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Ichiro Is Old And Good

The strangest final acts of all-time great careers usually involve career-tarnishing performances in bizarre uniforms. You know the type: Johnny Unitas as a Charger, Patrick Ewing with the Magic, Wade Boggs as a Devil Ray, etc.

Last year, erstwhile Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki was foundering his way into that group. He hit 88 points below his previous career average, flashed even less power than usual and finished the season below the replacement level, with -0.8 WAR. Making matters worse, he did it all while wearing a Miami Marlins uniform, one of MLB’s ugliest get-ups since those Devil Rays unis were shoved into the back of the closet. Ichiro’s fate seemed as Boggsian as any great player in recent memory.

But this season, Ichiro has flipped that narrative on its head. Instead of continuing his depressing slide into the abyss, he’s currently hitting .385, rarely striking out, drawing walks at a greater rate than ever and generally spraying line drives all over the field. According to FanGraphs, he already has more WAR this season (0.7) than in his previous two combined (-0.3). In fact, he’s on pace (for whatever that’s worth) to finish with one of the best twilight-of-career-with-a-weird-team seasons in major league history.

To judge Ichiro against his counterparts from the past, I filtered every season ever1 for players who were 35 or older (Ichiro is 42), had at least 50 career WAR (as of Tuesday, Ichiro had 57.5), and were playing for a team with whom they spent fewer than 10 percent of their career games (about 8 percent of Ichiro’s games have been with Miami). Here are the best of those seasons (with a minimum of 50 plate appearances) according to WAR per 600 plate appearances:

YEAR PLAYER TEAM AGE PA WAR/600 CAREER WAR % OF CAREER GAMES W/ TEAM
2008 M. Ramirez Dodgers 36 229 7.9 66.7 9.7%
2016 I. Suzuki Marlins 42 68 7.1 57.5 7.8
2000 W. Clark Cardinals 36 197 6.7 52.1 2.6
2010 J. Edmonds Brewers 40 240 6.0 64.5 3.6
2005 K. Lofton Phillies 38 406 5.8 62.6 5.2
1982 J. Morgan Giants 38 554 5.6 98.8 8.5
1892 R. Connor Phillies 35 686 5.5 86.0 7.8
1893 J. Glasscock Pirates 35 314 5.4 60.1 8.8
2003 K. Lofton Cubs 36 236 5.3 62.6 2.7
2010 J. Thome Twins 39 340 5.3 68.6 7.0
1930 H. Heilmann Reds 35 539 5.2 68.8 7.3
2011 L. Berkman Cardinals 35 587 4.9 56.1 9.4
1946 B. Herman Braves 36 301 4.8 55.1 3.9
2016 C. Utley Dodgers 37 165 4.7 62.4 4.6
1991 W. Randolph Brewers 36 512 4.7 62.0 5.6
1927 T. Cobb Athletics 40 574 4.4 149.4 7.5
2011 M. Cameron Marlins 38 164 4.4 50.8 2.3
1982 R. Smith Giants 37 398 4.4 64.7 5.3
1896 D. Brouthers Phillies 38 267 4.3 79.7 3.4
1972 W. Mays Mets 41 242 4.2 149.8 4.5
Great seasons in strange, strange uniforms

For players aged 35 or older with at least 50 career WAR, on teams with fewer than 10 percent of the player’s career games. Minimum 50 plate appearances (PA) with team in season. Stats as of May 24.

Source: FanGraphs.com

Ichiro has been so good this year that among the pantheon of old-guy seasons in bizarre uniforms, only Manny Ramirez’s wild post-trade-deadline Dodgers stint in 2008 was better. And hardly any of the other players on this list were remotely as old as Ichiro is now.

(I’d like to point out a few other things from the table: First, Kenny Lofton makes the list twice, for both a stint with the Cubs that I do remember — he made the final out of the Bartman Game — and a Phillies season of which I have little recollection. Also, Ichiro isn’t the only active player on the list; Chase Utley has quietly been adding to his sneaky-great résumé while wearing unfamiliar Dodger duds this year. And, finally, let’s bury the idea that Willie Mays’s Mets tenure was a total blight on his record. Mays’s final season, 1973, wasn’t quite up to his usual Hall of Fame standards, but in 69 games as a Met the year before, he hit extremely well — 44 percent better than league average, according to FanGraphs. That performance checks in at No. 20 on our list above, so, contrary to popular opinion, Willie was no bum for most of his return stint in New York.)

Anyway, in all fairness, there are legitimate reasons to doubt that Ichiro can continue playing so well as the season progresses. His batting average on balls in play is a sky-high .403, for instance, and although Ichiro’s no stranger to a strong BABIP (his career mark is .340, well above that of a typical player), he’s also no longer the speed merchant he once was — that BABIP seems due for a correction. But if Ichiro can keep shooting liners around Marlins Park, like he did during his four-hit game Monday, his 2016 season will probably still be good enough to cement a place among the best ever produced by aging superstars in peculiar locales.

Andrew Flowers contributed research.

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Footnotes

  1. This goes all the way back to 1871.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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