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Pete and Ichiro Down By the Schoolyard

A handful of years years ago, I was talking with Pete Rose while he signed autographs in Las Vegas. I’ve done this five or six times now and it’s fantastic every single time. People will disagree about whether Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame but as a character, a storyteller, an observer of baseball, he’s the best. On this day, we were talking about just how unbreakable his hit record is, and he was making the point that Derek Jeter will never break it.

“And Ichiro,” he said. “He can have the hits he got in Japan, he’s still not breaking the record.”

Well, this week, Rose — apparently after seeing Ichiro Suzuki being celebrated for reaching his 4,000th professional hit —  had a change of heart. Not the first time. Not the last.

“Hey,” Rose told Bob Nightengale at USA Today, “if we’re counting professional hits, then add on my 427 hits in the minors. I was a professional  then too.”

In many ways, that’s the perfect Pete Rose quote — pointed, specific (notice that he knows he had 427 hits in the minor leagues), justifiable and just slightly ungenerous. Rose has every right to say it. And he comes off just a little worse for saying it.

I’ve already written about Ichiro reaching 4,000 professional hits — how I think it is a fabulous achievement, absolutely worth celebrating, and how it doesn’t really hold up as a direct comparison to Rose or other 3,000-hit men in the Major Leagues. And in there I also wrote that I believe if Ichiro had started his career in the Major Leagues he’d actually have MORE than 4,000 hits. A few people wondered how I calculated that, and it’s really very simple math.

Ichiro started his professional career at age 18 — but he wasn’t an everyday play in Japan until he was 20. Before his age 20 season, he had only 36 hits, so while that’s not exactly irrelevant (we would not be celebrating Ichiro reaching his 3,976th hit), it’s pretty close to irrelevant. Let’s start with age 20.

For seven seasons, Ichiro averaged 177 hits per season in Japan. He came over when he was 27 years old.

For his first seven seasons in the Major Leagues, Ichiro averaged 227 hits. So that’s FIFTY more hits per year — longer season, many more at-bats, etc.

Now, let’s play around with the numbers. If Ichiro had started in the Major Leagues when he was 20 and averaged 227 hits per season for those first seven seasons, he’d have 4,311 hits — that’s more than Pete Rose ALREADY. And Ichiro’s not yet 40 years old.

But let’s say it’s unreasonable to think Ichiro would have been that good at age 20. Few are. I actually don’t think it’s unreasonable — after all, at age 20, Ichiro hit .385 with 210 hits in just 546 at-bats in Japan. But let’s just say that we can’t assume Ichiro would have been a 20-year-old star in the Majors. So, instead, let’s work backward working with what we know.

We know this: As a 27-year-old rookie for Seattle, Ichiro hit .350 with 242 hits and won the MVP award.

So, it’s certainly reasonable to think he would have been at least that good as a 26-year old. He was already a legend in Japan, so I’m willing to make that leap. Let’s add 227 hits to his career total. Let’s also assume he would be been about that good as a 25-year-old. So that’s another 227 hits.

We’re now at about 3,276 hits.

What about as a 24-year-old? In Japan, he hit .358. It’s kind of hard to assume he wasn’t a complete player at 24. So let’s dial it back some and add 200 more hits. That puts him at 3,476.

A 23-year-old? He hit .345 with 185 hits in Japan. Again, I think you have to add at least 200 more. That’s 3,676. And I would honestly say that’s conservative.

As a 22-year-old? He hit .356 in Japan. Let’s dial it back a little more — give him 180 hits. That puts him at 3,856.

See where this is going? He’s now only 144 hits shy of 4,000, and that’s just with him STARTING at 22. What do we do with him as a 21-year-old? In Japan, he hit .342 with a career high 25 homers. What do we do with him as a 20-year-old? As mentioned, he hit .385 in Japan and was a phenomenon.

Let’s give him 50 hits as a 20-year-old, called up in midseason. And let’s give him 150 hits as a 21-year-old working his way into the lineup. Add it up, and you’re at 4,056 hits. And, again, I think that’s conservative for someone who in Japan was obviously a Mike Trout like phenom.

You can change the numbers any way you like. I honestly do not see how a healthy Ichiro Suzuki, drafted as an 18-year-old in the U.S., does not have MORE than 4,000 hits right now in the Major Leagues.

