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Considering Ichiro Suzuki

July 6th, 2017 · 2 Comments · Baseball

Ichiro Suzuki is playing his 17th season of Major League Baseball, but I still don’t know quite what to make of him.

He picked up his 3,054th hit today, making him the all-time leader among MLB players born outside the United States, one ahead of the Panama-born Rod Carew.

That puts him 24th among all MLB players, in a career that did not commence on this side of the Pacific until he was 27 years old. That is no small feat.

But how valuable has he been, really?

Is he one of the greatest players in the history of the game?

Or is he more like the greatest singles hitter in the history of the game?

One thing is fairly clear: His MLB career should be over.

At 43, his value has settled below replacement level. For the second time in three seasons, his WAR (wins above replacement) is in negative territory. That suggests that the Miami Marlins have someone at their Triple A affiliate who would be more productive than the little outfielder.

The Marlins and, before them, the Yankees apparently feel as if Suzuki brings something to the club, if only something as intangible as fan interest in a once-gifted player.

How good was he, in his prime?

Really, really good.

There are all those hits, of course. A .312 career batting average; a 35.5 career on-base percentage.

He was voted MVP in 2001, his first season in North America, and in 2004 he took George Sisler out of the record book — after 83 years — for most-hits-in-a-season by slapping 262 of them.

Perhaps no one, not even Carew, was as accomplished as Suzuki at placing a batted ball seemingly wherever he wanted it to go. Baseball fans can conjure an image of the left-hand-hitting outfielder’s unusual batting style — with his front foot seemingly already on its way to first base as he leans over and directs the ball through a hole in the defense.

Certainly, the way he plays the game the way I would prefer to see it played — lots of station-to-station baseball, lots of steals, especially in his first MLB decade, with only the occasional home run.

The modern game, however, with its trove of advanced statistics, seems to have decided a guy with a bad batting average but an enhanced ability to put a ball in the seats, is more useful.

Suzuki is not a power hitter. In only three of his 17 seasons has he hit as many as 11 home runs. Beginning in 2013, extra-base hits of all sorts dried up for him.

Into his 30s, he was one of the best defensive players who played right field; he won a Gold Glove in each of his first 10 seasons.

Another aspect of the discussion about Suzuki and his place in the history of the game is his muted playoffs history. Only twice have his teams reached the playoffs, the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 2012 Yankees, and each went out in five games in the American League Championship Series.

How much of that is his fault? Certainly only a fraction of it. But not winning a championship or even playing for one … that does not help the case of those who want to rank him among the dozen or two greatest players.

So, still, I am not sure how to rate Ichiro Suzuki.

He was the greatest contact hitter since the Dead Ball era, and maybe ever.

But he also played for a decade in an environment where scoring runs was not particularly difficult

He scored at least 100 runs for his first eight MLB seasons.

But he never drove in more than 69, which seems low in a league with the designated hitter, even while hitting in the 1-hole.

He played in Japan for nine seasons, seven of them as a regular, and it seems likely he would be tracking down Pete Rose and the all-time hits record had he begun his career in the States.

But he has 59.3 wins above replacement in his 17 MLB seasons, which is a not-so-special 188th on the all-time list, tied with Vladimir Guerrero, and 124.4 WAR behind leader Babe Ruth.

Ichiro seems to have done enough to be a Hall-of-Famer, given that 217 players already are in, but a first-ballot HOFer? Maybe, maybe not.

The man says he would like to continue playing for several more years, and it already seems as if he has been playing forever.

Sometime soon, however, a guy with a sub-zero WAR will not find a job in MLB. And I will miss … what he does … but also remember what he did not do.


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Jul 7, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Definite first ballot Hall of Famer. He was the first Japanese field player to successfully make the transition to MLB. That, combined with his many accomplishments, should be more than enough to earn him the necessary votes.

  • 2 George // Aug 8, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    No question Ichiro is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He would deserve special consideration since he wasn’t allowed to play in the Majors because of rules which kept him bound to his team in Japan.

    Even so, he has over 3,000 hits in the majors which merits induction. The nearest player who is comparable would be Wade Boggs, but Ichiro was a much better defender.

    The lack of postseason success can in no way be blamed on Ichiro. In 2012, the major reason the Yankees lost was an injury to Derek Jeter in the first game of the ALCS.

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