Celebrating The Singularity Of Ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki (photo by Ed Wolfstein)
Ichiro Suzuki (photo by Ed Wolfstein)
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At some point in the next week or two, Ichiro Suzuki will collect his 3,000th major league hit and become the 30th player ever to reach that milestone.

The Marlins begin a lengthy homestand on Friday, July 22, making that 10-game stretch the probable date range for the 42-year-old Japanese marvel to achieve his goal.

Every member of the 3,000-hit club is enshrined in Cooperstown except for those who sabotaged their own chances (Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro) or are not yet eligible (Derek Jeter) or are still active (Alex Rodriguez). That is to say, Ichiro probably will sail into the Hall of Fame when eligible. The right fielder stands out not only for his performance—he owns the single-season hit record, the 2001 American League MVP trophy and the acclaim of his peers for his across-the-board excellence—but also for his role as a pioneer.

Without Ichiro paving the way for Japanese position players, Hideki Matsui probably never stars for the Yankees in the 2009 World Series, nor do others like Tadahito Iguchi (2005 White Sox), Kazuo Matsui (2007 Rockies), Akinori Iwamura (2008 Rays) or Nori Aoki (2014 Royals) fill key roles for pennant winners. Aside from his unassuming physique, the most remarkable aspect of Ichiro’s quest for 3,000 hits is the fact that he didn’t collect hit No. 1 until he was 27 years old. The next-oldest 3,000-hit man to get a late start was Wade Boggs, who was about two months shy of his 24th birthday when he collected his first hit for the Red Sox in 1982.

Ichiro clearly didn’t let a late introduction to Major League Baseball slow him. He collected at least 200 hits for 10 straight seasons—a major league record—and accumulated more hits in his 30s—2,080 of them—than any player in history. Additionally, the 10-time all-star won two AL batting titles, 10 Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers—which is remarkable when you realize he never hit more than 15 home runs in a season.

These facts are unassailable, but a more esoteric distinction made headlines on June 15, when Ichiro collected his 4,257th career major league hit—if you count his 25 combined seasons in the Japanese and American majors. Rose, who retired at age 45 with 4,256 major league hits, accumulated his total over 24 seasons in the National League.

What Might Have Been

Major League Baseball does not recognize Ichiro as its all-time hits leader, and it’s hard to build a convincing case that it should.

However, it is accurate to say that Ichiro has amassed more hits in the top professional leagues for which he was eligible to play than any player in history. Ichiro played his first nine pro seasons with Orix, the Japanese club for which he debuted in 1992 and to which he was contractually bound through age 26. This is a common situation for Japanese stars, because Nippon Professional Baseball clubs typically control the rights of players into their mid-20s*, and very few players choose to circumvent NPB tradition.

One wonders, though, how Ichiro’s career might have transpired had he debuted in the U.S. majors at age 20, which was his first year as an everyday player for Orix in 1994.

Fans aren’t the only ones who wonder. Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, when asked about Ichiro at this year’s All-Star Game, marveled at his bat control.

“Just his knowledge of the strike zone for however many years now is incredible,” Arrieta said. “I think it would’ve been remarkable for him to play his whole career here, just to see how many hits he could’ve actually had.”

Ichiro amassed 1,278 hits and batted .353 in his nine seasons in Japan, seven of which he spent as a regular. He set the Japanese record for single-season hits (since broken) with 210 in 1994, and he won seven straight batting titles. He averaged 218 hits per 700 plate appearances in Japan, compared with 204 hits per 700 PA in his 16 U.S. seasons, during which time he has hit .314 for the Mariners, Yankees and Marlins.

Lost In Translation?

Scouts and talent evaluators generally equate the quality of play in the Japanese majors with Triple-A ball in the U.S., meaning that few would equate one NPB hit with one MLB hit. But if we could arrive at a sensible conversion rate, we could translate Ichiro’s Japanese hits to a U.S. context. For the sake of argument, let’s say one NPB hit is equal to three-quarters of a hit in the U.S. That would shrink his NPB hit total from 1,278 to 959. Add that to his projected 3,000 MLB hits, and Ichiro’s combined professional total would check in at 3,959, which would be more than any player in history except for Rose and Ty Cobb. Suzuki, Ichiro Ichiro with Orix in the 1990s (from the BA photo archive)

Keep in mind that NPB plays a 144-game schedule and that Ichiro spent seven seasons of his athletic prime playing fewer games than even MLB’s old 154-game schedule. Think we’re over-rating NPB competition? Then let’s apply an even steeper discount to Ichiro’s work in Japan and assign half-credit to each of his NPB hits. His Japanese hit total now shrinks from 1,278 to 639, which when added to his 3,000 MLB hits would give him 3,639 adjusted major league hits.

