This got some reader pushback, so I asked a greater expert than myself, my old Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible comrade, Jay Jaffe, who—through his trademark JAWS system—has earned renown as a commentator regarding issues related to Cooperstown on programs like the MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential. His answer:
Despite a relatively brief stateside career (he's now in his 12th year), Ichiro's credentials as a candidate are quite strong, starting with 10 straight seasons of 200-plus hits, All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves. Add to that the 2001 MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and he's got more hardware than many Hall of Famers ever accumulate.
From an advanced perspective, he falls a bit short relative to the average Hall of Fame right fielder (50.2 career WARP/38.7 peak/44.5 JAWS vs. 66.2/40.9/53.6), but I think his other accomplishments and his status as one of the great international ambassadors of the game will sway voters. In fact, I don't even think it will be particularly controversial.
Jay’s response gets at another criticism, that I didn’t give Ichiro enough credit. What you have to take into account here is how productive right fielders typically are. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to disregard Ichiro’s 260-odd starts in center field.)
Over the course of his career, the average major-league right fielder has hit .272/.346/.452. Overall, Ichiro has hit .326/.370/.421, which is above average. But, in his “off” years—seasons like 2003 (.312/.352/.436), 2005 (.303/.350/.436), 2008 (.310/.361/.386) and 2010 (.315/.359/.394)—you can see that the gap between his work and that of the average narrowed considerably.
Yes, he hit .300 even in the bad campaigns (up until last year), but average isn’t as important as reaching base and moving runners, and he was just okay at best in those areas.
When you add in baserunning and defense, the overall package still adds up to a Hall of Fame player, but when you evaluate Ichiro, consider these three facts:
1. Counting stats doesn’t necessarily indicate value. That Ichiro led the league in hits seven times is impressive, but that alone doesn’t mean he was a dominant offensive player. It means he had a skill, hitting singles, that lent itself to that, as well as batting order placement, a general lack of walks and durability.
Many broadly similar leadoff hitters, such as Doc Cramer, Matty Alou, Bert Campaneris and Lance Johnson, have picked up hit titles for the same reasons.
2. Any player who reaches 3,000 hits has had exceptional durability and probably high peaks as well, but there is nothing sacred about that number. It’s importance is arbitrary, a consensus that a bunch of baseball writers and fans arrived at years ago and has somehow stuck.
Just as Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits don’t make him a better player than Ty Cobb, the qualitative difference between having 2,999 hits and 3,000 is nonexistent. If Ichiro gets there, and he just might, great. If he doesn’t, don’t lose any sleep over it.
3. Hall of Fame right fielders include Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Dave Winfield and Sam Crawford. It’s a really tough crowd. When you start thinking of Ichiro in that context, he’s not an inner-circle Hall of Famer—just a good candidate. Those guys could do what he does, plus something extra.
Finally, someone objected to the comparison of Ichiro to Jason Giambi. I wasn’t comparing them as ethical humans or athletes, but simply their production in the given seasons I mentioned. We can debate those other things, but they aren’t relevant to the matter at hand.