I wrote a post on Wednesday tied into our Hall of 100 list, touching on whether Derek Jeter was ranked too high at No. 31. I argued that in order to get Jeter somewhere close to No. 31 you have to believe the defensive metrics are wrong about Jeter's defense.
At the end of the post, I mentioned Ichiro was ineligible to be voted on by the ESPN panel but certainly warranted consideration for the top 100 given his career Wins Above Replacement total in a major league career that didn't begin until he was 27 -- in other words, he entered in the middle of his peak, with many of his best seasons already used up in Japan.
I received this email from a reader: "Not sure you can fiddle with Jeter's defensive numbers and then take Ichiro's WAR at face value in the same piece. Both are extreme, in their own way."
Ichiro's career WAR of 58.9 at Baseball-Reference.com ranks him 190th all time and 125th among position players, higher if you don't include the 19th century guys, but not that far from the top 100 -- Gary Carter is No. 100 at 69.9 WAR, so Ichiro would have been about two prime Ichiro seasons from cracking the top 100.
What the reader was suggesting is that Ichiro, a hitter who played in a high-offense era and neither walked much nor hit with much power, is propped up by the same defensive metrics that drag down Jeter -- defensive metrics that aren't necessarily completely reliable, especially at the very top and very bottom of the ratings.
Well, let's dig into that; it's a legitimate issue/concern. There have been, I would suggest, seven great long-term defensive right fielders since 1950 -- Ichiro Suzuki, Larry Walker, Tony Gwynn, Jesse Barfield, Dwight Evans, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente. Each won at least five Gold Gloves in right field. Jason Heyward will likely become the eighth guy on this list. (Dave Winfield won seven Gold Gloves, four as a right fielder and three as a left fielder, but he doesn't really compare to this group, Gold Gloves notwithstanding, his strong arm overshadowing his mediocre range. He was kind of a lumbering guy out there due to his size and the defensive metrics say he wasn't very good.)
The following table includes data used at Baseball-Reference: Career fielding runs above average, runs above average per 1,200 innings, the cumulative total of the player's five best seasons, their best single season and the number of seasons with 20 or more runs saved.
Two notes. We have different systems in play. For Ichiro, since 2003 (he debuted with the Mariners in 2001), B-R uses Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, which you often see cited here, a measurement based on video review of every play; prior to that, the site uses Sean Smith's Total Zone rating, a historical estimate of defense based on various statistics and factors. Also, the numbers include all games in the outfield as all these guys played at least a little center field as well.
Anyway, the table ...
I don't see anything out of line with Ichiro. He rates about even with Walker on a per-inning basis but below Barfield -- look at his rating! -- Clemente and Kaline. I'd suggest that Ichiro fairly rates better than Evans, who had a great arm but not the same the speed. Gwynn rates far below the others but only because he got fat in his 30s and turned from a terrific right fielder into a lousy one. At his best, his top five seasons actually rank better than Ichiro's. As for Barfield, if you're too young to remember him, he had the greatest throwing arm I ever saw. His rating is also helped by the fact that he didn't have a decline phase to his career as his last full season came when he was 30.
Overall, I would say Ichiro's career WAR is not propped up by some out-of-line defensive metrics. His single-season high of 30 runs saved in 2004 does rate as the second-highest for any right fielder on Baseball-Reference -- behind Heyward's 32 in 2014 -- but that's also the only season he rated higher than 15 runs saved. Now, you may want to argue that he's nowhere in the class of these other right fielders, but I don't think you can find many people willing to make that argument.
One more important note about Ichiro. WAR and Fielding Runs are cumulative stats; the more you play, the more you accumulate. From 2001 to 2012, he averaged 159 games and 727 plate appearances per season. When you never miss a game and hit leadoff that adds up to a lot of extra PAs compared to a less durable player or even one who hits lower in the lineup. That durability has played a big factor in Ichiro's career WAR.
By the way, as I looked into this, I found at least one more great right fielder, even though he never won a Gold Glove and never got the hype while active: Brian Jordan. His defensive metrics are outstanding. Remember, he was fast enough to play safety in the NFL. Check out his year-by-year fielding runs from 1994 to 2002: +8 (in just 53 games), +20, +28, +12 (injured), +25, +17, +15, +21, +8 (35 years old). Over his career he averaged 16.5 runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.