Would you believe that even after giving Ichiro half-credit for his NPB excellence—not even accounting for a shorter season or for the loss of seven prime seasons—that his adjusted major league hit total (3,639) would place him fourth all-time in MLB history, behind Rose (4,256), Cobb (4,189) and Hank Aaron (3,771) but ahead of Stan Musial (3,630)? In other words, if parallel-universe Ichiro began his U.S. career at age 20 and was roughly half as productive as he was in Japan, he probably would be closing in on 3,700 hits right now.

If he turned out to be roughly 75 percent as productive, then he probably would be nearing 4,000 hits. Of course, if parallel-universe Ichiro was exactly as good in the U.S. as he was in Japan from age 20 to 26, then he probably would have claimed Rose’s hit record by now—if only for the longer U.S. season.

Peer Praise

Singularity. The word appears in the headline to this piece. But can any player in today’s game be considered truly unique? Haven’t we seen it all before?

Take a look at Ichiro’s most similar batters at Baseball-Reference.com, and you’ll find deadball-era stars such as Zack Wheat, Fred Clarke, Harry Hooper, Max Carey and Willie Keeler featured prominently. Truly, few Expansion Era players combine Ichiro’s blend of talents. In Baseball America Best Tools balloting, opposing managers bestowed Ichiro with awards as the best hitter, fastest baserunner, best defensive outfielder and best outfield arm in the AL on multiple occasions between the years 2001 and 2010.

Braves ace Julio Teheran offers a pitcher’s take: “He’s the kind of hitter you don’t know sometimes what to throw. That’s how I feel when I face Ichiro . . . Even now, he can hit whatever you throw him. He’s still fun to watch—when we’re not playing him.”

Ichiro at his peak had four plus tools, and they all played on the field. Though tales of his batting-practice power display grew to be something of an urban legend, credible sources confirm the account.

“Ichiro is one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, who was teammates with Ichiro for two seasons with the Yankees. “He goes on the field during batting practice and hits every ball out. He has power with anyone in the game. Then the game starts and he’s a guy who just hits line drive after line drive and gets base hits. He never goes out of his zone. He always has the same swing, and he does the same work every day.

“He’s still impressive . . . not only the way he is hitting, but the way he’s playing the outfield, his arm, and he can still run. He’s fun to watch, and I love the way he plays.”

The Match Game

Ichiro’s high-end speed and swing mechanics, which carry him toward first base, predispose him to hitting singles. In fact, he has hit more singles in his MLB career than any Integration Era player enshrined in Cooperstown—though Ichiro will lose that distinction if or when Rose or Jeter are elected to the Hall of Fame.

A singles-heavy diet must necessarily lack in extra-base hits, however, and Ichiro has compiled a career isolated slugging percentage of .091. That figure is lower than any Integration Era, writer-elected Hall of Famer except for shortstops Ozzie Smith (.066) and Luis Aparicio (.081), both elite defenders.

Here are Ichiro’s rate statistics compared with every writer-elected, Integration-Era Hall of Famer with an isolated slugging of .120 or lower. Players sorted in ascending order of debut season.

Player Pos PA AVG ISO BB% SO% Spd GG
Luis Aparicio SS 11,230 .262 .081 6.6 6.6 5.3 9
Lou Brock LF 11,240 .293 .118 6.8 15.4 5.9 0
Rod Carew 2B 10,550 .328 .101 9.6 9.7 4.1 0
Ozzie Smith SS 10,778 .262 .066 9.9 5.5 5.3 13
Wade Boggs 3B 10,740 .328 .115 13.1 6.9 1.9 2
Tony Gwynn RF 10,232 .338 .120 7.7 4.2 4.3 5
Ichiro Suzuki RF 10,298 .314 .091 6.0 9.8 5.3 10

In the table above, Spd is short for Bill James speed score and GG stands for Gold Glove awards.

Rod Carew appears as the No. 2 most similar player to Ichiro on his Baseball-Reference page, and it’s easy to see why. Both players were consistent .300 hitters with below-average power for the corner positions they frequently played. Carew, who started more games at first base than any other position, walked more frequently and hit for a higher average, but Ichiro balanced the scale with larger contributions via speed and defensive value.

But the two players are only somewhat similar. Perhaps Ichiro’s career would have more closely resembled Tony Gwynn’s had he spent his 20s in the U.S. rather than Japan. That would have presumably boosted his career average and power production by centering his best years in MLB. Ultimately, though, Ichiro doesn’t have a direct comparable who excelled in exactly the same areas that he did, making him perhaps baseball’s most singular talent of the past seven decades.

Contributing: Kyle Glaser gathered player quotes at the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego.

* Rather than lose star players to U.S. teams as free agents, many Japanese clubs elect to “post” those players before their contracts expire. For example, the Mariners outbid other teams and paid roughly $13 million to Orix for exclusive negotiating rights with Ichiro in November 2000. Years later, the Red Sox and Rangers paid $51 million just to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish.

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