Ichiro Exceeded Expectations From The Start

Image credit: Ichiro (Getty Images)

When Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Mariners in Nov. 2000, there was plenty of public skepticism how his skills would translate to Major League Baseball.

The seven-time defending batting champion in Japan’s Pacific League, Ichiro nonetheless entered MLB at a time when Japanese success stories were exclusively pitchers. No Japanese position player had ever been signed by an MLB club before Ichiro, and even his own manager Lou Piniella tempered expectations, saying he would be happy if Ichiro hit .270 or .280.

But the scouts who watched Ichiro in Japan knew he had elite hitting potential, and the chance to be special. As such, Baseball America ranked Ichiro the No. 9 prospect in the game prior to the 2001 season. Here is his scouting report from the 2001 Prospect Handbook:

Known by the single-name moniker of Ichiro in his homeland, he is the seven-time defending batting champion in Japan’s Pacific League. He attended spring training with the Mariners in 1999, and when the Orix Blue Wave made him available to major league teams, Seattle bid $13.125 million for the right to sign him, then inked him to a three-year, $22 million deal.

Ichiro has been compared to Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn as a hitter because he rarely strikes out and uses the entire field. Some scouts believe he’ll contend for the American League batting crown right away. He runs well and has the speed and ability to play center field or either of the corners. He owns an accurate arm that plays well, even in right field. The biggest knock on him has been a lack of power, but like Boggs and Gwynn, he may have the ability to hit for more power at the expense of some batting average. With Mike Cameron in center, the Mariners will play Ichiro in right field. He should provide spark from the leadoff spot the team has lacked for years.

Ichiro hit .321 (25 for 78) with 11 runs, five doubles, two triples, two home runs, nine RBIs and three stolen bases in his first spring training with the Mariners in 2001 to earn their starting right field job on Opening Day. He made his ML debut on April 2 and went 2-for-5 out of the leadoff spot against the Athletics, the start of an MVP season and a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Ichiro lived up to every expectation in his initial scouting report, joining Gwynn and Boggs as a member of the 3,000-hit club despite not making his major league debut until he was 27.

He retires with 3,089 hits, 509 stolen bases, 10 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves, two batting titles, the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards and baseball’s single-season hits record. He earned the adulation of his contemporaries and was chosen by MLB managers in Best Tools balloting as the American League’s Most Exciting Player five times, Best Baserunner eight times, Fastest Baserunner three times, Best Hitter For Average three times, Best Bunter five times, Best Defensive Outfielder seven times and having the Best Outfield Arm nine times.

Perhaps most important, he dismantled stereotypes about Japanese position players and helped open the door for future signees such as Hideki MatsuiKosuke FukudomeKenji JohjimaTadahito Iguchi and Akinori Iwamura, among others. Prior to Ichiro’s debut, no Japanese position player had ever played in MLB. In the 18 years since, there have been 14. 

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