We continue our countdown of the 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era. The rest of the posts can be found here.
The name “Ichiro” should be found in Thesauruses across the world as a synonym for the word “hit,” because that’s what Ichiro does. In fact, I wonder if there are some collective groans as he doesn’t reach any higher than 21 on the list of best hitters in this free agent era.
Well, I have my reasons.
In fact, Ichiro has been the most difficult player for me to place. First of all, you have a whole separate career in Japan. While it’s not Major League Baseball, I never specified it had to be American professional baseball as a criteria. It’s pretty obvious that Ichiro Suzuki, after batting .350 in his rookie season in 2001, belonged in the Major Leagues. After that campaign, his age 27 season, suddenly he belonged in any discussion of the world’s best hitters. In fact, as a rookie, Ichiro became the first person since Jackie Robinson to lead the league in both average and steals.
Had he been in the Majors from his early 20’s or even his late teens, we might be talking about the all-time hits leader. Some would argue he is because he has more hits than Pete Rose when adding Japan and the United States stats together.
After four seasons in American baseball, Ichiro had captured two batting titles. The second of which came in his best season of 2004, when he batted .372 and got on base at a .414 rate, the only time in his career he topped the .400 mark for OBP. This is the season he also broke the single season hits record with 262. He would eventually tie Rose as the only batters in history to get 200 hits in ten straight seasons.
His pace hardly slowed until his late 30’s. At the end of 2010 at the age of 36, he’d rattled off ten consecutive .300+ batting average seasons. He led the league in hits seven out of those ten, including five in a row from 2006 – 2010. In four of those first ten campaigns, he batted over .350. He also was as dependable as they come, never playing in less than 146 games during that stretch. In fact, until this season of 2017, he’d never played in less than 143!
So how can a guy whose combined hits between Japan and the United States makes him the all-time hits leader not finish higher than #21? Have I lost my mind?
This goes back to my original preview post. I wrote a whole spiel about “expectations,” and Ichiro is at the heart of that discussion. Does anyone expect Ichiro to hit home runs? Sure he does pop one now and then, but it is really his fault that he singles like crazy and that’s about it?
Only three times in his entire Major League career has he topped 30 doubles. Double digit homers? Three times. Double digit triples? Once. In fact, regarding that record-breaking season of 2004: of those 262 base hits, only 37 went for extra bases. If you want a single, Ichiro is your guy. He’s a singles machine. That incredibly recognizable swing of his has done its job even to this day, where Ichiro is still batting .262 in 2017 (mostly in a pinch-hit role) as of this writing.
But that’s what we expect Ichiro to do, right? Hit singles? It’s like Mark McGwire…he went up to hit home runs and no one in history did it more often than Big Mac.
His career average of .312 is mighty impressive, and some might say it warrants more respect on this list. The purpose of this blog is not to take Ichiro down, so I won’t. He’s one of the best all around players of our generation. But when we’re talking about the 25 guys on my best hitters list, he was 25th in two key stats: on-base percentage and slugging.
It’s kind of crazy to think that Ichiro is last in on-base, but it’s true. His .356 is lower than anyone else I will write about in the top 25. How is this possible? Well, for a guy that spent his time hitting in the .350’s, there’s only one possibility. He doesn’t take walks. Ichiro has the lowest amount of walks, and the lowest percentage, of all 25. He only walks 6% of the time.
And his slugging is last, of course, as I already mentioned his lack of extra bases. Put the these two together and his OPS is the only one under .800 in the entire list, at .759.
Okay, I’m done pointing out why he didn’t finish higher. I feel so guilty. But if I didn’t point out these facts someone else would. And they’d be right. For the record, had Pete Rose been in this list, he may not have finished in the top 10. Quantity of hits takes a back seat to both percentages (especially on-base) and power, in my opinion.
So, I leave you with a great montage of Ichiro’s career, mostly about his hitting. That swing is a thing of beauty, and I’m glad to have been alive to watch this guy hit. Truly one of the greats.