This is going to be about Ichiro Suzuki, and so you may find it strange that it begins with Nolan Ryan. I think the comparison will make sense by the time we’re done here, but frankly I’m a bit worried about something. I’m worried that people will think I’m making judgements about Ichiro and Ryan, about the way they play the game, about their CHOICES in baseball. I’m not. I don’t even know that they have actually MADE choices. This probably doesn’t make any sense to you at all. Maybe it will. Well, we will just dive in and see where this thing goes.
Let’s start with an odd question: Was Nolan Ryan (compared with the greatest pitchers in baseball history) better at striking out batters or better at walking them?
An odd question, yes. Ryan, you probably know, is the all-time record holder in strikeouts with 5,714. Only Randy Johnson, in baseball history, is within 1,000 strikeouts of Ryan. Nobody is within 800 Ks.
Ryan, you probably know, is also the all-time record holder in walks with 2,795. Only Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro are within 1,000 walks. Nobody is within 950.
So what record is more impressive, if impressive is the word to use? Well, by quick-and-dirty percentages, the walk record is far more impressive. Ryan struck out 17% more batters than No. 2 Randy Johnson, which is amazing. But he walked 53% more batters than Steve Carlton, which is off the charts. To give you an idea just how remarkable that is, look a this:
— Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record with 2,857 points.
— Mark Messier is second with 1,887 points.
That means Gretzky has scored 51.4% more points than any player in the history of the NHL. That also means that the gap between Gretzky and anyone else when it comes to points is SMALLER than the gap between Ryan and anyone else when it comes to walks.
Look at this:
— Jerry Rice holds the NFL record with 22,895 receiving yards.
— Issac Bruce is second with 15,208 yards.
That means Rice has gained 50.5% more receiving yards than any player in the history of NFL. And yes, that gap too is smaller than the gap between Ryan and any other pitcher in walks.
Ryan is simply untouchable as a walker. Yes, he was amazing at striking people out — especially considering that hitters didn’t strike out as much in the era when he pitched — but there are other people in the “greatest strikeout pitcher” argument. Johnson, after all, struck out 10.6 per nine innings, more than one strikeout per game higher than Ryan. Pedro Martinez had a significantly better strikeout rate. Sandy Koufax’s career was much shorter, but once he figured things out — the last eight years of his career — his strikeout rate was virtually identical to Ryan’s. Walter Johnson led the league in strikeouts 12 times when hitters didn’t strike out. You certainly could argue that Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher ever, and you would have the hammer stat of “career strikeouts” as your closing argument. But there IS an argument.
But when it comes to walks — no argument. None. If Bobby Witt or Johnny Vandemeer had managed to hang on a bit longer, maybe they could be in the discussion. But for pitchers with enduring careers — 2,500 innings or 150 wins — Ryan is all alone. His 4.67 walks per nine innings is epic. He averaged a full walk more per nine than any pitcher in the 300-win club. Only Feller and Bobo Newsome, among pitcher who won 200 games, walked more than 4 batters per nine, and neither are within a half walk of Ryan.
OK, but, those are just numbers. What do they mean?
Well, I think this means something pretty obvious: Nolan Ryan pitched a certain way, and never really stopped pitching that certain way. He pitched for the strikeout. Always. Now, here’s where I want to again make the point about choices. I don’t know that this was a choice on Ryan’s part. I’m not sure that Ryan (as many people have suggested) COULD have pulled back, induced more contact, sacrificed some strikeouts for better control. The theme that surrounded Ryan, as Bill James pointed out in the New Historical Abstract, is that he never compromised, never gave in, and people disagreed whether this was being true to himself and his craft (the majority opinion) or bullheadedness that prevented him from being a greater but less noteworthy pitcher (the minority opinion). Again, I really don’t know. Maybe Nolan Ryan DECIDED to pitch that way. Then again, maybe he HAD to pitch that way.
The reasons why Ryan pitched the way he did — by choice or by need — are not really material here. The point here is that Ryan was quite possibly the best ever at two pretty significant (and related) pitcher things:
1. He was probably the greatest strikeout pitcher ever.
2. He was probably the hardest pitcher ever to hit.
Those two things could have made Ryan the best pitcher in baseball history. But they didn’t. No pitcher in baseball history has given up fewer hits per nine innings (6.55). And yet, when you look Ryan’s walks and hits per inning — his WHIP — he suddenly jumps up to, well, take a guess. Go ahead. Where do you think Ryan ranks in WHIP, remembering that he’s No. 1 in hits per nine innings pitched.
