Posted August 20, 2013

Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000th hit will be a milestone to celebrate

Ichiro Suzuki, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners
Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees

Ichiro Suzuki enters Tuesday three hits away from 4,000 in his professional career. (AP)

Sometime soon the Yankees’ Ichiro Suzuki will collect his 4,000th hit in professional baseball. He got 1,278 hits in the Japanese Pacific League and had 2,719 in Major League Baseball entering Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Blue Jays, leaving him just three hits away from the milestone. His current level of play is not what it once was, but even if one regards his accomplishments in Japan separately from those in MLB, it constitutes a remarkable achievement for the 39-year-old rightfielder.

Ichiro spent seven full seasons (1994-2000) and parts of two others (1992-1993) playing for the Orix BlueWave in Nippon Professional Baseball, debuting as an 18-year-old and becoming a lineup staple at 20. In fact, despite his first manager’s initial resistance to his unorthodox swing with its high leg kick, he set an NPB record and won a batting title in that first full year, collecting 210 hits in a 130-game season, finishing with a .385 average, and winning the first of three straight MVP awards.

Ichiro thoroughly dominated during his time in Japan, hitting a combined .353/.416/.522 (the most complete statistical record of his time in the league is here), winning batting titles and earning All-Star honors and Gold Gloves in each of his seven full seasons. Because Orix was going through a rebuilding process, the team allowed him to head to MLB via the posting process — in which teams bid for the right to negotiate with a foreign player — in 2000, one year before he reached free agency. The Mariners, who had lost Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez over the previous three seasons and needed a new star attraction, won his rights by bidding $13.125 million, then signed him to a three-year contract worth $14.088 million.

That worked out pretty well, to say the least. In his first year stateside, the 27-year-old Ichiro led the majors with 242 hits and 56 steals, won the AL batting title by hitting .350 and posted a .381 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging percentage. He not only won the AL Rookie of the Year award — as a first-year major leaguer, he was eligible — but the MVP trophy as well while helping Seattle win an AL-record 116 games, though the M’s were ousted by the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

That year also began a decade-long string of All-Star and Gold Glove honors for Ichiro, not to mention 200-hit seasons and .300 averages. In 2004, he broke George Sisler’s single-season record by collecting a staggering 262 and won his second batting title with a .372/.414/.455 line. His power never fully translated from Japan; he reached double digits in home runs just three times, with a high of 15 in 2005. Nonetheless, his slashing, slap-hitting style made for a wonderfully entertaining throwback to an earlier style of baseball, a compelling contrast in an era of musclebound sluggers.

Not until 2011, when he hit .272/.310/.335, did his play fall off significantly, largely due to a decline against lefthanded pitching. Last July 23, with his five-year, $90 million contract set to expire and the Mariners struggling to rebuild, he accepted a trade to the Yankees — just prior to a series against them at Safeco Field, no less. Hitting a dismal .261/.288/.353 with Seattle, his bat nonetheless sprang to life upon donning the pinstripes. He batted .322/.340/.454 over the final 67 games of the season, helping New York win another AL East title. Surprisingly, the team re-signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal, one that didn’t look particularly wise from a pure baseball perspective but hasn’t been as bad as his .272/.307/.359 line suggests. Thanks to his defense (+12 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved), he’s been worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement, his best total since 2010, and more than enough to justify this year’s $6.5 million salary.

When he reaches 4,000 hits, Suzuki will join a very small crowd of players who attained that plateau professionally. Pete Rose holds the major league record with 4,256, and added another 427 during three seasons in the minors, for a professional total of 4,683. Ty Cobb, whose record Rose broke, is credited with 4,191 hits by the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians of MLB. Independent research by various members of the Society for American Baseball Research (including current MLB official historian John Thorn) credits him with 4,189 due to a double-counted game in 2010; it’s that total with which he’s credited at Baseball-Reference.com. The same site credits him with 166 hits in the minors, for a total of 4,355.

Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, who rank third and fourth on the all-time hit list, respectively, reached the plateau as well; the former racked up 3,771 major league hits and 324 minor league ones for a total of 4,095, while the latter accumulated 3,630 in the majors and another 371 in the minors for a total of 4,001. One much lesser known player reached 4,000 as well: Arnold “Jigger” Statz, who accumulated 737 in the majors from 1919-1928 as well as 3,356 in the Pacific Coast League in 18 seasons during the 1920-1942 span (he went back and forth between the two leagues several times) for a total of 4,083. Obviously, Statz’s accomplishment differs from that of the other four players, even if one considers that the level of play in the old PCL wasn’t far below that of MLB. Many players capable of playing in the majors found the combination of better pay and warmer climates more to their liking and forged substantial careers out west.

So too it is with Ichiro, though to a much different degree. In 2002, with that phenomenal rookie season still fresh, Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport — the inventor of Equivalent Average, a forerunner to the True Average stat that I frequently cite here as the best adjusted rate stat for hitters – studied the level of play of the NPB based upon players common to both leagues, including those from Triple-A. Crunching the numbers using weighted averages of players’ plate appearances in Japan and the U.S., his conclusion was that the NPB was about 95 percent at the level of MLB, and 110 percent at the level of Triple-A (which is about 86 percent at the level of MLB), thus as good or better than other bygone major leagues:

For perspective, the Federal League, compared to the AL and NL of the mid-[1910s], rated as .93 and .95 in its two years of existence. It is considered a major league. The American Association of the 1880s lasted nine years; compared to the NL of the same era, it rated as low as .78 (in its debut year), and eventually got as high as .94. The AA is considered a major league. The Union Association only existed for one year, 1884, and it rated at .71, about the same as the present Midwest League. It is considered, by Major League Baseball, to have been a major league (a very bad decision, in my opinion; the St. Louis team, led by Fred Dunlap, was major-league quality, but no other team in the league was.) The Players League of 1890 actually rated as stronger than the NL, with a 1.01 rating. The American League of 1901, when Nap Lajoie hit .426, has a rating of .93.

The Japanese leagues meet or beat all of them. By historical standards, the present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the “major league” label.

While several Japanese pitchers had come stateside prior to Ichiro’s debut, with Masanori Murakami (1964-1965) the first and Hideo Nomo (1995-2008) the most successful, Ichiro was the first native Japanese position player to come to America and he’s been by far the most successful. In fact, Hideki Matsui is the only other one to accumulate more than 615 hits, 48 homers or 6.3 Wins Above Replacement in the majors (his totals from 2003-2012 are 1,253, 175 and 21.2, respectively). Most of the position players who have come over have managed to blend in as average but not exceptional players, wtih Kosuke Fukudome the only one besides Suzuki and Matsui to make an All-Star team. Here’s a table of the dozen who have accumulated more than 100 plate appearances:

Player Years  PA  HR  AVG OBP  SLG  WAR
Ichiro Suzuki 2001-2013 2027 9166 110 .320 .362 .416 59.1
Hideki Matsui 2003-2012 1236 5066 175 .282 .360 .462 21.2
So Taguchi 2002-2009 672 1524 19 .279 .332 .385 2.3
Kazuo Matsui 2004-2010 630 2555 32 .267 .321 .380 5.2
Kosuke Fukudome 2008-2012 596 2276 42 .258 .359 .395 4.0
Tadahito Iguchi 2005-2008 493 2079 44 .268 .338 .401 6.3
Kenji Johjima 2006-2009 462 1722 48 .268 .310 .411 5.3
Akinori Iwamura 2007-2010 408 1755 16 .267 .345 .375 4.5
Tsuyoshi Shinjo 2001-2003 303 960 20 .245 .299 .370 3.8
Norichika Aoki 2012-2013 269 1109 17 .284 .346 .399 5.4
Munenori Kawasaki 2012-2013 133 338 1 .201 .291 .256 0.7
Tsuyoshi Nishioka 2011-2012 71 254 0 .215 .267 .236 -2.4

Note that I have excluded the Japanese-born Dave Roberts, a speedy outfielder who played 832 games in the majors from 1999-2008 and who’s best remembered for his baserunning heroics for the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS; he’s the son of a retired U.S. Marine who was living in Japan, and attended high school and college stateside. Most of those players were stars at some point in Japan, but much of that stardom was lost in translation due to a number of factors, among them age; they spent their primes in NPB before coming over in their late 20s or 30s. Suzuki is the rare exception.

