The short answer is that we should care a little… but also a lot.
Anyway, before I get into the details of Ichiro’s Japanese and American hits, I’d like to share a short story about him. In the ’07 or ’08 season, I had a friend with Mets season tickets that took me to around 20 games a year. He was really into collecting baseballs, so we’d go to BP (batting practice) to try to catch home runs. We went to a Mets vs Mariners game that year, and watching Ichiro during BP was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen on a baseball field. First off, at the plate, he was putting balls over the fence 400-plus feet easily. He just kept on nailing the old Shea scoreboard. Ichiro only has 113 MLB homers, but it really made me wonder what power numbers he could’ve put up if he sacrificed average for power a little. That didn’t compare to what he did in the field though. On major league fly balls that were hit 100-200 feet in the air, he was bending over at the waist and catching them behind his back (see picture below).
He would catch balls in his hat, between his legs, with his back to home plate, everything. It was transfixing to watch, as he never once dropped a ball. And then, and this was my favorite part, he would point to a fan sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium, get their attention, and, from right field, launch a ball with ease that would land perfectly in the fans glove. I didn’t even bother trying to catch any balls that day. I just sat and watched Ichiro perform for the New York fans. Being an MLB player requires an unbelievable amount of skill, but Ichiro’s is on a whole different level. I don’t know if he still does this, but if he does, it’s completely worth the price of admission to go to your local team’s game vs the Marlins for batting practice.
Now, about his hits…
Let me start by stating with complete certainty that the pitching and defense in the Nippon Professional Baseball League (Japan’s league) is not nearly as good as that in the MLB. That’s why the best players from that league go to the MLB, and not all of them even have success. It goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway so you don’t think I’m crazy later on. The point is that what Ichiro did in Japan is extremely impressive, but the competition made a difference. People say that Willie Mays lost 60-100 home runs to the winds at Candle Stick Park, and that if he had played anywhere else, he may still be the home run king. But hey, he did play there, the balls didn’t go out of the stadium, the would-be home runs didn’t count, and people don’t care all that much. Saying Ichiro is the hit king is sort of like counting those home runs. It’s cool, and something that should always be noted when discussing Ichiro hits or Mays’ Home Runs, but they’re not MLB stats, so they don’t matter like MLB stats. Long story short, the hits are impressive, but Pete Rose is the “hit king”. Let’s not give Rose another reason to get pissy.
There’s the part of me that thinks it’s the most intriguing “what-if” in baseball. What if Ichiro had started in the MLB instead? Now I know what you think right away: “He would’ve done well, but not 1,278 hits well.” And to that I say, “Nay, you are wrong, and here is why.”
Ichiro may not have been a career .353 hitter in his first 9 seasons in the MLB as he was in the NPBL. I concede that (although he was a .332 hitter in his actual first 9 MLB season). But I honestly believe he would’ve gotten the same number of hits, if not more, if he had spent those first 9 seasons in the MLB.
“But how does that make sense, Marco?” Oh, don’t worry. I’m about to let you know:
WARNING: Things are going to get statistical.
The NPBL, when Ichiro played, had an 130-135 game season. The MLB plays 162 games a year. Ichiro played 2 partial seasons at 18 & 19 years old, then 5 full seasons, then 2 seasons in which he missed roughly 30 games. That means that, applying the % of games he played per year in Japan and applying it to an MLB schedule, he could’ve played an additional 212 GAMES if he started in the MLB at 18. 212 games. That is 1 & 1/3 more MLB seasons worth of at bats.
So yeah, Ichiro may have (and probably would have) had a lower average if he had been in the MLB, but he would’ve had around 848 more at bats to hit in (assuming an average of 4 AB’s/game, which could not possibly be high considering he would’ve batted leadoff nearly all of those years.)
So lets do some math. Let’s take Ichiro’s MLB batting average from 2000-2009 (ages 27-35), .332, and apply that to the number of at bats he WOULD’VE gotten had he been in the MLB:
That’s 3,916 (NPBL ABs) + 848 (Extra AB’s from adjusted MLB schedule) = 4,764 MLB at bats.
Then to find out how many hits he would’ve gotten:
4,764 X .332 (his 9 year MLB avg.)=
1,581 MLB hits.
That’s right. 303 MORE hits than he had in Japan. That would bring his current total, by the way, up to 4,560. Now that, that would be grounds to call Ichiro the hit king. Taste it Pete Rose. However…
The fact of matter is, Ichiro did not play in the MLB during those years. Therefore, it’s really not right to say he is the hit king. Here, however, is what we can say in light of his 4,257th professional hit:
Ichiro Suzuki is one of the most talented, graceful, and complete players to ever grace MLB
or NPBL stadiums. His bat control, skill in the field, laser of an arm, speed, and base running ability (many of which I haven’t even mentioned), are truly a one of a kind combination. I will honestly never forget what he did that day during batting practice at Shea Stadium. Hit king or not, he is in my top 5-favorite players of all time, a hall of famer, and I am honored to have seen him play in person.