New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki joined an exclusive club that includes Ty Cobb and Pete Rose with 4,000 career hits, thanks to a first-inning single against Toronto on Wednesday. The first 1,278 of those, of course, came during his nine-year tenure with the Orix BlueWave in Japan.
Since the outfielder's numbers are split between two leagues, this milestone might not be fully appreciated by some. But it is still a remarkable accomplishment and one that deserves to be celebrated. It also got us to wondering about what could have been.
Certainly, no one would say Ichiro isn't a Hall of Famer, and when the time comes for voters to make their decision, Ichiro should have no problem getting a plaque for his career achievements.
What we want to figure out, though, is just how well Ichiro would have done had he spent his entire career in Major League Baseball.
When Would Ichiro Have Debuted?
The hit machine didn't arrive in the United States until 2001 when he was 27 years old. That is much older than even an average prospect in the minor leagues, let alone an elite-level talent like Ichiro.
For comparison, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wrote a piece two years ago finding that the average age for a minor leaguer to debut in the big leagues between 2005-09 was 24.4 years old.
Lindbergh also separated players by position and found that right fielders, like Ichiro, tend to be some of the earliest call-ups at just over 24 years old. That might not sound like a lot, but even getting a few extra months of playing time can enhance development and give a player more opportunities to collect hits.
If Ichiro's development followed that trend, he would have debuted in Major League Baseball early in the 1998 season. His birthday is October 22, meaning he would be around 24.5 years old at the time of his first game.
There are a lot of factors that play into how old a player his upon making his MLB debut. If Ichiro were drafted out of high school, it's entirely plausible that he would have debuted one or two years earlier than the average player.
If he decided to go to college and enter the draft as a junior (making him approximately 21 years old), he could have been a polished all-around player who debuted between the ages of 22-23.
Using revisionist history, we will say that Ichiro would have debuted in the big leagues in 1996 at the age of 22 years, six months.
The Japan-to-America Pitcher Conversion
It is easy to just say that you can take Ichiro's hits from Japan, transfer them over here and that would be his career total.
The problem with doing that is not factoring in the differences between pitchers and pitches in the leagues. Arrogant as it may sound, the "stuff" being thrown in this country is better once you get in the big leagues.
In fairness, the Orix BlueWave play in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The NPB is roughly equivalent to an imaginary league between Triple-A and MLB.
Clint Hulsey of Seattle Sports Central did a study on 26 pitchers who played in the NPB and then joined Major League Baseball and determined they had an average fastball velocity of 89.66, which in scouting terms would be classified as below average.
By comparison, the average velocity on a fastball in MLB today is 91.9, according to FanGraphs. That extra two miles per hour gives you a wider margin of error to miss a spot and still avoid giving up a hit.
Again, it's not a perfect comparison because Pitch F/X data only goes back so far, but it does give us a baseline to go off. It is also another reason we can't just say that Ichiro's hits in Japan would transfer over here.
The Period of Adjustment
Ichiro made his Major League Baseball debut at the age of 27 in 2001 and was an instant sensation. His ability to change the game with speed out of the box and incredible defense in right field, boosted by one of the best throwing arms you will ever see, helped him become the first player since 1975 to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season.
But the outfielder came to America as fully formed as any international player possibly can be. He was in the peak of his career as a player in his late 20s, understood what worked about his game and used it to his advantage.
What you will see with a lot of younger players when they first get called up is adjusting to the speed of the game, as pitchers understand your tendencies better and can exploit them seemingly at will.
We also don't know what kind of hitter Ichiro would have been early in his career. We have heard stories, confirmed by Ichiro, in the past that he could hit a lot of home runs if he wanted to, but it would require him to completely change what made him such a great hitter.
"If I'm allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [home runs], but nobody wants that," he said.
Suppose the speedster didn't know he would have to be that kind of hitter in his early days. Who's to say he wouldn't have tried to be a player who hits .250-.260 with 15-20 home runs?
So if we are putting Ichiro in the big leagues when he is 22.5, the odds of him recording 193 hits in a season right away seem slim.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
All of this brings us to how we figure out what Ichiro would have done spending his entire career in Major League Baseball. We have already established an age (22.5) and season (1996) for him, meaning he would be in the middle of his 18th professional season.
We can keep everything as it was after the Japanese import actually debuted in 2001 (over 2,700 hits), but figuring out what he did from 1996-2000 is tricky.
The best way I could figure to calculate it was to use Baseball Reference's Similarity Scores, specifically from players at the same age we are looking at with Ichiro (22-26), giving us a baseline to work with.
Based on the players given by B-R, Lloyd Waner and Willie McGee are the closest comparisons in my opinion to use in an effort to establish Ichiro's early-career hit totals. Here are Waner and McGee's season totals from their age 22-26 seasons and an average of all five seasons.
So if we take Ichiro's age 22-26 seasons, apply those seasonal averages to his career in Major League Baseball, we get a grand total of 951 hits in his first five years using Waner's average and 849 using McGee's average.
That would give the future Hall of Famer somewhere between 3,565 and 3,667 hits. However, we also have to factor in the adjustment period. So we should take away a few hits from his first season as he gets his feet wet. Let's say we take away 25-30 hits, putting him between 3,540-3,630.
Regardless of how you try to divide it up, Ichiro would still be closer to 4,000 hits than 3,000. In fact, if we give him the high end of that estimate (3,630), Ichiro would be tied with Stan Musial for fourth on the all-time list.
Unfortunately we will never know the real answer because Ichiro was in Japan for so long before coming to Major League Baseball, but we can tell that he was a great, great hitter for years in both leagues.
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