As I noted a few weeks ago, considering only his MLB accomplishments, Suzuki compares reasonably well to the average Hall of Fame rightfielder using my JAWS system. The 24 such enshrined players averaged 70.9 career WAR, 42.0 peak WAR (their best seven seasons at large) and a 56.4 JAWS, the average of the two. At 59.1 WAR, Ichiro is short on career — not surprising given his abbreviated tenure — but his 43.6 peak WAR is above the line, and his 51.4 JAWS is good enough to rank 16th among all rightfielders, above 11 Hall of Famers, including Dave Winfield, Wee Willie Keeler and Enos Slaughter. Considering his robust totals, league-leading accomplishments, awards mantle and general ambassadorship of the game, I wouldn’t hesitate to cast a vote for him to enter Cooperstown (I’m still seven-plus years of BBWAA membership away from attaining that privilege). I’ll wager that the requisite supermajority of the voting body will feel similarly.

Ichiro Suzuki belongs in the Hall of Fame, and while his major league career may expire before he reaches 3,000 hits — at his current pace, he’d need two more seasons, and that’s without compensating for further decline as he passes age 40 — his 4,000th professional hit should be hailed similarly. It will be the signature accomplishment of a unique player who has brought an inimitable brand of baseball to two continents, and if you’re anywhere outside a press box, you should stand and cheer.

26 comments
OraPike
OraPike

this is good for everyone---baseball and fans----Ichiro is a hero in Japan and has earned it.

metalhead65
metalhead65

this crap is why I refuse to to bother with metrics. let's invent enough to make it look like the japanese leagues are the same as the majors. no matter what you invent they never will be and ichiro will never be in the same league as Pete Rose when it comes to hits.he is the all time leader and always will be,nobody is breaking his mark and there is a big difference between 4.00 big league hits and the ones ichiro has. not the same so stop embarrassing yourselves in saying they are. 

nonplussed33
nonplussed33

The best statistic to assess the offensive contributions of average/leadoff/speed type players is Runs Created.  

 And in that category, Ichiro's numbers are AWESOME.  

Ichiro averaged > 100 RC/Year over the course of his MLB career.  

That's better than all of his apple-to-apple competitors:  Boggs, Molitor, Raines, Brock, Gwynn, Carew, Biggio, Ashburn, Henderson.  All < 97 RC/Year.  

And for those who prefer players who are HURT 20% of the time, Ichiro still has a better RC/Game than Brock, Rose and Biggio.

HOF First Ballot.

Realist
Realist

Meh. Kind of like having the career record for minor league home runs. And he's always been a slap hitter who never took a pitch and was horrible at situational hitting. Great arm, though.


MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

WAR, JAWS...phoney-baloney stats.

IMHO, Ichiro is a Hall of Famer because of his hitting and defense, and he's played in the U.S. long enough for his accomplishments to be considered long-term and legit.

As for all the fancy stats, if a sportswriter needs them to tell him who a great player is, or at least to explain to people why he thinks so, then the standard of sports writing has dropped to a depressingly low level.

MichaelC
MichaelC

I think Ichiro is a lock as a first-ballot HOF. I understand some of his numbers don't reflect or comp well but the voters won't fixate on that. They understand his importance as an immensely popular international figure, someone who succeeded in the MLB when a fair amount of people believed he would fail, and he does have some "famous" achievements - single season hits record, 10x 200-hit seasons in a row, a couple batting titles, 10x Gold Gloves, 10x All-Star, MVP, etc. Again, his overall numbers don't glow quite as nicely with a handful of mediocre seasons since 2010 but I don't think the voters will hold that against him.

RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

You must include his Japanese professional career which puts him over 4000 hits when he is done.  And with all the glorious media from Japan bringing a nation to care about MLB besides USA I think Suzuki deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.  He has the MVP title, he has batting titles, gold gloves and all star games.  He was the best hitter in the league for a long time.  If he does in fact get 3000 MLB hits considering he didnt join the league until age 27, he belongs in the Hall.  Just a humble opinion on a player I really like and nothing against other players who deserve their shot in the Hall.

therantguy
therantguy

I am not really sure I get why he's supposed to be a Hall of Famer. Honestly, he's a great leadoff guy and has had a wonderfully solid career but his OBP isn't tremendous (.362) for a guy who has zero power and has a career OPS+ of 112. Sure, he gets some credit for Japan (it's the baseball HOF not MLB HOF) but there are 32 guys with a career WAR higher who aren't in the HOF.


