No. 96: Ichiro

There have always been arguments about the value of Ichiro Suzuki. This, I think in part, is because he’s a unique player — uniqueness, by its nature, creates arguments. Nobody in baseball history — not Rose, not Cobb, not Sisler, not any of them — has ever been better at getting on base via hit. Look at this this way:

Most seasons with 200-plus hits:
1. Ichiro Suzuki, 10
(tie) Pete Rose, 10
3. Ty Cobb 9
4. Derek Jeter 8
(tie) Paul Waner 8
(tie) Lou Gehrig 8

Most season with 210-plus hits:
1. Ichiro, 8
2. Waner, 7
(tie) Cobb, 7
4. Rose, 5
(tie) Bill Terry, 5
(tie) Gehrig, 5
(tie) Rogers Hornsby, 5

Most seasons with 220-plus hits
1. Ichiro, 5
2. Hornsby, 4
Seven players tied with 3

Most seasons with 230-plus hits
1. Ichiro 3
2. Freddie Lindstrom, 2
(tie) Hornsby, 2
(tie) George Sisler, 2

Most seasons with 260-plus hits
1. Ichiro, 1
No one else has ever done it.

So, Ichiro was (and at times still is) magical about hitting baseballs in places that allow him to reach base. On top of this, he was very fast and stole 40 or more bases five times. He had a rifle for an arm, and with it won nine Gold Gloves. No one had ever put these particular gifts together, and he did things in a style that no one had ever seen before — think the way he would start running to first before he connected with the baseball, the yoga type stretches he did before each at-bat, the perpetual motion of his game. It’s worth mentioning that he’s also one of the most entertaining players to watch in memory.

Then, of course, there are the things he didn’t do. He didn’t walk, so while his career batting average is sublime (.319 even after three straight down seasons) his on-base percentage is merely good (.361). He didn’t hit for much power and so often scored fewer runs than you would expect. In his 262-hit season, for instance, he scored only 101 runs. It is the lowest run-scoring total for any player with more than 240 hits in a season — surprising considering Ichiro’s great speed (it didn’t help, of course, that he was on a 99-loss Mariners team that scored the fewest runs in the American League).

So what do you have here? You have a player who is spectacular at doing some things and perhaps a bit deficient at doing others. But, excepting Willie Mays, aren’t they all? There are numerous players with higher WAR than Ichiro who do not make this list, and I imagine some people do not think he belongs in the Top 100 — that he was more interesting than great. Then again, in the Baseball Reference EloRater, fans rank him the 27th best everyday player ever. The arguments will continue.

It’s easy to forget now: He did not come to play in the Major Leagues until he was 27, and he was already a finished product. He immediately hit .350, won the Rookie of the Year Award and MVP and was a major reason the Seattle Mariners won a record 116 games. Had he come to the Major Leagues a year earlier, two years earlier, five years earlier, I suspect he would have been a superstar. He was, after, all, a Japanese icon BEFORE he arrived. He hit .385 with 210 hits in 130 games for the Orix Blue Wave when he was 20. I sometimes think about what Ichiro’s career major league numbers would look like if he came to America at 18.

As it was, he came to America at 27 and he was the latest baseball mania — after Fernandomania and Nomomania and so on — but unlike them he maintained his excellence for a decade. Ten straight years, Ichiro hit .300 and cracked 200-plus hits and averaged 100 runs per season. At 37, he slowed down, the way players do. He’s now a shell of himself* — his .297 on-base percentage last year was second-worst among American League outfielders — and the great sadness of watching great players at the end of their careers is that sometimes people forget how electrifying they were when they were young.

*Brilliant Reader Steve writes in to point out just how amazing the New York Yankees lineup would be … if this was 2006. He’s absolutely right. Look:

1. Ichiro, cf, .322/.370/.455 with 224 hits and 45 stolen bases (twice caught)
2. Derek Jeter, ss, .343/.417/.483 with 301 total bases and 34 stolen bases.
3. Travis Hafner, dh, .308/.439/.659 with 42 homers and 100 walks.
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3b, .290/.392/.523 with 35 homers.
5. Mark Teixeira, 1b, .282/.371/.514 with 33 homers.
6. Alfonso Soriano, .277/.351/.556 with 46 homers.
7. Robbie Cano, 2b, .342/.365/.525 with 41 doubles, 15 homers.
8. Vernon Wells, cf, .303/.357/542 with 32 homers and 17 stolen bases.
9. Brian McCann, c, .333/.388/.572 with 24 homers.

That would have scored 1,000-plus runs, I have no doubt about it. And four of those players won Gold Gloves. Of course, to make it happen the Yankees would have to re-sign Cano. And get a time machine.**

**Well, the Yankees lost Robbie Cano. But, lo and behold, who did they immediately pick up? Carlos Beltran?

And Beltran’s best year? You better believe it: 2006.

