Ichiro Suzuki was never a better hitter than Nick Swisher, and he won't be one in 2013.
As I've surfed around the web these last few days (a bizarre habit I've acquired late in life), commentary on the Yankees often seems to take for granted that Ichiro Suzuki should be re-signed. Simultaneously, Nick Swisher, that perpetual postseason escape artist (escape from hitting, I mean), will be handed a qualifying offer and told not to let the door hit him on the way out.
Now, as I've written several times before, Swisher is an odd candidate to try and fit for a long-term contract going into his age-32 season. Take 2008 out of the picture and he's a very consistent player, with an OPS+ around 125 every year. You know what you're going to get: a batting average somewhere in the vicinity of .260, 35 doubles, around 25 home runs, and roughly 80-90 walks. To invoke a cliché, it isn't flashy, but it gets the job done.
The problem is that Swisher's catalog is redolent of what is often called "old-player's skills," and that type of player usually doesn't age well -- they start slow and only get slower. On defense, Swisher looks terrible on a dozen plays a year, but the totality of his glove-work is not bad. What happens, though, when this already-slow player loses a step? What happens when his batting average drops to .230? That second question is easy to answer, actually: With his walks and home-run power, he'll still be quite valuable. Thing is, who wants to give a five-year contract to a player you know is probably two years from being a .230-hitting designated hitter?
The problem there is, of course, that the Yankees don't have great alternatives as far as replacing the production Swisher has given them these last four years, and re-signing Ichiro won't do it. There are two reasons for that: First, as good as well as Ichiro played in pinstripes, that represents 67 games of productivity from a 38-year-old versus his previous 418 games, which were, by season, empty despite a .300 average, just empty, and gone-dead train. You have to record Ichiro's Indian Summer with just a bit of skepticism.
More importantly, while Ichiro is a better fielder and base-runner than Swisher, he's actually not as good a hitter. In the years that he hit .350 and up, he was roughly as good a hitter as Swisher, not better. In the years when he hit .315 or lower, he plainly wasn't as good. The simple reason for this is that a .250 average with 35 doubles, 25 home runs, and 80 walks is far more conducive to generating runs than a .315 average, 25 doubles, nine home runs, and 40 walks, even with 40 stolen bases thrown in.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Ichiro. He's a likely Hall of Famer, and I would be tickled if he hung around long enough to pick up his 3000th hit in this country to go with the 1,278 he had in Japan. However, we should understand that his central skill, an ability to (at his peak) slap .350-.370 in singles, combined with the durability to play 162 games a year, has a certain amount of value, but as right fielders go it really isn't anything special in terms of offensive production; it looks better than it is.
If you like OPS, Ichiro has a career .784, Swisher .814. If you want that league- and park-adjusted, it's 113 for Ichiro, 118 for Swisher. If you prefer wOBA it's .339 for Ichiro, .359 for Swisher. True Average? .284 for Ichiro, .288 for Swisher.
As my old friend Dick Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not claiming that Swisher is a better player than Ichiro, just a comparable hitter who arrives at the same place via a different set of ingredients. Comparable hitting plus better baserunning and defense makes Ichiro the better all-around performer. However, now we have to remember the seven-year age difference between the two. All-Around Ichiro is peak Ichiro, and peak Ichiro may or may not be gone. Swisher is still at his peak, though we can't be sure for how long he'll remain there.
The only thing I know for sure is this: the best-case scenario for Ichiro in 2013 is likely something roughly like what he did for the Yankees in 2012, which wasn't quite as good as what Swisher did in 2012. I'm not necessarily arguing that the Yankees should re-sign Swisher, because that entails its own risks. But the idea that Ichiro can just slot in there and there will be continuity of production is a dangerous assumption to make, primarily because he wasn't more productive than Swisher when he was young and he's even more unlikely to be more productive now that he's old.