I suspect you guessed low. Try 265th. Marty Pattin had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. Bill Swift had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. John Smiley had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. And so on.
No pitcher struck out more batters. But then you add in the walks. You throw in his remarkable skill at throwing wild pitches — his 277 is 50 more than second-place Phil Niekro. You throw in his preposterous inability to prevent runners from stealing bases — Ryan’s 757 stolen bases allowed are BY FAR the most allowed; that’s 200-plus more than Greg Maddux, who is second on the list. You throw in his general struggles with fielding his position. No good pitcher in baseball history did the big things better; but perhaps no good pitcher in baseball history did the little things worse. And that is how a guy most would call the most unhittable and greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history ends up with a bland 112 ERA+ and ends up over an astonishingly long career allowing more runs than any pitcher in history except Niekro.
Because of all this it’s hard to really define Ryan as a pitcher. He’s the most extraordinary pitcher who ever lived, I think. But I also think he’s not especially close to the best.
Which leads us to Ichiro. I would say that Ichiro Suzuki, even with his career still going and even though he spent his first few years in Japan, is already the greatest singles hitter in the history of Major League baseball. At this point, I’m not even sure there’s a runner-up.
You already know all about Ichiro’s hit exploits. He is:
— The first player in baseball history to get 200 hits in eight, nine and now 10 consecutive seasons.
— About to lead the league in hits for the seventh time — and his other three big league seasons he finished second.
— The only player in baseball history to get 675 plate appearances and hit .300 10 years in a row (Lou Gehrig was close but one year he fell just three plate appearances short).
Let’s put it this way: Ichiro came to America when he was 27 years old. At that point, he had 1,278 hits in Japan. You cannot count those hits in the Major Leagues, of course, but I’d say if anything, 1,278 hits is probably FEWER hits than he would have had he started his career here. Anyway, for fun, let’s give him those 1,278 hits.
He doesn’t turn 37 until October, so that means that through his age 36 season, he has had 3,510 professional baseball hits. Here’s how that would rank in baseball history.
Hits through age 36:
1. Ichiro, 3,510
2. Ty Cobb, 3,453
3. Hank Aaron, 3,110
4. Robin Young, 3.025
5. Pete Rose, 2.966*
*Put it this way: When I talked to Pete for The Machine, he flat told me: “Hey, tell Ichiro he can even count his hits in Japan. I don’t care. He ain’t getting to 4,000 hits” Yep, Pete was a big man then. But Ichiro has had something like 700 or 800 hits since then, and I now see interviews with Pete singing a different tune about how — COME ON! Japan is Triple A baseball! You can’t count those hits! You’ve got to be KIDDING ME! What do you want to count my hits in MACON?
That little change sums up Pete Rose the man just about as well as anything else.
So, you know what kind of hit machine Ichiro has been. Well, you should also know that 81% — EIGHTY ONE PERCENT of his hits — have been singles. If that sounds high, well, yeah, it’s historically high. We’ll get to that in a minute. Ichiro is a singles man. He has four of the Top 10 singles seasons in baseball history, and half of those Top 10 seasons were in the 19th century.
If you start in 1901, the Top 5 singles seasons look like this:
1. Ichiro, 225 (2004)
2. Ichiro, 206 (2007)
3. Lloyd Waner, 198 (1927)
4. Ichiro, 192 (2001)
5. Wade Boggs, 187 (1985)
He has led the league in singles every single season he has been in the big leagues. Every single year. And not only has he led the league, he has DESTROYED the league.
2001: Led league by 53 singles (Shannon Stewart runner up).
2002: Led league by 18 singles (Derek Jeter).
2003: Led league by 14 singles (Michael Young)
2004: Led league by 73 singles (Young)
2005: Led league by 5 singles (Jeter)
2006: Led league by 28 singles (Jeter)
2007: Led league by 48 singles (Young)
2008: Led league by 36 singles (Orlando Cabrera)
2009: Led league by 13 singles (Jeter)
2010: Leads league by 18 singles (Juan Pierre)
He is simply untouchable as a literal-sense “hitter.” He is the Nolan Ryan of hits. He is the Nolan Ryan of singles. Like with Ryan, you cannot help but feel awe watching the man perform. He’s absolutely amazing.
But, wait. Amazing is one thing. How GOOD an offensive player is Ichiro? And this takes us into more complicated territory. Because, like Ryan, it seems that Ichiro does big things a lot better than he does little things. Ichiro is probably the best at hitting ’em where they ain’t since the speaker of that quote, Wee Willie Keeler. But that’s not all there is to being a great offensive players, is it?
