Ichiro defies critics and odds

Some baseball players are just beyond the comprehension of computers, and Ichiro Suzuki(notes) is one of them. Machines don’t get him. They process his data, choke on it, start pluming black smoke and ultimately spit out names such as Ralph Garr and Lance Johnson.

The invaluable Baseball-Reference.com lists Garr as the batter most similar to Ichiro. Garr made one MLB All-Star Game, the year he hit .353 and won a National League batting title. He hit .343 in another season, .325 in another and never above .300 in his other 10 years. He poked a lot of singles, didn’t take many walks and could run well. And that is about all Ralph Garr has in common with Ichiro.

PECOTA is even meaner to Ichiro. It is the projection system developed by Nate Silver, the noted statistician whose wonkiness at Baseball Prospectus led him to national acclaim as a political analyst. PECOTA estimates that Ichiro will be out of baseball by 2013. And it thinks Ichiro is closer to Johnson than anyone – the same Johnson who finished his career hitting .291 and with an OPS 5 percent below league average.

It’s been almost a decade now since Ichiro arrived in the major leagues, and he remains among the few players better described by adjectives and onomatopoeia than a cold and callous spreadsheet. Ichiro’s style necessitates subjectivity. Because for all he lacks – the walks, the home runs, the postseason at-bats – Ichiro, as much as anyone in the game, entertains.

Casual fans and connoisseurs alike can appreciate an Ichiro at-bat. His meticulous preparation and artful swing and utter coolness draw attention and keep it rapt. The modern Western baseball establishment cannot, does not and will not produce a player like Ichiro – one who unapologetically bangs singles for a living – and so he’s somewhere between a relic and a freak.

By early September, when a sore left calf remedies itself, Ichiro should crack his 2,000th career MLB hit. Soon thereafter – maybe even in the same game – he’ll post his 200th of the season. That will mark the ninth time in nine years he’s done so, bumping Wee Willie Keeler from a tie atop the record books.

He makes 200 hits look easy. Maybe because it is.

The craziest part is, the 35-year-old shows no signs of slowing down. His .359 batting average is the second best of his career. One friend of Ichiro’s believes he wants to play well into his 40s. So forget the prospect of 3,000 hits in the major leagues. Health permitting, it’s a foregone conclusion.

No, the better question is: Can Ichiro get to 4,000?

Remember, Ichiro played nine years in Japan before taking an at-bat in the major leagues. During that time, he won seven straight batting titles and had 1,278 hits. He is among the most popular players in his country. Ichiro’s father groomed him to play baseball. Ichiro went 36th overall in the 1991 draft and signed for only $43,000 with the Orix BlueWave; it took their firing of a manager who didn’t like Ichiro’s slight build to get him at-bats.

He arrived here with the same perception – that an everyday Japanese player couldn’t handle the big leagues. Now he’s two years into a $90 million deal (criticized, of course, by Florida Marlins president David Samson) slugging at a better clip than ever, legging out a higher percentage of infield hits than at any point and understanding just how his superior bat control can help him adapt to a body certain to age at some point. Right?

Well, it doesn’t look like it, and that’s reason No. 1 that 4,000 is feasible. Ichiro takes impeccable care of himself. As the average age in baseball dwindles and 40-something regulars become an amphetamine- and steroid-addled thing of the past, Ichiro is pulling a Benjamin Button, or at least pressing the pause button on aging.

The Path to 4,000

If Ichiro Suzuki is to exceed 4,000 hits in the major leagues, he’ll likely need to play at least 10 more years. How he might get there:

Age Hits
36 230
37 225
38 225
39 220
40 210
41 205
42 190
43 175
44 165
45 140
Total 4,021*
*Assumes 47 more hits this season.

He leads baseball in infield hits, and more than a quarter of them go to the right side, according to Inside Edge. One-third of his hits are weak ground balls in the infield, some of which are easy base hits, others that are a testament to Ichiro’s legs.

His career has been one giant bird-flip to convention. Ichiro doesn’t hit for power even though he’s capable, fearful that he’ll sacrifice something he does so well. His consistently high batting average on balls in play proves that batters do have some control over whether batted balls drop for hits.

It’s no surprise, then, that Ichiro isn’t nearly as picky as he once was. He now swings at almost one in three pitches outside the strike zone, the 14th highest rate in the game. Ichiro makes contact on more than four of five. Only Dustin Pedroia(notes) and Marco Scutaro(notes) are better, and neither has a BABIP within 75 points of Ichiro.

He’s different. Better even. That much is obvious.

Even so, let him deign, for a moment, to match the numbers for the hit leaders in each age group for the next 10 years. Some are daunting (Paul Molitor’s 225 at 39) and others not so (Carlton Fisk’s 111 at 43). Still, if Ichiro continues his current pace for this season over the last 30 games, then equals that of the record holders, by the end of the 2019 season a 45-year-old Ichiro will have 3,750 hits.

Sorry. That number seems low. It may be. It could also be ludicrously high. Predicting longevity is a fool’s game. It’s just that Ichiro seems good for 230 hits next year, and 225 more the two years after that. If he keeps the 200-hit streak early into his 40s, he’ll creep closer. And in those final years, when he’s long past hit king Pete Rose’s 4,256 (counting his Japanese hits), something more will present itself to Ichiro.

A chance to join Rose in the 4,000-hit club despite not coming to the U.S. until he was 27.

Hits by year

If Ichiro, 35, plays into his mid-40s, he’s got more records to shatter. The high marks for hits in a season are within reach.

Age Player Hits
48 Julio Franco 20
47 Julio Franco 45
46 Julio Franco 64
45 Julio Franco 99
44 Pete Rose 107
43 Carlton Fisk 111
42 Luke Appling 148
41 Pete Rose 172
40 Sam Rice 207
39 Paul Molitor 225
38 Pete Rose 208
37 Zack Wheat 221
36 Sam Rice 216
35 Sam Rice/
Nap Lajoie
*Ichiro is averaging 1.57 hits per game this season. Assuming he recovers from a calf injury to play in the final 30 games, he is on pace for 231 this season.

The chances are slim, of course, but consider Ichiro’s career already: on the cusp of 2,000 hits in nine seasons. Nobody has done that in any nine seasons, let alone his first nine. George Sisler came the closest over any period with 1,900 hits between 1920 and 1929 (he didn’t play in 1923). Five years ago, Ichiro broke Sisler’s 84-year-old single-season record for hits with 262.

Even more daunting: Rose holds the record for hits from age 36 on: 1,494. Sam Rice ranks second with 1,347. Three others notched more than 1,000: Honus Wagner, Carl Yastrzemski and Molitor.

Otherwise, it’s an empty place – the perfect one for Ichiro to infiltrate, really.

He does things others couldn’t. His father raised him to be the best player in the world, and he’s among them. Motivation was never a question, though some teammates last year anonymously accused Ichiro of being selfish because of his desire to accomplish individual goals. This is backward thinking: The very act of achieving at a superior level makes Ichiro a valuable part of any team.

So let the skeptics join the computers in saying what they will. PECOTA’s got Ichiro batting below .300 next year. It expected him to do the same this year, by the way. The Samsons of the world can bitch about his contract, the idealists about his walk rate, the hypocritical teammates about self-centeredness. Ichiro will happily rap singles by the bushel and move on.

Three thousand hits may be the floor. For Ichiro Suzuki, the human hitting machine, it’s 4,000 or bust.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Aug 28, 2009