- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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Was Ichiro's inability to score runs in 2010 writing on the wall, or simply an aberration?
Over the years, when it came to evaluating Ichiro Suzuki, there wasn't much doubt about what you were going to get from the Seattle Mariners outfielder offensively. In fact, you probably took it for granted that he was going to heavily bolster your team's batting average, having never once in his 10-year major league career failed to reach the 200-hit milestone.
Power-wise, well, that's a horse that never really left the barn. Ichiro's end-of-year numbers have rarely strayed too far from his per-162-game average of nine home runs and 57 RBIs. Since 2008, the pop has been even less appealing, unless of course you're the type who gets chills dreaming of eight home runs and 44 RBIs from a guy you'd likely have to draft in the first five rounds in a mixed league.
Still, the reason Ichiro has been consistently regarded as an elite fantasy outfielder since the turn of the century is the knowledge that you could also count on 30 stolen bases and 100 runs scored. Etch it in stone. Though he is now 37 years old, those legs are still churning; in 2010, he swiped 42 bases in 51 attempts. Not only that, but he also legged out 53 infield hits, his highest total since 2004. That doesn't sound like a guy who is ready for the rocking chair.
However, unless he's hitting home runs, no player has the power to drive in himself. To score runs, Ichiro needs a little help from his friends, and last season, despite a lofty .359 OBP, the leadoff hitter managed to cross the plate only 74 times.
Let's put those 74 runs into perspective, shall we? Here is a list of other players who had at least 600 at-bats and a .350 OBP in 2010:
As you can see, Ichiro's run total was the worst of the bunch. Then again, so was his supporting cast. The Mariners' anemic offense finished last in all of baseball with a .236 team batting average and just 513 runs. Since 1983, no other team has had as many games (72) in which they scored two or fewer runs.
So does the outlook seem much brighter in 2011? Not really. This offseason, the M's tossed aside Russell Branyan and his .215 batting average, as well as Jose Lopez, who hit .239 in 2010. Their replacement candidates include light-hitting Adam Kennedy and Brendan Ryan, as well as "Captain Strikeout," Jack Cust. Sigh.
But hang on a second; let's talk ourselves down from the ledge here. We have to put Ichiro's 2010 season into a more historical perspective before we succumb to the crowd's chant to jump. Since 1920, how many players have hit .300 or better, with a .350 OBP or better in at least 600 at-bats (something Ichiro has managed to do in every one of his 10 seasons)?
In fact, there have been 572 such seasons, and if we now strip that list down further to those in which the hitter also scored 80 or fewer runs, we are left with only 22 occurrences. While it might be a bit mathematically simplistic because we're not examining all of the many variables involved, a concise way to summarize this data into a bite-size morsel is to say that Ichiro's 2010 season fell into a 4 percent range of scoring-futility likelihood, given the high number of times he reached base.
Now let's look at those "futile 4 percent" a bit closer:
Even though Ichiro's 2010 performance was not up to his personal run-scoring standards, a look at the last column above shows that he scored a higher percentage of his team's runs than the rest of the guys on this list. So even though the Seattle Mariners did not exactly light up the scoreboard, when they did manage to do so, it was Ichiro -- more often than not -- who was responsible.
And therein lies the biggest reason for optimism: Ichiro as a run generator. A quick trek backward through his lifetime totals reveals that his year-to-year percentage of his team's total runs scored has remained relatively constant:
So here are our assumptions: First, Ichiro is going to get on base with the same efficiency as he has in the past. (If you don't feel that way, well, then you're probably not going to be drafting him anyway.) And second, he's going to score in the neighborhood of 14 percent of however many runs the Mariners score in 2011.
If you can hop on board with that, then it's likely we've already seen how far the bottom of Ichiro's run production goes: His 2010 season. As for 2011, it takes only a bit of improvement from the rest of the lineup in order to return the veteran to his prior "three-category" contributor status.
To put it another way, is it that hard to fathom one extra run per game from the Mariners this season? If so, would you be willing to concede that Ichiro is the one who scores that extra run one out of every nine games? If so, you've just signed up for 92 runs, to go along with his 30-plus steals and, at worst, a .315 batting average.
With that being what the new floor looks like, imagine what could happen if the Mariners actually started to work on that ceiling!
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass
8hEthan Sherwood Strauss