Beltran, dh/of, .275/.388/.594 with 41 homers, 127 runs, 18 out of 21 steals, 8.2 WAR.

39 thoughts on “No. 96: Ichiro

  1. Anon

    I agree that he is utterly unique – none of the other high BA players of recent vintage have really been anything like him. Not Gwynn or Boggs or Carew. Carew & Gwynn both had some speed when they were younger but were not nearly as good at stealing bases and both lost their speed while Ichiro has maintained his. Other high BA players like Mauer and Pujols are even less like Ichiro. I’ve always found it interesting that Ichiro only won 2 batting titles, getting squeezed out twice by guys having career years .

    Reply
  2. Ymous

    You, following Bill James, I think, have written that Nolan Ryan is the most unique pitcher in baseball history. I’ve always thought that Ichiro is the same way, including the way that he is absolutely revered in Japan (and Seattle) the way that Nolan is revered in Texas.

    They were both absolutely the best of all time at one thing–strikeouts for Nolan, singles for Ichiro–and that makes us think of them as all timers. They are no-doubt Hall of Famers. But they aren’t as valuable as we thought–Nolan has a career ERA+ of 112 and Ichiro has a career OPS+ of 111.

    For some reason I love the idea of comparing the ultimate power pitcher with the ultimate slap hitter.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      Pete Rose had an OPS + of 118,and numerous people think he’s a HOFer despite his permanent ineligibility. Singles hitters are frequently going to have lower Slugging Pct and OPS. So we need to decide. Are singles hitters valuable, or not. OPS+ says no. Batting average and hits say yes. WAR, which factors in many things… Including longevity in career WAR…. And that may say something completely different. When looking at WAR though, you’d have to factor in that Ichiros career is currently half the years that Rose had to compile his WAR. Btw, Tony Gwynn’s OPS+ was 132 and Rod Carew’s was 131…. Just for comparison on other singles type hitters.

      Reply
      1. Ian R.

        Looking at Pete Rose’s career OPS+ is a little misleading because he played well past his prime. He also pushed himself to play every day in his declining years – heck, he played in 162 games as a 41-year-old – which dragged down his rate stats. Many great, aging players maintain good rates but in reduced playing time. Rose did just the opposite.

        You mentioned Gwynn and Carew, so let’s use them as examples. Gwynn played in 2,440 major league games, and as you said, he maintained a 132 OPS+ in those games. Carew played in 2,469 games and had his 131 OPS.

        Between 1965 and 1981, Rose played in 2,375 games, which basically matches Gwynn’s and Carew’s careers. His OPS+ in those years was 130.

        Reply
  3. Trent Phloog

    This series is like an early Christmas present that goes on all month… I must have been extra good this year. Thanks Joe!

    Reply
  4. Clayton

    I’m not sure why anyone would think this ranking is too high. If anything, I think it might be a bit low. Ichiro was a magnificent hitter, fielder, and base-runner and he was fun to watch.

    Reply
    1. DB

      Depends on what you extrapolate from Japan. Have to get at least 30 WAR up to his 26 year old season to be considered a top 50. Would he get 30 if he came over at 18. I do not think so. They would not know what to do with him and stash him for at least two to three years. Then he comes up at 21/22 and has 4 years at about 4-5 WAR per year which seems about average for him (looking at his Japan statistics as Triple A ball). I would put him in the range between 70 to 80 and higher than Joe but doubt top 50. Great one we can argue about for a long time.

      Reply
      1. John Gale

        Well, it depends on whether we’re talking about position players or all players including pitchers. He has 58.5 career WAR, so he’d need 27.5 WAR through his age 26 season to have the same as Chipper Jones (currently 50th at 85.2, technically), though that would be about 30th among position players (Jones is 31st right now).

        Ok, in his first 10 seasons (ages 27 through 36), he averaged 5.5 WAR per season. He had some seasons of less than 4 and others above 7 (including 9.2 in his 262-hit year). I think 5.5 WAR per season is a pretty realistic estimate for what he’d have done for several seasons if he came over earlier.

        So, if he was playing full time in his age 22 season (which seems realistic, maybe even a bit late for him), that would be exactly 27.5 WAR, which gets him to the cusp of the top 50. If he was playing full time when he was 21, he’d be solidly in the top 50, though he would only have passed a few more guys.

        Given how durable Ichiro has been (he’s missed like 2 percent of all games in his career in the Majors), I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think he could have gotten there. Not a guarantee. But not a long shot either.

