Ichiro - The Underappreciated Legend of Our Era

October 8, 2010

This past week relatively unheralded Matt Murton broke Ichiro Suzuki's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) record with his 211th hit of the season. Ichiro had held the record with his 210 hits in 1994.

While Murton's feat is impressive, especially for a guy who had been essentially exiled from the Major Leagues, it should be noted that his hit came in the 142nd game of a 144-game season. When Ichiro played, the season was only 130 games.

If anything, Murton's accomplishment should remind us of the remarkable player that Ichiro has been throughout his baseball career. While his greatness is widely celebrated in his home country of Japan, he is relatively ignored in the United States. Sure, he is vaguely acknowledged as a "great player," but an American player in a bigger market with Ichiro's accomplishment would unquestionably be glorified as a batting god.

A number of remarkable statistics indicate Ichiro's greatness:

ICHIRO'S MOST CITED ACCOMPLISHMENTS

1. This past season, Ichiro finished with 214 hits, making him only the second player in MLB history to reach 200 hits in a season 10 different times. Pete Rose shares the honor with Ichiro. The difference, Ichiro did it in his first 10 seasons playing. The previous record for consecutive 200-hit seasons was held by Willie Keeler - who retired in 1910. Of course, if you consider Ichiro's 210-hit season in 130 games while in Japan, Ichiro has gone over 200 hits an unparalleled 11 times.

2. Ichiro had 262 hits in 2004 to break the single season hit record of 257 hits held by George Sisler back in 1920.

3. Ichiro has been named to the MLB All-Star Team in all 10 of his MLB seasons. Combined with the 7 straight All-Star games he was selected to in Japan (1994-2000), he has thus been an All-Star 17 consecutive seasons. Only 6 players have been selected for more total seasons in MLB history.

4. Ichiro has received the Gold Glove Award his previous 9 seasons in the major leagues (2010 Gold Glove Awards have yet to be announced). Combined with his 7 consecutive Gold Glove Awards in Japan, that would be 16 straight Gold Glove Awards. Only two other MLB players have won 16 Gold Gloves, Jim Kaat (pitcher) and Brooks Robinson (3rd Base). For outfielders, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays each won 12 Gold Glove Awards.

5. Ichiro has won 2 MLB Batting Crowns (2001, 2004), and was the NBP Batting Champion for the last 7 seasons he played in Japan (1994-2000). This would give him a total of 9. Ty Cobb holds the MLB record of 11. Tony Gwynn and Honus Wagner each have 8 N.L. batting titles.

6. Ichiro has led the majors in hits 7 times in his 10 seasons, including an unprecedented 5 consecutive years (2001, 2004, 2006-2010). Only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose have led the majors as often. Of course, in Japan Ichiro accomplished that feat 5 more times (1994-1998). Thus, he has been the hits leader 12 times total, an unmatched record.

7. In 2001, Ichiro's first season in the majors, he led the American League in average, hits, and stolen bases while winning both the AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards.

8. Ichiro has two Gold Medals representing Japan in the 2 World Baseball Classics that have taken place thus far (2006 and 2009).

LESSER KNOWN FACTS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF ICHIRO

1. Ichiro rode the bench and was stuck in the Japanese farm system in 1992 and 1993 because his manager could not accept his unique batting style. In 1993, Ichiro hit his 1st professional baseball league home run off no less than Hideo Nomo - only to be sent back to the minors the same day.

2. Ichiro's 45 consecutive stolen bases are an MLB record. His 582 total stolen bases (199 in NPB, 383 in MLB) would rank him 21st all-time in MLB history and the leader among active players. Juan Pierre is the current leader among active players who only played in MLB at 527.

3. Ichiro's 1997 All-Star Game MVP performance included the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history.

4. Ichiro's total career hits are 3,522 (1,278 in NPB, 2,244 in MLB). In MLB history, this would rank him 5th all-time, behind Stan Musial (3,630), Hank Aaron (3,771), Ty Cobb (4,189), and Pete Rose (4,256).

5. Ichiro, who is 37 this month and shows no signs of slowing down, has averaged 224.4 hits per season in the majors. Second place all-time, at more than 30 hits per season less, is Kirby Puckett at 192 hits per season.

6. If Ichiro played 4 more seasons, averaging 40 hits less per season (184) than what he has averaged, he would be baseball's all-time hit leader. By the way, anyone who would suggest that playing 130-game seasons in Japan somehow "inflated" his stats, should be confirmed as an idiot.

HISTORICAL ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The objective in this article is twofold. First, to blatantly lobby fans to prepare for and appreciate Ichiro when he breaks Pete Rose's all-time hits record within the next five years. One can easily anticipate the legions of "purists" who will lobby that the record isn't "real" and that Rose is truly the record holder.

The same people became huge "George Sisler fans" when Ichiro broke the single-season hit record in 2004. I still recall the arguments embarrassingly over-emphasizing how Sisler accomplished the feat in only 154 games, all the while ignoring the obvious inferiority of athletes in 1920 and the segregated nature of the game at that time.

Hopefully by then many people will also have awakened to the reality that Ichiro's career in Japan likely lowered his total hit output. Further, they should ask if Pete Rose truly was the "hit king" then why did Ichiro have more 200-hit seasons in the majors? And why did Rose not lead the majors in hits as many times as Ichiro? And why am I lobbying so hard for Rose, who tarnished baseball by gambling on games?

Second, I actually wonder what people will think about this generation of baseball fans who slept on Ichiro's career while it happened.

When the next generation of MLB fans look back and discover Ichiro's accomplishments they will be amazed at what they find. Inevitably they will ask, "Why haven't I heard much about this guy?" The readily available answers will be predictable: Ichiro (1) played in the relatively small market of Seattle; (2) didn't have easily identifiable post-season heroics; and (3) was a small guy without any power numbers.

Inevitably however, these answers will prove unsatisfying. More unsettling speculation will raise the possibility that Ichiro was largely underappreciated in our times due to his race or nationality. Others will make note of his unassuming personality in a culture that often prizes style over substance.

In any case, it is important that American fans of today recognize the legend that Ichiro is, and the legend that he continually builds on each season. They shouldn't fail to appreciate his greatness, or they may find their son or daughter, after seeing some ESPN documentary, incredulously asking them, "That Ichiro guy DID WHAT?!"

Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

4 comments:

  1. Ichiro & Tony Gwynn are the best pure hitters I have seen. But Ricky Henderson is the best leadoff hitter of all time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Since 2000, I would say Pujols is the best player in MLB, but I rank Ichiro second above Jeter and that roid head A-Rod.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Seattle's BestOctober 9, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    Ichiro is the best hitter in MLB since Ted Williams.

    But I don't buy Sadaharu Oh's home run total in that weaker league.

    ReplyDelete
  4. >3. Ichiro has been named to the MLB All-Star Team in all 10 of his MLB seasons.

    A large quantity of organized votes from Japan contribute to this.
    David Dejesus and Hose Batista and Shin-soo Choo should have been chosen this year.
    He is not chosen as all-stars very much if Ichiro is a Puerto Rican.
    In Japan, as for 120,000,000 people, there is population.
    There is secondly much Japanese population in the prosperous country of the baseball.

    ReplyDelete

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