Just before the baseball season started, I wrote a story with my predictions for the upcoming year. I forecast, among other things, that the Athletics, 21 games out going into Monday’s games, would win the World Series. I wrote that the Reds would make the playoffs, the Cardinals would have no trouble walking away with the National League Central, the Phillies and Twins would finish last.
And I wrote this about the Seattle Mariners and their new right fielder, Ichiro Suzuki, fresh from dominating Japanese baseball: “Seattle won’t hit a lot — I don’t believe the hype about Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese phenom — but the Mariners can pitch.”
Through the weekend Ichiro, as he prefers to be called, was hitting .348, second in the American League. One game shy of the midpoint of the season, his 125 hits mean he has a shot at George Sisler’s record of 257, which is 81 years old. To give you some context, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak stood for 56 years; Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak record has stood for 60. Nobody’s even had 250 hits in a season since 1930.
Monday the final All-Star voting was announced. I’ll get to the voting in general presently, but Ichiro led all players with 3,373,035 tallies, which is, coincidentally, exactly how many people have pasted the above comment into an e-mail and sent it to me, by way of subtly pointing out that I’m an idiot. I was wrong about the Mariners’ not hitting — they’re second in the league in batting average, first in scoring — but what my correspondents are referring to is my lunkheaded dismissal of Ichiro, who is clearly Cooperstown bound.
So let me just say, with all the authority that my prediction of great things for the Cincinnati Reds gives me, that I don’t like Ichiro, and I still don’t believe the hype.
I don’t mean I don’t like him like I don’t want him to come to my house or anything. (I don’t, but just because the place is such a mess.) He’s actually kind of cute, the way he squats and stretches right before he gets into the box. And I don’t mean he can’t play. I saw him make a throw from right field to third base in Oakland that was one of the most magnificent things I have ever witnessed — and I’ve peered into a live volcano, friends. I’ve seen Johnny Cash stride onstage.
I just can’t abide his style of play. That Punch-and-Judy, slap at the ball, poke it into left field thing. I hate that. And it’s not an anti-Mariners feeling. It’s not like I’d love Ichiro if he played for a team I root for, or even a team that isn’t running away with the American League. I have no problem with the Mariners, a team that is not the Yankees, a team that has lost three superstars in the last few years, running away with the league. It’s good for baseball. Bret Boone hitting home runs, for example, or Kazuhiro Sasaki striking out the side, don’t set my teeth on edge.
I should like Ichiro. I have the tastes of a guy who’d like Ichiro. I like National League baseball, not the designated hitter. I enjoy what’s come to be known as “small ball.” I like a well-placed sacrifice bunt, a perfectly timed hit-and-run. I think home runs have become too easy to come by, and that a 1-0 game is often more exciting than a 12-11 game. In other words, I’m kind of a tradionalist, and here’s Ichiro going all Ty Cobb on my ass, and I don’t like it.
But I find myself watching him and saying, “Will you swing the bat, for crying out loud? Could you shift your weight just a little bit to your front foot?” I’m not arguing against the very concept of the pesky leadoff hitter here. I think we can all agree that Rickey Henderson in his prime was the greatest, peskiest leadoff man of them all — and he swung the bat.
Personal aesthetics aside, I’m still not sold on Ichiro after half a season. I’m not denying that a .348 average and 125 hits in his team’s first 80 games are eyebrow-raising achievements. And he’s a legitimate All-Star starter. But let’s hold off on that Hall of Fame plaque. As a leadoff hitter, Ichiro’s paid to get on base. But his on-base percentage is only .380. That’s 22nd in the American League among those who qualify for the batting lead (242 plate appearances). He barely cracks the top 40 in slugging. People who really spend a lot of time with stats generally say that some combination of on-base and slugging percentages (either adding them or multiplying them) gives you the best idea of who the best offensive players are.
The guys around Ichiro in on-base percentage are Maglio Ordonez of the White Sox, Juan Gonzalez of the Indians, Raul Mondesi of the Blue Jays, all of whom are sluggers, and Jeremy Giambi of the A’s, who is not to be confused with his brother Jason, the defending MVP. In slugging percentage the guys around Ichiro are Chris Richard and David Segui of the Orioles, Scott Brosius of the Yankees and Jose Cruz Jr. of the Blue Jays. Some decent players, but nobody’s flying over from Japan to watch them play.
I’m even willing to give Ichiro credit for stealing bases. I don’t even know if this is an exaggeration of their importance, but I’ll give him a slugging base for each of his 27 steals. That would lift his slugging percentage from .462 to .538, the same as, well, Brian Daubach of the Red Sox (though Daubach would get a few points for his one steal using this system). I haven’t seen any stories about Brian Daubach lately on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
So on to the rest of the All-Star squads. This is the time of year when baseball purists get all worked up about fans stuffing the ballot boxes, or, nowadays, the online voting system. Certainly Ichiro benefited from the first-ever paper balloting in Japan. Now is the time for true fans to work themselves into high dudgeon over the injustice of some plumber who plays for a team that sells out every game getting the nod over a guy having a better year in an old stadium for an unglamorous team.