Rose could have said that, of course. I like when Pete Rose acts generous. Maybe he doesn’t always mean it, but generosity suits him. He’s at his best when he’s talking about how great a player Johnny Bench was, what a joy it was to be teammates with Joe Morgan, how much he admires Derek Jeter, how much he loved playing in New York when the fans booed him, the kick he gets out of watching Bryce Harper play the game (Harper has met Rose and, in some ways, patterned his all-out style on Rose). I like the Pete Rose who is brash but openhanded enough to say, “Hey, man, I don’t know if he would have stayed healthy, but if Ichiro starts here, whew, I’m sweating.”

He has nothing to lose by saying that. It’s a free shot at generosity. Rose’s hit record is completely safe. Nobody is contemplating a change in the record books to allow Ichiro’s Japanese hits to count. How much better does it make him look if he simply says, “What an achievement. As someone who knows how hard it is to get hits whether you are, I can tell you that getting 4,000 hits around the world is absolutely fabulous and I applaud him?”

Pete Rose was a marvelous baseball player. He lined singles and doubles all over the park, he scored runs like nobody of his time, he played just about every position, he inflamed the imaginations of millions of baseball fans with the way he played, he was the MVP of perhaps the greatest World Series ever played.

Ichiro Suziuki is a marvelous player. He slashed and blooped and beat out singles all over the park, he stole a lot of bases, he unleashed jaw-dropping throws, he inflamed the imaginations of millions of baseball fans with the way he played and, more than that, opened their minds to the idea of just how good a Japanese baseball player can be.

Rose could have paid tribute to Ichiro without reminding people of his own greatness. But, I guess there’s a part of Pete that is always defending his turf. It might not be the best part of him. But it is certainly a part of him.

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31 Responses to Pete and Ichiro Down By the Schoolyard

  1. s1rweeze says:

    Reminds me of Jordan’s HOF speech. Competitive to a fault til the very end.

  2. Alejo says:

    Pete Rose played winter baseball for the Caracas’ Leones one season in the sixties. He was already obsessively competitive and is remembered as both a mensch and a defensive liability at second base. No one ever questioned his guts though.

    He would get out of the park, have a beer and a steak and scarper to the horse races, a behaviour that immediately led Venezuelans to consider Rose a capital fellow.

    Some people are so great they should be put apart from themselves, so they don’t spoil everything (see Maradona, Diego).

  3. Frank says:

    I don’t remember much fuss being made about Julio Franco getting 4,000 professional hits – MLB, minors, winter ball, Japanese league, Mexican league, Korean league.

    • mickey says:

      OK, you’re up…Let the fuss begin.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Apparently Frank decided to disregard the fact that the Japanese league is not a minor league or a winter league…. and nobody is truly counting Ichiro’s hits towards the MLB record. And equating Julio Franco with Ichiro is pretty ignorant. Nobody compares Lenny Dykstra’s hit totals with Pete Rose’s, even if both have a certain quality about them that makes people hate them.

    • invitro says:

      Suggesting that Frank equated Franco with Ichiro is not just pretty ignorant, it’s stupendously ignorant.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Invitro: hmmmm. And yet there it is. His comments suggest that Julio Franco’s 4,000 hits either should or should not (probably should not) be considered a big deal in an article about Ichiro getting 4,000 hits. So, there was no comparison, huh? Interesting read on the comment. It just came out of leftfield and had nothing to do with the article? OK.

    • Frank says:

      Rob – I think you miss my point. No one made a big deal about Franco’s 4000 hits because it was not a big deal. Neither should anyone make a big deal about Ichiro’s 4000 hits. The Japanese league is not a minor league or a winter league – but neither is it a major league; nor is the Mexican league or the Korean league, even though they are all professional. As long as Japanese ball limits the number of foreigners who can be on team rosters, we really can’t consider it a major league.

    • Frank says:

      Rob – One other point I will make – Ichiro Suzuki is a Hall of Fame baseball player based on his MLB career alone and even if he never got another hit. Julio Franco is, well, Julio Franco. Nice player. All-Star at points in his career. But he’ll have to buy a ticket to get to Cooperstown.