No. It’s not. Yes, Ichiro he has 200 hits every single season — he’s leading the lead for the seventh time — but do you know how many times he has led the league in times on base?
Once. That was 2004.
In fact, except for 2004, he has never finished second or third in times on base either. His 260 hits in a season is a record, of course, but his career-high 315 times on base actually ranks in a tie for 58th all-time, just one ahead of Chuck Knoblauch’s 1996 season and one behind Mo Vaughn’s 1996 season.
And, more, that’s the ONLY time Ichiro has gotten on base 300 times in a season. His next best was 290 times on base in 2007 — and that ranks in a tie for 257th all-time (tied with, among others, Bobby Abreu in 2006, Tony Phillips in 1996 and Bernie Williams in 2002 — and those were not the career high seasons for any of the three).
The big reason for the gap is that Ichiro doesn’t walk. He just doesn’t. He’s led the league in hitting twice and finished second twice more. But he’s never led the league in on-base percentage, only once finished in the Top 5, one three times finished in the Top 10.
His .376 on-base percentage is certainly good, but he’s hitting .331 — it’s almost all batting average. Put it this way; There are 25 players in baseball history with 3,000 or more plate appearances and a batting average of higher than .325. Twenty five super-high average players. Ichiro Suzuki has the lowest on-base percentage of any of them.
He is walking one time in 16 plate appearances. That’s just an extremely low number, especially for a good hitter.
So he doesn’t walk. That means that while his hitting is historically great, his on-base percentage is not. Among players with 3,000 or more plate appearances, his on-base percentage is tied for 131st.
OK, well, what about those hits? Well, as I mentioned, 81% of his hits are singles. Even among those relatively light-hitting players, that’s really high.
Here is the singles percentage for some players you might consider light-hitting greats:
— Ichiro, 81%
— Tony Gwynn, 76%
— Pete Rose, 76%
— George Sisler, 75%
— Wade Boggs, 75%
— Ty Cobb, 73%
Ichiro’s singles percentage is higher than Ozzie Smith’s. It’s higher than Jason Kendall’s (yes it is). It’s higher than Luis Aparicio, Bert Campaneris, Bill Buckner and Kenny Lofton. It’s not the all-time mark — other very good hitters like Richie Ashburn and Stuffy McInnis and Lloyd Waner have a higher singles percentage. But in fact, those are probably the ONLY three good hitters who have a higher singles percentage — maybe Maury Wills, depending on how good a hitter you think he was.
So, what’s wrong with a single? Nothing. But it ain’t a double. Ichiro’s .430 slugging percentage is certainly low for a .331 hitter, especially in today’s big-hitting era. Jef Cirillo slugged .430. Hal Morris slugged .433.
So, mainly what Ichiro gives you are lots of singles — line drives, hard grounders up the middle, bloops, bleeders through the infield, high-choppers. Are these aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely. Are these valuable? You bet. Are these more valuable than walks? Yes, of course, well, somewhat. But do a barrage of singles without many walks put Ichiro in the luxury line of hitters with Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera or Josh Hamilton or Robinson Cano or those sorts of guys.
I’d have to say no.
And the numbers would say no even more forcefully. This year, Ichiro does not rank in the Top 50 in batting runs according to Fangraphs.
In 2009, Ichiro ranked 36th.
In 2008, he did not rank in the Top 50.
In 2007, he ranked 31st.
In 2006, he did not rank in the Top 50.
in 2005, he did not rank in the Top 50
IN 2004, he ranked 20th.
And so on. His career OPS+ is 117, which ties him for 367th all-time and ranks lower than, among others, Mickey Tettleton, who hit 90 points lower.
I hear from people in and out of baseball all the time that Ichiro could be a different kind of hitter if he wanted. He could take some points of the average and hit with more power. He could muscle up and hit 25 homers a year. He could attack pitchers differently and draw 100 walks a season. Like I said at the top I have no idea if this is true.
What I do think is that Ichiro Suzuki is one of most dazzling and unforgettable hitters I’ve ever seen. I get a jolt every time I see him step to the plate. And of course here we’re only talking about his hitting — he’s an amazing base stealer and base runner; he’s an awesome outfielder with a terrific arm. I love watching Ichiro Suzuki play baseball. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt in my mind.
Still, as we try to look honestly at his career, we are left with two questions and two seemingly conflicting answers:
1. Is Ichiro Suzuki one of the greatest hitters in baseball history? Absolutely.
2. Is Ichiro Suzuki one of the greatest offensive forces in baseball history? No, probably not.