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Kenny Lofton was Basically Ichiro Suzuki

I write an article complaining about the maltreatment of Kenny Lofton basically every year. Lofton remains my pet Hall of Fame case, and will remain such until the Veteran's Committee unanimously votes Lofton into the Hall of Fame. Ichiro Suzuki was mentioned in the News and Notes, so I started comparing Ichiro Suzuki to Lofton and, well, I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Ichiro was Amazing

Let's start here: Ichiro Suzuki was an amazing right fielder, who came over from Japan and basically proved to the US that importing Japanese talents could pay off. Ichiro debuted in 2001 and instantly became a sensation: he won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP that season. Ichiro proceeded to win ten consecutive Gold Gloves, he set the Major League Record for hits with 262 in 2004 (which was also his best season). Ichiro defined the Mariners until he departed later in his career, hung around until he was 45 (long enough to reach 3,000 hits), and basically ensured himself of a first ballot ticket into the Hall of Fame. What's more: Ichiro invented an entirely new way to play Major League Baseball. Nobody, and I mean nobody, in MLB history could hit singles quite like Ichiro.

As I said: Ichiro debuted in 2001. He basically played every game every year until he turned 39 in 2013. From 2001 to 2010 Ichiro led the league in singles every single season. Ichiro then finished 3rd in 2011 and 2012, and then in 39 he stopped being good enough to play every day. Ichiro Suzuki was a magician and hitting 'em where they ain't. This translated into Ichiro leading the league in hits an insane seven times (and finished in the top 10 another four times). He posted shiny batting averages every single season, nine times finishing in the top 10 and leading the AL twice (once with an absurd .370 average, one of the highest in the modern era).

To make things better: Ichiro was a majestic fielder: he won Gold Gloves every year he was a regular. Ichiro had such a unique stance, basically stepping towards first base as he swung which led him to being 56 runs above average in double play avoidance. I don't know if it's a record: but it sure as heck feels like one. He also stole bases: he averaged nearly 40 swipes a season from 2001 to 2012 (his time as a regular). There, it seemed, was nothing Ichiro couldn't do. Ichriro retired with a .311 batting average, over 3,000 hits, and the love of his country. Ichiro is a legend in Japan.

Alas, the two things Ichiro couldn't do are sometimes so easy to miss because of the things he could. Yes, Ichiro hit for average (and racked up hits) but nearly all of this hits were singles.

Ichiro is 6th in MLB history with 2,514 singles, which sounds less impressive than it is: Ichiro also only batted 8,536 times in his career. Everyone ahead of him on the singles list (Jeter, Anson, Cobb, Rose and Collins) batter, at minimum, over 800 more times than Ichiro. Rose batted nearly twice as many times as Ichiro. Ichiro's .402 slugging percentage is quite low.

Which brings us to the second thing Ichrio couldn't do: walk. Ichiro rarely ever walked, never finished in the top 10 in walks, and more importantly: only ever finished in the top 10 in the league in OBP three times, despite that shiny batting average. Astoundingly, Ichiro's on-base percentage is only .355, which is hardly historic, because he rarely ever walked. Overall, Ichiro's OPS+ of 107 is mediocre, especially for a right fielder. In fact, Ichiro's OPS+ of 107 would be the lowest for any right fielder in the Hall of Fame (besides Tommy McCarthy, who is a different story: he supposedly invented the hit and run tactic). However, Ichiro would still be a good addition to the Hall: he was an all around great player. Furthermore, unlike other defensive maestros (ahem: Omar Vizquel): Ichiro was certainly a good hitter, and that's easy to see: because of his batting average.

What's infuriating is Kenny Lofton basically owns the same case, except he was a center fielder instead of a right fielder (and thus worth more).

The Kenny Lofton Comparison

Lofton, despite debuting three years younger than Ichiro, actually accumulated 1,500 fewer plate appearances than Ichiro Suzuki. This shouldn't be too surprising: Ichrio toiled until he was 45, while Lofton couldn't find a job after 2007 in Cleveland. However, Lofton's career line ended up quite similar to Ichiro's. Here's the full batting line for comparison:

Ichiro
.311/.355/.402 (OPS+ 107), 3,089 H, 1,420 R, 362 2B, 509 SB (81.3%), 10 Gold Gloves in 10,734 PA
Lofton
.299/.372/.423 (OPS+ 107), 2,428 H, 1,528 R, 383 2B, 622 SB (79.5%), 4 Gold Gloves in 9,235 PA

A few notes I think are important. First, despite Ichiro's shiny batting average: Lofton finished his career with a higher on-base percentage than Ichiro. This would be true even if you take off the last several years of Ichiro's career where he toiled as a below average backup outfielder to reach 3,000 hits: Ichiro's OBP was 'only' .361 if you cut off his age 40 seasons and beyond. Second, despite over 1,000 fewer plate appearances: Lofton hit more doubles than Ichiro (he also hit more triples and home runs as well). Even more surprising, to me anyway: Lofton scored more runs than Ichiro despite over 1,000 fewer plate appearances.

Overall, offensively: Kenny Lofton and Ichiro Suzuki were quite similar players.

Now, defensively it would appear (superficially) that Suzuki has the advantage. This would be a mistake. Ichiro did win six more Gold Gloves than Lofton, but Lofton had to face the star power of prime Ken Griffey Jr, and lost out on the Gold Gloves. Baseball-Reference reckons Lofton added 108 runs defensively, while Ichiro added 118. The same can be said on the baserunning side; Lofton owns over 100 steals more than Ichiro, but Ichiro (remember his swing) was far superior in preventing double plays.

Despite the similarities: Lofton ranks 10th all time in JAWS for Center Fielders, and accumulated about 10 more bWAR than Ichiro. Why? Simple: Lofton was a center fielder, Ichiro spent most of his time in right. As a result: bWAR credits Lofton 43 runs, while deducting Ichiro for 77. The overall picture are two quite similar players, with expansive skillsets. The only real difference between the two is contemporary recognition: Ichiro was heralded as a scion of his country, lauded with All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves, and an MVP. Lofton was barely noticed.

Conclusion

When eligible: I expect Ichiro to sail into Cooperstown. Japanese fans will flood the area, and as Ichiro watches his plaque enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. Lofton languishes outside even the purview of the Veteran's Committee (for at least a little bit longer). I don't question the worthiness of Ichiro: I'd vote for him in a heartbeat. But Lofton may be the most overlooked player of his generation, with all due respect to Kevin Brown. I hope I live long enough to see this rectified.




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