    • Owen Ranger says:

      “As long as Japanese ball limits the number of foreigners who can be on team rosters, we really can’t consider it a major league.” So we should also invalidate everything that happened in MLB before 1947 (and really, before 1959 when the last team integrated)?

    • drunyon says:

      Rob Smith: There is indeed a comparison. But comparing is NOT the same as equating, despite what you seem to think. (Your comment at 9:26 suggests that you don’t know the difference between the two words.) I know that’s news to you, but just trust me on this one.

    • Julio Franco was a better hitter relative to league average and got on base at a higher clip than Ichiro over the course of his career. They actually provided similar value with their bat. Ichiro distinguished himself from Franco with his baserunning and defense.

      My understanding is that the quality of Japanese major leagues is comparable to AAA. I don’t know about all the leagues cited for Franco, but they may not be much different.

  4. Rob Smith says:

    Joe, Pete Rose is not typically generous with his comments. Of course he supports his ex teammates, since they put up with him all those years & at least publicaly supported him. Plus, they’re HOFers. If he didn’t support them, what would that say? Wow! It would also be really stupid for him to say anything except that he admired Jeter. The guy hustles and is a future 1st ballot HOFer. If you read his book, which I unfortunately did, it’s basically one big justification for everything pig headed, ignorant and wrong that he every did…. including gambling, though he did include a weak apology in there somewhere. That along with spelling out his case for why he is so good and should be in the HOF. The Ichiro comment is very typical for him.

  5. Rob Smith says:

    Regarding Pete Rose’s NL record hit streak:

    “He would eventually tie Willie Keeler’s 1897 single season National League record at 44 games, but on August 1, the streak came to an end as Gene Garber of the Atlanta Braves struck out Rose in the ninth inning. The competitive Rose was sour after the game, blasting Garber and the Braves for treating the situation “like it was the ninth inning of the 7th game of the World Series”[9] Instead of being insulted, Garber took the comment as a compliment: “I said to myself, ‘Well, thanks Pete. That’s how I try to pitch every time I’m in a game’.”

  6. Rob Smith says:

    “Rose collected only one hit in his first eight at-bats in the first two games in Baltimore against the 1983 A.L. Champions. Rose found himself benched for game three back in Philadelphia, and would ground out in a pinch-hitting appearance. Worse yet, Rose showed some unsportsmanlike attitude toward his own manager, Paul Owens, complaining about his benching in a pre-game interview with ABC’s Howard Cosell.”

    I know it’s been a long time since he played, but let’s remember who Pete Rose was and still is.

  7. S. Reddy says:

    Love the post, Joe! Is there any chance you’ve performed a similar analysis for Ted Williams’ “lost years”? In light of today’s PED-skewed statistical “excellence”, it would be a breath of fresh air to see some hypothetical numbers that are both mind-boggling AND clean.

  8. Pete Rose was an older generation’s Ryan Braun, only worse.

    “I never bet on baseball,” he said for years and years. And gullible Cincinnati fans in particular believed him, defended him, scorched the online earth when anyone suggested otherwise.

    Then when he finally admitted it, admitted that not only had he bet on baseball, he’d been lying on the subject for years — he did it for profit.

    He was a great ballplayer but is a terrible human being.

  9. In support of Joe’s Ichiro calculations, consider what Ichiro actually did at ages 23-26 in Japan. He averaged 120 games and 165 hits/season in their much shorter season. His batting average for these four years in Japan was .357, only .007 higher than for Seattle at age 26, but .357 in Japan yielded only 1.38 hits/game, a lower rate than the 1.54/game in 2001 over here.

    For his entire MLB career, including the decline phase and incomplete 2013, Ichiro has averaged well over 200 hits/season. In Japan, he averaged well under 200 (because there are fewer games and he had fewer official at-bats). Whatever else can be said, it’s obvious that it was easier for this man to collect a large number of hits in American baseball than in Japan.

  10. For MLB records whatever happens in another country, in the minor leagues, in little league, or wherever is irrelevant. Period. Pete got his hits where they count. It is reasonable to be shamed that segregation kept people out of MLB and try to retroactively acknowledge those fine players. That is a different situation. Someday we may have a real “world” league and a real “world series” and we will have to figure out how to evaluate world records – not just US (or white US) records. That will be a fantastic conversation!

