BOSTON, MA - APRIL 30: Manager Eric Wedge of the Seattle Mariners argues with Todd Tichenor#97 after Miguel Olivo of the Seattle Mariners was called out at first base in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox on April 30, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Hello, friends. It's time that we had a talk about baseball analysis. Not me providing baseball analysis, but a short detour into the meta universe where we analyze the analysis. It won't take long.
You wake up and you have a headache. Like the good scientist that you are, you question the world around you and want to know why things do the things that they do. Your brain is hard wired to use personal experience to draw connections, and so that's the first place that you go. You've had headaches before and sometimes you assign them a specific cause.
But your body is an incredibly complex system with lots and lots of stuff going on. Trying to explain exactly what it's doing is like trying to explain why it's raining today. If you drop an anvil on your head or there's a hurricane coming through, you can draw some pretty strong conclusions, but that's not normally how things work.
Baseball is a complex system too. Stop thinking that there are simple, elegant solutions that can be explained in one sentence and that do not wipe out vast areas of nuance. It doesn't work that way. I'm a proud member of the recent wave of internet sabermetrics enthusiasts, but if we have had one fault, it has been that. Here is an example:
Ichiro Suzuki has a career high 24.6 line drive percent. Ichiro Suzuki has a career low .282 BABIP. Wow, Ichiro Suzuki sure is getting unlucky this season!
I will hedge my bet and point out some positive aspects of this line of thinking. BABIP can be greatly influenced by luck over the course of a single season and the quality of contact is a main factor in determining the center point of that bell curve. The players who succeed hit the ball hard, but the lineouts and cheap singles don't always even out. Especially if we're only talking about one season.
But Ichiro Suzuki is quite possibly the most unconventional hitter of our generation. He swings -- at everything that he can reach -- while his lower half is already thinking about running to first base. He doesn't walk, he doesn't hit for power, but he has been historically great at slapping singles. If there was one hitter you would pick to not adhere to trends, it would be Ichiro.
Ichiro's decline the past two seasons has been sharp. As a hitter who did not walk or hit for power, his value was always directly tied with his batting average. In his past two seasons of poor results, many fewer of his line drives have been falling for hits.
At risk of falling into the trap that I outlined in the introduction, you have to wonder if an Ichiro Suzuki line drive is the same as everyone else's. As a team, the Yankees have a .672 BABIP on line drives. Ichiro the Yankee is at .417. There is certainly luck involved, but the version of Ichiro that we have been watching hits a lot of jam shots and bloops. If nothing else, this illustrates a critical weakness in classifying batted balls. A punched looper off of the fists gets put in the same bin as a scalded double in the gap.
A much better tool would be to look at the horizontal velocity of batted balls. This kind of work is done by baseball's ivory tower, but an amateur like me can't get my hands on that type of data. So you'll have to settle for my conjecture that Ichiro's line drive percentage is probably inflated.
There certainly is a nice correlation between a big drop in line drive BABIP and Ichiro's offensive production. He doesn't seem to hit the ball as hard as he used to, but that's not the answer to the root cause of his offensive decline, that's just a piece of the puzzle.