If my choice was Frank Thomas, Barry Larkin, Tim Raines et al or Ichiro? Nobody in their right mind would pick a one dimensional singles hitter who doesn't walk over them. I think there are easily 15 guys not currently in the HOF I'd rather have than Ichiro.

JFish
JFish

I stopped reading after the second sentence, which is so full of errors as to make the rest of the article suspect.

RobOlds
RobOlds

Nice accomplishment, but note that Ichiro will NOT be considered to be the third player with 4,000 hits.  That honor belongs only to Ty Cobb and Pete Rose.

ShelbyGilligan
ShelbyGilligan

@metalhead65 I think that Pete might tell you differently. Ichiro would hit wherever he played. He has a work horse mentality just like Rose. Neither were supposed to be successful, yet both are/were just that. I am a mega Reds fan and love Pete Rose, their approach to the game is like a mirror image of one another. 


ChadMoriyama
ChadMoriyama

@MidwestGolfFanYou mean you think writing has dropped because we require them to now use facts as opposed to flowery words and BS?

Those stats are only "made-up" to you because you don't understand them. Has the state of our education system dropped to such a "depressingly low level"?

Realist
Realist

@RayHuggyBearYoung He was NEVER EVER, not for a single day, the best hitter in baseball. Great at legging out infield hits, but at any point in time there were 20 more valuable hitters playing.


nonplussed33
nonplussed33

@therantguy First, you cannot compare leadoff/speed hitters to sluggers, especially when it comes to OBP and OPS.  Sabermetric nuts that don't get this are just accountants!  There isn't a pitcher in the world who cares if they walk Miguel Cabrera, especially with nobody on base or with 2 outs.    You have to compare apples to apples: Ichiro's offensive skills (hitting and base-running), while not up there with Rickey, Raines or Boggs were twofold:  He was 1) Very Durable and 2) close to players like Lou Brock and Tony Gwynn.  AND:  Players like Rickey and Raines were awesome -- but they were LUCKY to finish a season with 140 games.  As for those who say Ichiro made too many outs:  Tell that to Cal Ripken Jr.

bjvande
bjvande

@therantguy Nice rant, BTW 

Let's ignore the quality of his time in Japan, and simply look what he did in MLB.   

He holds the major league record for most consecutive seasons with 200 hits.  No one, not Ty Cobb, Hank Aaraon, Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente (pick a name) has ever accomplished this.      

He holds the record for hits in a season at 262.   Again, no one has ever accomplished this feat in over 100 years of baseball. 


Looks like a Hall of Fame career from here

equiners
equiners

@therantguy, If Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall Of Fame then Suzuki more than deserves the honor.

GeoffreyHolland
GeoffreyHolland

@therantguy Well, Larkin is in, Thomas will get in, and Raines hopefully will make his way in soon. Ichiro's hitting isn't the only thing he had going for him, as his defense has obviously been a major factor in his career. I agree that his power and OBP are weak, but he did also steal 469 bases with 105 caught stealing (81.7%) (as of yesterday), so that helps as well.

I think he deserves to get in.


MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@ChadMoriyama@MidwestGolfFan 

A hodgepodge of mathematical functions may be able to describe natural phenomena, but not real life.  Еven between the white chalk lines, reality can't be reduced to a mathematical formula. 

You're free to believe that if you like.  You're not free to insult me.

RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

@GeoffreyHolland @JFish I always find the commenter who just wants to complain about the article.  while some readers can look past any mistakes and just get the gist of the aritcle.  congrats Geoffrey and join us Fish.

JFish
JFish

@RayHuggyBearYoung @GeoffreyHolland @JFish They fixed the errors. The second sentence originally had the wrong number of hits and said the doubleheader was Thursday. But good job standing up for shoddy journalism, guys.