I suppose it’s a shame for a deserving player not to get the votes he deserves, and the ever-widening attendance gulf between the haves (with their new stadiums) and the have-nots (with their Olympic Stadiums and Metrodomes) means we might not ever see Vladimir Guerrero of the Expos, to take one example, start an All-Star Game unless he changes uniforms.
But I think there are bigger things to worry about — such as the inevitability that Guerrero will change uniforms, even if he kind of liked it in Montreal — and this year’s voting actually came with some surprisingly good news. In a few instances up and down the ballot, the fans — and you know who you are — got it.
If you care you know this already, but for easy reference, here are the starting lineups:
American League: John Olerud and Bret Boone of Seattle at first and second, Alex Rodriguez of Texas at short, Cal Ripken Jr. of Baltimore at third, Ichiro, Manny Ramirez of Boston and Juan Gonzalez of Cleveland in the outfield, Ivan Rodriguez of Texas catching and Edgar Martinez of Seattle at designated hitter.
National League: Todd Helton of Colorado at first, Jeff Kent and Rich Aurilia of San Francisco at second and short, Chipper Jones of Atlanta at third, Barry Bonds of San Francisco, Sammy Sosa of Chicago and Luis Gonzalez of Arizona in the outfield and Mike Piazza of New York catching.
It’s hard to argue with Boone, the Rodriguezes, Martinez and the entire outfield in the American League, or frankly with pretty much the whole N.L. lineup, though you could quibble a bit here and there.
You could make a case for Craig Biggio over Kent, for example. They’re having similar years. Who you’d choose in that debate probably depends on where you live. Given the choice, I’d take Kent, but if you want to take Kent, I’ll take Biggio and we can still have fun arguing. Bring beer.
Albert Pujols of the Cardinals is the obvious choice at third base, but he’s a rookie. He’s not even on the ballot. That’s the way it works. It’s a harsh world for rookies, even when they’re tearing up the league. That means Chipper Jones gets the nod, because he’s Chipper Jones and he plays for the Braves and he’s having a solid year. San Diego fans will squawk that Robin Ventura of the Mets, who’s having an off year, finished second behind Jones, ahead of their Phil Nevin, and yeah that’s wrong, but Nevin doesn’t quite deserve to beat out Jones anyway, and nobody cares who finished second. (Except Bud Selig and his dumb wild-card fetish, but that’s another column.)
In the American League, Ripken beat out David Bell of the Mariners for the third base job with a late rally. Bell, leading the voting through the penultimate public tally, really would have been fodder for the “the fans shouldn’t vote” crowd. Nobody in the American League is having a good year at third, so there would have been no great robbery in any case, but Bell wouldn’t even be able to crack a lineup in the National League. I mean that literally. Russ Davis, recently cut by the Giants, simply given a plane ticket home, was having a better year than Bell. How must it feel to be, say, Scott Rolen of the Phillies or Ventura of the Mets, no better than this year’s seventh or eighth best N.L. third basemen, but good enough to be an All-Star in the American League?
I’d give the nod to Troy Glaus of the Angels, who’s at least hitting home runs and driving in runs to go with his .254 average, but Ripken, who’s hitting .227 with four homers, got a lifetime achievement vote, and at this position this year, that’s fine.
Bell being overtaken means his first baseman, Olerud, is the poster boy for ballot-box stuffing. Olerud is 11th among regular A.L. first baseman in slugging, second in on-base percentage, sixth in average, 12th in homers, fifth in RBIs. Jason Giambi of the A’s is hitting .335 with 19 homers, and he leads A.L. first basemen in RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And this is a guy they don’t pitch to. Mike Sweeney of the Royals is my second choice. Olerud doesn’t belong anywhere near the All-Star Game.
In the National League outfield, of course Barry Bonds makes it. The good news here is that Luis Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks overtook Larry Walker of the Rockies at the wire for the third outfield spot after Bonds and Sammy Sosa. They have very similar numbers, except Gonzalez has more home runs, but Walker plays in a home park that pumps up his stats like a monster truck tire. I would have guessed the casual fan was a year away from getting that. Good for the casual fan.
Unless Lance Berkman of the Astros has a big postseason sometime soon, we’re still a ways from the point where casual fans realize they should vote for him over Sosa. As long as he’s playing well — and he is — Sammy Sosa’s going to get a lot of votes.
Behind the plate, the question is: Is Paul LoDuca of the Dodgers having a better year than Mike Piazza of the Mets? And the answer is: Uh, OK, sure. I guess you could say so.
See notes on Pujols and Sosa, above, and take your pick as to which applies.