When New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki singled in the first inning of Wednesday's game against Toronto to record his 4,000th career hit between Japan and MLB, it was hard not to think about Pete Rose and what is left for the Japanese star to accomplish.
Ichiro is currently 256 hits behind Rose's all-time record. The 39-year-old has 2,722 hits in 13 years as a Major League Baseball player and 1,278 in nine years as a member of the Orix Blue Wave in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Suppose Ichiro plays two more injury-free years through age 41 and maintains his current pace for a 162-game season. Right now, he has 116 hits in 119 games, which translates to 149 hits by the end of the year.
Two more seasons of 149 hits would give Ichiro 3,053 hits in MLB and 4,431 total, nearly 200 more than Rose. Imagine the place in baseball history he would occupy should he reach those plateaus.
Guaranteed Hall of Famer
There are always going to be members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America that find a way to not vote for players for the Hall of Fame, even if they belong there. If you don't believe me, wait until you see how many ballots Greg Maddux gets left off next year.
Michael Bates of Baseball Prospectus wrote about Ichiro's Hall of Fame credentials in September 2012, finding that the length of his career and offensive production could prove problematic to voters.
There's no doubt that, at his peak, Ichiro was a Hall of Fame-level talent. The problem, of course, is that his career in the majors began when he was 27. If he retired this year, Ichiro would finish with fewer than 2000 games. Historically, the Hall of Fame has found a place for players with short careers. Indeed, 48 players who played the majority of their careers in the 20th and 21st centuries have made the HOF despite finishing below that playing time threshold.
The article was speculating about Ichiro's career possibly ending last year before he played 2,000 MLB games. After Wednesday, he is up to 2,030.
Also, based on our attempt to quantify his legacy with 3,000 MLB hits and more than 4,256 total, Ichiro would have the all-important narrative to make the Hall of Fame.
A huge part of what the BBWAA decides to vote on, be it with awards or the Hall of Fame, is the narrative associated with the player.
Kirby Puckett, who Bates mentions in his article, didn't have a Hall of Fame career even before he was forced to retire in 1996 due to eye problems. Since he was such a revered figure on the field, and there was likely a lot of sympathy for the way his career ended, Puckett made the Hall in his first year of eligibility.
We all know that the voters love the narrative of 3,000 hits guaranteeing a spot in Cooperstown. It's a silly number to get attached to. If Derek Jeter had retired at 2,999 hits, would some writers not vote for him?
Regardless, 3,000 hits is an impressive milestone. That would be the final step to guaranteeing Ichiro a spot among the greatest players in baseball history.
Getting Rid of The Rose Narrative
There has been a groundswell of support for Pete Rose getting into the Hall of Fame in recent years. That drives me crazier than anything involving PED users because Rose was deliberately breaking the oldest rule in baseball, one that is on the wall of every clubhouse in MLB.
Gambling was a problem that nearly brought down the sport in the early 20th century with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. That is a different story for a different day, though it should be mentioned when talking about Rose's place in history.
If Ichiro were to surpass Rose's career hit total, it would actually be better for the game than a lot of people realize. Not only does it ensure that professional baseball's all-time hit leader makes the Hall of Fame, but it is something that can be properly celebrated when it happens.
Rose's achievement was celebrated when it happened, but now it almost feels like the second or third line of his career epitaph.
Baseball, unlike any other major sport in this country, is built around history and numbers. Ichiro wouldn't be the all-time MLB leader in hits, which will cause some people to say it doesn't really count, but the avenues opened up would be vast.
Not only will it give us a chance to dissect just how Ichiro was able to rack up so many hits in this country, but it's entirely possible that interest in Japanese baseball would spike.
Most international baseball leagues catch a bad rap because the level of talent isn't comparable to what you will see in Major League Baseball. The NPB, however, isn't that far off from the quality of game we see every day.
There are times when you can see a clear divide between the worst talent in Japan and the U.S., but there probably isn't as much of a gap between the top- and mid-tier talent as you might expect.
Remember, in addition to Ichiro, players like Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka came from the NPB and had, or are having, successful MLB careers.
We can analyze how many of Ichiro's hits in Japan would have translated over here, then compare that to Rose. But it would be a nice coup for MLB and the Hall of Fame to recognize the all-time leader in hits without having to deal with the controversy and stigma attached to Rose.
Defining The Undefinable
Ichiro is different from most great players of the past generation because of the way he plays. He will probably look better in history when his career is over and we are able to reflect on his entire body of work.
In a lot of ways, Ichiro is the epitome of how the game has evolved over the last 10 years. His MVP season in 2001 was actually ahead of its time because we were still in this incredible home run era that would last a few more years before the pitching resurgence would hit.
When a player who doesn't hit a lot of home runs, but racks up a lot hits, changes the game with his speed and defense and wins an MVP, you can't help but notice.
Ichiro was never going to be a player who hit 15-plus home runs in a season, though he did reach that number once in his career (2005). There have been stories written about his batting-practice power and why he didn't use it more during games.
As exciting as home runs can be, Ichiro just didn't want to be that kind of hitter. He has said as much, claiming if he sold out for power during games, it would completely change the type of hitter he was and lower his batting average.
Since Ichiro has never been a player who walked much, he needed to hit for average in order to be a great offensive talent.
There is also the matter of Ichiro's defense in right field, which has always been superb and a big reason why he has been so valuable for so many years even though he doesn't have the typical corner outfield profile (big power, middle-of-the-order bat). He did boast three 80-grade tools on the 20-80 scouting scale (hit, glove, throwing arm), which is incredibly rare to find.
According to Fangraphs, since his MLB debut in 2001, Ichiro leads all outfielders with 94 defensive runs saved and ranks third in total UZR behind Carl Crawford and Andruw Jones.
It can be difficult to define Ichiro based on the era he played because so much of his game relied on small things that don't get as much attention, such as singles, stolen bases and defense.
As a collective society, we like big things. Every year, the highest-grossing movies are big action spectacles.
It's the same thing with baseball players: We may have appreciation for a player like Ichiro, but he's always going to be placed behind others who were hitting 30-plus home runs per season.
When we look back on what Ichiro was able to accomplish in his career, especially if he gets to 3,000 MLB hits and beats Pete Rose's career hit mark, it will be easier to quantify that greatness because there are barriers he broke that we can directly point to.
I can say that Ichiro had more than 200 hits in a season for 10 consecutive years, or won 10 Gold Glove awards or was one of only two players in history (Fred Lynn being the other) to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
But someone else could say that his career OPS of .778 is nearly 100 points below Adam Dunn's, or his OPS+ of 112 is 13 points less than Bernie Williams' career mark. Not that there is anything wrong with Dunn or Williams, but neither will wind up in the Hall of Fame.
When you put the 3,000-hit label next to Ichiro's name, not to mention more than 4,200 career hits across two different leagues, as well as everything he was able to bring to the game, suddenly his career stacks up much better with anyone who has played throughout history.
If you want to talk Ichiro's Hall of Fame merits, or anything else baseball, feel free to hit me on Twitter with questions or comments.
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