 runs below replacement level this season, which is nearly 12 runs worse than his next worst career mark. 

Lack of protection in the batting order could also be a factor in his decline, as he has seen far fewer pitches in the strike zone this year (43.4 percent) than in any other season.  To Ichiro's credit, he's swinging at fewer pitches overall than in the past two years, and as a result he's cut his whiffs from 2010 by 3.5 percent.  Over the last two years, he's also managed to boost his walk rate by 1.7 percent.  Still, both of these should serve to improve his triple-slash line, but instead it has bottomed out. 

After crunching these numbers, it's still not entirely clear whether Ichiro's career is fading out or not, though he is getting older and is on the cusp of 38, after all.  For a player whose skill set relies almost completely upon making contact and running faster than anyone else, it's not very far-fetched to say that his best days are well behind him.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that his 2008 season wasn't much different than this one in terms of qualitative statistics.  He's cut his strikeouts, boosted his walks, and kept his line drive, fly ball, and ground ball rates relatively in check.  Additionally, Ichiro was very susceptible to popups in 2008, just as he is this season (both years are over 14 percent).  The 2011 campaign could very well just be a down year for the venerable speedster, but at the same time the question of whether he is nearing the end or not still needs to be asked.

Brandon WarneBrandon is a 2010 graduate of the Journalism program at Northwestern College in St Paul, Minn. He also writes for TwinsMVB.com and GameOnTVMN.com. Warne also played baseball at Northwestern, and continues to play Class-A Amateur Ball in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Follow him on Twitter @brandonwarne52 or feel free to e-mail him at brandon.r.warne@gmail.com.