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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 29, 2008 10:17 AM

Ichiro's 3,000 worthy?

Posted by Geoff Baker

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All quiet on the Jarrod Washburn front. Like I said, what you've got here is an old-fashioned standoff, with neither the New York Yankees nor the Mariners budging from their positions. This writer in New York even used the same "game of chicken" comparison we talked about yesterday morning. He's right. This story describes the usual trade scenario we've mentioned, that it was going to be either Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner going to Seattle along with Washburn and all his salary off to New York. Never both players for Washburn. That would have been a fleecing and the M's rarely end upon the plus side of one of those deals.

Anyhow, the M's just might have to be willing to hold on to Washburn. We've had plenty of debate about this before. Is he for real? Are patsy opponents and an improved defense making him look better than he is? More on that -- especially the defense -- later in this post.

But now, let's deal with the 20,000 pound elephant in the room.

At some point tonight, Ichiro will likely notch the 3,000th hit of his combined major league and Japanese League career. We've heard a lot of commentary about the vailidity of this milestone. I go back and forth on it, personally. In fact, I was willing to dismiss it outright until Jim Riggleman mentioned something yesterday that cannot be overlooked. The fact that Ichiro has compiled his major league hit total of 1,721 (he had 1,278 in Japan) faster than any other player in history.

In actuality, Ichiro is compiling his major league hit totals faster than he did in eight seasons of professional baseball in Japan. Perhaps the era of the three-run homer in MLB caused teams here to position themselves to defend against the big hit rather than the infield and slap singles that Ichiro tends to pile up? Who's to say he wouldn't have already been at 3,000 hits had he begun his career here?

Don't forget. He also played minor league baseball in Japan.

So, this isn't the same as saying that if you reward Ichiro, you have to take the Class AAA stats of all other players and count them as well. The Japanese pro ranks are superior to minor league American baseball. Some would call it a AAAA league.

But I'll throw this out there. Who's to say the hit totals of Amercian ballplayers weren't being inflated throughout the 1990s steroids era? Maybe it was actually tougher to get hits in Japan, playing in a league where rampant drug use wasn't nearly as prevalent -- or tolerated?

Baseball isn't the only sport where the caliber of "professional" leagues comes into play. Let's talk about local football legend Warren Moon. I actually watched him play live in the Canadian Football League a few times as a kid growing up cheering on my Montreal Alouettes against his Edmonton Eskimos. Many folks want to discount the passing yardage he compiled in Canada, as they do with Doug Flutie, when it comes to looking at career totals. They say the level of competition is not as serious in the CFL.

To that, I say, major pro ball is major pro ball. Moon spent six years getting knocked on his back by guys good enough to play in the NFL in many cases. In temperatures of 40-below when it came to playoff time. The difference between the CFL and NFL can often be boiled down to a few more talented guys at certain skill positions. They are different games. But they are played at full speed at the highest levels. Dexter Manley did not go up to the CFL and dominate. Neither did Mark Gastineau. They were done as players and exposed badly, even in the "inferior" CFL. Joe Theisman won a Super Bowl. But he failed to win his only Grey Cup (CFL title) game. Others, like Moon, Flutie, Jeff Garcia, or "Rocket" Ismail, do well in both leagues. Some don't.

When a team of National Hockey League stars went over to Europe to play club teams during the 1992 lockout, they often found themselves in over their head. When NBA stars played for the U.S. at the World Championships this decade, they were hammered by Argentina and Yugoslavia. A club team from Israel beat the Toronto Raptors in an exhibition game. Pro is pro. Once again, the difference between one league and the other can be marginal. Yes, the NHL is the best hockey league in the world, the NBA is the best basketball league and the NFL the best football league. And MLB is still the best place to play baseball. But by what margin is it the best?

I'd argue, not as much as you'd suspect. Many times, whether you play in one league or the other can come down to politics, height and weight. Is that the best measurement? Hey, if sheer size were all that mattered, a lot of those Ultimate Fighting matches would be over before the opening bell. But watch the fights themselves. The size of a guy's biceps is rarely what decides the outcome.

To that end, I think it's somewhat insulting to Ichiro to discount all of his Japanese hits out-of-hand as the product of playing in the equivalent of a AAA league.

Let's face it, at his age, he may never get to prove he could notch 3,000 hits in a major league uniform. The fact that I have to qualify that statement -- leaving open the possibility he still might do it -- shows you what kind of talent he is. Based on the evidence in front of me, I see no reason to believe he would not have done it. So, why not reward him for the next best thing?


I'll let you chew on that for a bit and get back to Washburn for a moment.

After last night's discussion, some of you wrote in making the argument that Seattle's improved defense has been the driving force behind Washburn's sizzling numbers over the past two months -- namely, a 2.89 ERA in his last 11 outings. You pointed out that the addition of Jeremy Reed and Willie Bloomquist in center -- but more so Reed -- plus Ichiro in right field over Wladimir Balentien has helped make the M's a more defensively efficient team. Same with the addition of Miguel Cairo at first base over Richie Sexson.

Well, I can't argue with that. The M's are a better defensive team overall. But let's limit the discussion to Washburn for a moment, since we're talking about him.

Since the start of that 11-game run of success, dating back to May 25, Reed has played center field in exactly four of those outings. In three of the outings, he didn't play at all. So, I'd say his impact as a center fielder has been minimal for Washburn. He did play four games in right field, replacing Wladimir Balentien, which is an upgrade. But how much difference will an upgrade in right field alone matter to a pitcher? I know it matters, but to a lesser degree than an upgrade in center.

Let's take a look at first base and the impact swapping Sexson for Cairo has had on Washburn. I'd say very little so far. Cairo has played good defense at first base, but Sexson was still the actual first baseman for seven of the 11 outings during Washburn's stretch. Jose Vidro was the first baseman for one and no, I don't consider him a defensive upgrade. Bryan LaHair got the last two first base assignments with Washburn pitching and while he may be an upgrade over Sexson, it's tough to negate the previous nine starts by Washburn just because of that. Cairo has had exactly one start at first base behind Washburn -- back on June 15.

So, I'd say the "improved" infield defense for Washburn is negligible. Have Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt improved defensively during those 11 Washburn starts? If they have, it's been minimal again. And I'm not sure it's to the point where it would even be statistically relevant to the pitcher.

Raul Ibanez has been the left fielder for all of those Washburn starts. Ichiro and Willie Bloomquist have been in center for seven of the 11. As for late-game defensive substitutions, I'd say they're largely irrelevant to the fate of a pitcher going six or seven innings and who is out of the game by the time those subs become an issue.

In other words, based on the only sample size we have to go off, Washburn has benefitted most from improved defense in right field. Perhaps a bit in center. Almost nothing at all in the infield. Is that enough to shave two runs off his ERA over a two-month period? Or get him up to six or seven innings -- even eight -- per start as opposed to anywhere from three to five? That's stretching things a bit. I have no doubt it helped, but at some point you have to give credit to the pitcher. We've been hearing the "he's going to implode" line for two months. What if he isn't?

And wait, let me flip the argument around. If indeed this defensive boost is what's really propping up Washburn, then should the M's not keep him? I mean, the defense isn't going anyplace. Trot out a Big Three of Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn next season.

Why cash-dump Washburn if he's really a seven inning guy with a sub-3.00 ERA thanks to a few defensive switches? Maybe it was -- based on the defensive arguments I'm hearing -- the previously poor D that was causing Washburn to look so bad?

Like I said, I'm not totally buying that. But it does give you food for thought.



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