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.