        Reply
        1. DB

          I was saying all payers not just position players. I threw out the highest and lowest and then discounted back (as the previous average included his peak years) and basically go to an approximation of 4WAR starting at 22 for an extra 20 which put him at 78.5 or so which looks a lot like Pete Rose. Weird how that worked. I love we can have these arguments in baseball and try to compare across leagues. As I get older, baseball gets more interesting while other sports seem to fade.

          Reply
    2. ksbeck76

      Considering that Joe said he’s ranking the 100 best baseball players, and not the 100 best MLBers, I think this ranking is too low as well. With that criteria, Ichiro’s stats from Japan should weigh heavily in the evaluation.

      Reply
  5. ELO skeptic

    The baseball reference elo rater is worthless. I have used the wayback machine to look at the way the ratings change over time, this is what Ichiro’s ratings look like,
    date rank
    3/13/2011 52
    4/22/2011 50
    5/14/2011 44
    6/4/2011 47
    6/22/2011 59
    8/8/2011 81
    8/31/2011 85
    9/2/2011 71
    9/23/2011 73
    9/24/2011 83
    10/7/2011 64
    10/8/2011 67
    10/22/2011 72
    11/3/2011 86
    11/17/2011 81
    12/9/2011 103
    1/4/2012 115
    2/12/2012 237
    4/27/2012 124
    5/1/2012 118
    10/3/2012 96
    10/4/2012 95
    11/11/2012 97

    so maybe it’s 27 now, but that means next to nothing.

    Reply
    1. Rich

      Just a thought….does the elo-rater become more stable after a period of time? Sort of how batting averages can vary depending on the outcome of a single game more drastically at the beginning of the year as opposed to the end? I know there is a term for this but I cannot think of it for the life of me.

      Reply
  6. tombando

    ‘Sides we all know Ichiro rocks, putting him up here in the top 100 is only fitting. Paging Sam Rice. No Sam isn’t a top 100 guy but not that different.

    Reply
  7. jess

    I think hits per game would have been a better barometer than hits per season, as we all know Ichiro had more games to amass all those +200 hit years. Great player no doubt though.

    Reply
  8. rudygamble1

    I’ll piggyback on everyone else’s sentiment that this series is a fun read.

    Ichiro might’ve missed out on his <27 years in MLB but he's sure found a way to pack in the ABs.

    From 27-37 (11 years), he managed to record ABs in the top 55 of all-time all but two years (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/AB_season.shtml).

    That's 9 of the top 55 seasons ever in ABs! On quick glance, I can't find anyone who finishes that high more than 3 times (Jimmy Rollins). Surprisingly, Rose only finished in the top 100 3 times.

    Does this qualify him as a 'workhorse' OF?

    Reply
      1. Ian R.

        This. ABs are misleading because they don’t count walks. Now, that stat is still a testament to his durability – you don’t rack up that many at-bats without playing in close to every game – but it also speaks to his low-walk hitting style.

        Reply
  9. Jonathan Toren

    That yankees lineup comment is funny, except the lineup you use seems to be some combination of the 2013 and 2014 yankees. Cano and Hafner are free agents now, and McCann was not on the 2013 team (obviously).

    Reply
  10. Rick R

    The biggest regret I have about Ichiro is that he was not in more post-season games, as he shined in big moments. His line in the post season is 346/400/436. He was an All-Star game MVP. In the clinching game of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, featuring Japan against its hated rival South Korea, he went 4 for 6 including the game-winning hit in the 10th inning. I think if he had ever played in a World Series, he would have been phenomenal

    Reply
  11. Breadbaker

    I got to see his first hit, his hit that broke George Sisler’s record and his last hit in 2004 that set the current record. I love me some Ichiro.

    Reply
  12. raleighwebmarketing@gmail.com

    96? Ok, I’m cool with that. But if the question is who is your favorite player – he’s #2 for me.

    Reply
  13. Alex

    The 2013 2006 Yankees are good, but for diminished returns, can any team in any sport beat the 2011 Celtics? Rondo was feeding the ball to Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Shaq. The 2002 version of that lineup would be cartoonishly dominant, except for their high school point guard.

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      1. PhilM

        But they were still an historically great team, #8 all-time, which is amazing: three 40+ future HOFers who still had something left in the tanks, along with a 20-year-old Foxx who was already an offensive force.

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        1. mrgjg

          1983 Phillies (The WheezeKids) had Rose, Morgan and Perez all over 40(Morgan turned 40 in sept.) They had 38 yr. old Carlton and 39yr. old Tug McGraw.
          They weren’t just taking up roster space either, they played.
          They made it right into the WS. They also of course had Schmitty, Garry Maddux, and Gary Mathews, all between 33-34.

          Reply
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