  11. invitro says:

    I don’t know if the Japanese major league is equivalent to MLB. I believe it has a different strike zone, and smaller stadiums… is that correct? Anyway, there are methods for converting AAA and other minor-league stats to MLB equivalents, right? Surely those methods could be adapted to converting Japan-league stats to MLB equivalents. Has someone done this?

    Doesn’t it seem reasonable to use these well-established methods, rather than use the argument “Ichiro is a superstar in the US, but got less hits in Japan, and therefore Japanese baseball is superior to American baseball”?

    • Evan says:

      “Ichiro is a superstar in the US, but got less hits in Japan, and therefore Japanese baseball is superior to American baseball.”

      How you extrapolated this from Joe’s article is beyond me. Joe’s argument goes like this: Ichiro would have had more at bats and, hence, more hits if he played those seasons in the US. That doesn’t mean Ichiro would have been a better player in the US, and it doesn’t mean that US baseball is inferior to Japanese baseball. It means just what it says: that Ichiro would have gotten more hits in the US.

    • invitro says:

      I intended the quote to be reflective of other comments, not of Joe’s article, my mistake.

      The argument you mention does assume Japanese baseball is equivalent to MLB, but I don’t think it’s Joe’s argument. Anyway, my main point still stands.

    • John Gale says:

      Not really sure which comment (on this post, at least–I can’t speak to what’s being said elsewhere on the Internet) was claiming that Japanese baseball is superior to American baseball. Seems like a straw man argument. I think focusing on the number of hits Ichiro had in Japan is a mistake (though I would definitely mention it on his Hall of Fame plaque). I much prefer trying to extrapolate backwards to try to figure out how he might have done if he played his entire career in the US.

      The Japanese numbers are relevant inasmuch as it gives us an idea at what age (in this case, 20) Ichiro became a top player. So that gives us an idea of where to start. I think Joe’s calculations look about right to me, and he was being fairly conservative. The notion that Ichiro may have had more hits in the US than he did in Japan is supported by what actually happened. And the primary reason is that MLB seasons are 27-32 games longer than the Japanese seasons at the time Ichiro was playing there. For a guy who gets as many hits as Ichiro does, that’s 40+ extra hits per year just from the extra games and at bats.

      In Ichiro’s first season, he got 242 hits, which is the 10th most ever in a single season. Three years later, he got 262, breaking George Sisler’s single-season record. He had at least 200 in each of his first 10 seasons. He’s been remarkably durable, missing only 40 games (less than two percent) out of more than 2000 in his major-league career.

      So while some Japanese players may have had trouble adapting to the Majors, Ichiro was not one of them. Major League Baseball is stronger than the Japanese leagues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was tougher on Ichiro. The data suggests that it wasn’t, at least in terms of collecting lots and lots of hits. I found something interesting thing in Ichiro’s stats. His 162-game average in the Majors is 217 hits per season. He played 951 games in Japan and racked up 1278 hits. If we extrapolate that over 162-game seasons, we get…217 hits per season. So in terms of hits, he was basically the same player here as he was there.

      Look, if Ichiro got 3000 hits in Japan in 10 seasons and came over here and needed 10 seasons to get another 1000 hits, I’d agree that viewing his 4000 hits as equivalent’s to Rose’s (Cobb is a different story, since he was much, much, *much* better than either Ichiro or Rose) is ridiculous. But he’s got almost 3000 hits in the majors (and as been pointed out, he has more hits in a 13-year period than anyone in the history of baseball), so I don’t view it that way. I’m not saying that the record books should be changed. They are what they are. But in terms of getting hits, Ichiro is in Rose’s class, if not better.

    • gcuzz says:

      Well done, John Gale. Well done. That’s about as reasonable a case as I’ve seen articulated on the subject.

    • John Gale says:

      Thank you, gcuzz. I appreciate it.

  12. Evan says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Pete Rose has always been in it for himself. That’s Pete. The reason he broke Ty Cobb’s record was because as a player-manager for the Reds he was able to insert himself into the line-up even though he was a 44 year old first baseman with no speed or power (he slugged .315 that year). It didn’t matter if he cost his team a few games, the only thing that mattered to him was the record—and the money he was able to make off it. He did everything he could to get the record, and he isn’t about to let anyone even pretend to pass him. It would devalue his brand.

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