As you may have heard, Ichiro is nearing 3000 hits. I was on record at the start of this season saying the only reason the Marlins resigned him was to sell tickets, praying he’d approach the milestone. I was also on record saying that he wouldn’t get there. However, buoyed by a BABIP of .370 through the beginning of July and a resurgence that’s seemingly real(ish), it now looks like Ichiro will join that exclusive club. It looked like he was just hanging on, but he’s really excelling. At least as of now.
Another player who seemed like his last year existed only as a platform for a milestone but who exceeded expectations that year was Lou Brock. In 1978 Brock put up just 66 knocks and hit .221. Somehow the next year, needing 100 hits for 3,000, Brock hit .304 and finished with 3,023.
Lou Brock is in the Hall of Fame, though I don’t think he’s really deserving. Ichiro will very easily get into the Hall, which he should, even if he’s a tad overrated. In this post, I’m going to compare the two and explain why Ichiro is better. It might not be what you think.
This is the number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter. Brock’s number is a very impressive 121. Of the 38 guys in the game’s history with 500 stolen bases, Brock’s Rbat ranks 20th. It might come as a surprise that it’s a few ticks better than Ichiro’s at 23rd. Ichiro has a total of only 99 as of this writing. Brock’s triple slash line was .293/.343/.410, while Ichiro is putting up .314/.357/.405. So Ichiro certainly looks better, right? Well, that’s because Ichiro has played at an easier time to produce offense. BBREF has a number called “AIR”. It’s a measure of the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and a .400 SLG. If the number is over 100, it’s favorable for hitters. Under 100 is favorable for pitchers. Well, Ichiro is at an even 100, while Brock is at 96. A measure as simple as OPS+ has Brock edging Ichiro 109 to 108.
It seems pretty clear that Brock was a better hitter than Ichiro. Not by a lot, but still better.
This is the number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all baserunning events. Again, Brock tops Ichiro, this time by a 78 to 62 score. Looking at the same 38 guys with at least 500 steals, Brock is 11th and Ichiro is 13th. Brock, of course, was once the all-time leader in stolen bases. He’s currently second on that list, and he’s also second all-time getting caught stealing. Ichiro is 36th in steals. However, he’s 70th in caught stealing. Brock was successful 75.3% of the times he took off; Ichiro is at 81.3%. So why is Brock’s Rbaser number higher? Well, part of it is era again. Runners weren’t as successful running when Brock played as they are today. When fewer runs are scored, the advantage gained by stealing a base is greater. Thus, runners don’t need success rates that are quite as high to aid their teams.
Again, it seems Brock was better on the bases than Ichiro.
This is the number of runs better or worse than average the player was at avoiding grounding into double plays. Since we don’t have good play-by-play numbers throughout baseball history, only half of our 500 stolen base guys have Rdp data. Of those, Brock is 6th best at 24. Ichiro, however, tops the list at 54. In fact, while Brock is an impressive 19th ever, Ichiro is the single best player in history at avoiding double plays. Johnny Damon is fairly close to Ichiro. Nobody else is. In fact, the gap between Ichiro and Larry Bowa in third place is as great at the gap between Bowa and 37th place.
So let’s combine baserunning and avoiding double plays, a sort of combination of the offensive benefits of speed. Again we look at 500 steal guys. Brock is 8th all-time, but Ichiro is 4th.
Clearly Ichiro is better at avoiding double plays, and it’s possible that he was the superior user of his legs on offense overall.
Where We Stand
At this point, we’ve looked at everything the players do on offense, from batting to running, to avoiding double plays. And at this point, it seems like Brock is a better player.
Rbat Rbaser Rdp Total ===================================================================== Brock 121 78 24 223 Ichiro 99 62 54 215
So wait a moment. I’ve said that Ichiro belongs in the Hall, while Brock should have to buy a ticket. Why?
This is the number of runs better or worse than average the player was due to positional differences. Both Brock and Ichiro played pretty simple defensive positions. Ichiro has mainly been a right fielder, though he has played 308 games in center over the course of his career. Brock mainly played left, with just 115 games in center. Overall Ichiro’s number here is -80; Brock’s is -111.
This is the number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all fielding. Here’s where we get the real difference. It’s almost frightening. Over the course of his career, Ichiro has been an outstanding defender, posting an Rfield of 117. For those who prefer the Michael Humphreys measure of Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA), he’s at 71.8. As for Brock, he’s a -51 by Rfield and -52.7 by DRA.
Defense is the difference. And it’s huge! Among right fielders, Ichiro is 6th in history by Rfield. Among left fielders, Brock is 668th. Perhaps it’s easier to understand that there have been only twelve left fielders ever to hurt their teams more with the glove than Lou Brock. And since Rfield and DRA see him similarly, I think we can trust the numbers.
There’s really little need for numbers here. Still, charts are fun
Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rpos Rfield Total ===================================================================== Brock 121 78 24 -111 -51 60 Ichiro 99 62 54 - 80 117 252
They’re quite close on offense; they’re in other worlds in the field. Ichiro is a Hall of Famer ending what has been an incredible career. Brock is a Hall of Famer too, but he’s taking a spot that rightfully belongs to someone else.