I suspect a lot of Yankees fans are going to view this as just another attack on Derek Jeter, a grouchy anti-New York writer going all fancy with his statistics and ripping a legend.
That's not my intention. I've written before that Jeter deserves consideration as maybe the second-greatest shortstop of all time, behind Honus Wagner and ahead of Cal Ripken, so I've certainly appreciated what Jeter has done on the field. No, the intention is this: As he plays out his final season and we pay him respect in ballparks across the country, he has an accomplished veteran teammate who we should also remember to appreciate.
In fact, you can make the case: Ichiro Suzuki has been a better player than Jeter.
The basic element of the argument is this: Ichiro came to the U.S. in 2001 at 27. From ages 27 to 39 (both are in their age-40 season this year), Ichiro outpointed Jeter in wins above replacement, 57.8 to 43.7. It's not really that close.
Isn't it then reasonable to extract from there and presume, since Ichiro was better from 27 to 39, that he was at least as good as Jeter from 22 to 26? It's actually possible to make the argument that Ichiro would have compiled more WAR than Jeter in his pre-27 years if Ichiro had played over here. Jeter reached the majors at 21 but he was 22 in his rookie season in 1996. Ichiro's first full season in Japan came when he was 20 ... and he hit .385. His numbers that year (.385 AVG/.445 OBP/.549 SLG) are basically identical to what he did his final season in Japan (.387/.460/.539). It seems pretty clear that Ichiro could have succeeded in the U.S. majors when he was 20.
In comparing Ichiro and Jeter from ages 27 to 39, Jeter does have an advantage at the plate, but not as large as you might expect:
Jeter had more power -- 178 home runs to 111 -- and got on base a little more often, but Ichiro had nearly twice as many stolen bases, 472 to 240.
From 2001 to 2013, Jeter created 1,252 runs, according to Baseball-Reference.com, or 6.0 per 27 outs. During those years, Ichiro created 1,357 runs, or 5.9 per 27 outs.
Jeter's advantage on offense is minor.
Ichiro's advantage on defense, however, is huge.
I think even the most die-hard Yankees fans -- those who want to take defensive metrics and throw them into the Bronx River -- will reluctantly admit that Ichiro played a better right field than Jeter played shortstop. The metrics, of course, resoundingly favor Ichiro: Again, using Baseball-Reference's numbers, Ichiro is credited with 106 runs saved above average from ages 27 to 39 compared to minus-182 for Jeter. Ichiro is rated as the 18th most valuable fielder since 1901 from ages to 27 to 39; Jeter is rated as the worst.
To be fair, Jeter's two best seasons via WAR came in 1999 (8.0) and 1998 (7.5), when he was 25 and 24. Ichiro's best seasons were 2004 (9.1) and 2001 (7.7). Again, however, Ichiro was a superstar in Japan at 20.
The point, even if we don't agree on the exactness of the numbers: Ichiro has been a terrific player, every bit the all-timer on the field that Jeter has been. I think we lose sight of that since he has faded in recent years (he hasn't hit .300 since 2010), and while Jeter was out there virtually every October, Ichiro played on a lot of lousy teams in Seattle.
That gets to the biggest difference between the two, of course: Jeter has won five rings (although just one since turning 27) and Ichiro has won none; he hasn't even played in a World Series, for that matter.
Ultimately, I suppose it's impractical for many to isolate Jeter's numbers from Jeter's legacy, the fact that he wore pinstripes during a great Yankees dynasty. He had the good fortune to be drafted by the Yankees, and while many will argue they wouldn't have won all those titles without Jeter, would they win them without Mariano Rivera or Bernie Williams or Andy Pettitte or Paul O'Neill or Jorge Posada or Orlando Hernandez or David Cone any number of other players? One player doesn't "win" championships.
The thing that impresses me most about Jeter, especially later in his career, is kind of what Joe Posnanski wrote the other day about Bruce Springsteen, still going all-out at concerts at 64:
He was a man compelled. I’ve written many times about how amazed I am by Bruce Springsteen’s dedication to the moment. Night after night after night, for about 40 years now, he has played Born to Run, and he has played it with the fire he had as a young man. I’ve often wondered: How is that possible? How can he not be sick of playing that song by now? Or if not sick, how can he not go through the motions with it?
Doesn't that describe Jeter? For younger Yankees fans, he's been there since they first began watching baseball, always playing like it was still his first day in the majors.
Maybe we never quite got that same feeling from Ichiro, although if you were in Seattle in 2001, that magical season, you know the exhilarating thrill he provided game after game after game. I suspect if Ichiro had simply played for better teams, we'd look at him a little differently than we do now.
Ichiro, of course, hasn't announced his retirement. Maybe he wants 3,000 hits in the United States, but with 2,755 and now relegated to a reserve role, that's looking more and more unlikely. Maybe he won't go out with the same fanfare as Jeter, but when he does I'm going to miss him.