On the surface, the sabermetric debate for Ichiro Suzuki should create a soured opinion for him. A career 104 wRC+ and 115 wRC+ from 2001-2010 are simply not all-time great wRC+ numbers. He only boasts a career 57.8 fWAR and 60.0 career rWAR, which are Hall of Fame worthy but merely borderline HOF. To the older fan, his offense is the driving point of his HOF candidacy. A .311 average and 3,089 hits should be a Hall of Famer every time to that section of MLB fans. What if I were to tell you both of these angles are wrong? What if I were to tell you that Ichiro Suzuki’s HOF candidacy is simply supplemented by his offense, not carried by it? What If I were to tell you that Ichiro could’ve been a 100 WAR player?
The career of Ichiro Suzuki is a story like no other, and it’s one worth taking a deep dive into.
The Greatest Defensive RF Ever?
Ichiro’s 103 DRS and 11.1 UZR/150 rank 3rd all-time among RFs with 5,000 innings in right field. Behind him are Jason Heyward and Mookie Betts, who will accumulate better defensive numbers as their careers go on.
That being said, Ichiro did this while starting his MLB career at age 27, meaning there are 9 seasons of professional baseball where Suzuki was putting up great defensive numbers that we unfortunately will never get to know about. My argument hinges on the fact that Suzuki posted 103 DRS despite only being under the age of 30 for three years of his MLB career. That’s ridiculous defensive value, and had he started in the Majors sooner, the counting stats would agree.
The writers also believed Ichiro was an incredible RF defensively, with 10 gold gloves to show for it, only nine players ever have more.
Extremely Valuable Baserunner
Ichiro Suzuki stole 509 bases, 35th all time. This was at an 81.3% success rate, which is great efficiency with great volume. Speed is usually the first tool to deteriorate for an aging player, and yet Ichiro stole 157 bases in his age 35-39 seasons, the 7th most in that timespan (2009-2013). He finished with a career 96.0 BsR, a baserunning metric on Fangraphs. That’s the 3rd highest mark of all-time.
That means that despite playing more games over the age of 40 (592) than he did under the age of 30 (473), he was the third best baserunner to ever play the game. The offensive value goes beyond his wRC+, as during his prime from 2001-2010 he was the 21st most valuable player in Fangraphs Total Offense Metric. His offensive value stemmed from being a good hitter and a ridiculous baserunner, and his total value stems from that offensive value in tandem with his transcendent defensive value.
With the defensive and baserunning value being as great as they are, how good could Ichiro have been as a Major Leaguer?
How Good Would Ichiro Have Been If He Started in MLB?
The trickiest part about all of this is understanding how he would perform offensively in his pre-2001 years. I think ultimately he just would have maintained the 116 wRC+ he posted from 2001-2009, but where do we start his hypothetical MLB career? I think his age 20 season is the most appropriate starting point since that’s when he broke out, but since JPPL seasons are shorter than MLB seasons, we’ll need to take the percentage of games he played and extrapolate it. Adjusted to the MLB schedule, you can add 1,131 games to Ichiro’s career.
Now we need to find out what was Ichiro’s rWAR per game played from 2001-2009 and multiply that by 1,131 games.
When you do so, you find that Ichiro would’ve added a whopping 40.5 rWAR to his career. Now there is no way to tell if he would’ve stayed healthy or hit better/worse, but his total rWAR in this scenario ends up at 100.5 rWAR. That’s ridiculous, and there’s the evidence to say Ichiro could have become a top 10-15 position player in MLB history, but that’s a hypothetical.
In reality, Ichiro Suzuki was an incredible player in Nippon Professional Baseball who went on to post HOF numbers in Major League Baseball. His professional baseball career is unbelievably impressive, even if it isn’t entirely in MLB. He will take his first trip on the ballot in 2025, and I expect h will be voted in swiftly.
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