Putting Ichiro’s feat in perspective

There is no question that what Ichiro Suzuki has done is an amazing accomplishment. Banging out 4,000 hits in a professional baseball career is nothing short of astounding. Yet in his case some perspective is in order. Those who are already comparing Ichiro to the major leagues’ only 4,000-hit batters, Pete Rose and Ty Cobb, are not entirely accurate.

Suzuki’s 4,000 hits are a combined total, that of 2,722 here in the major leagues and 1,278 in Japan’s Pacific League. That is why his achievement is more in line with Henry Aaron and Stan Musial than with Rose and Cobb, who surpassed 4,000 hits entirely in the majors, Rose with 4,256 and Cobb with 4,189.

Aaron and Musial also had more than 4,000 hits if you count what they did in the minor leagues. Aaron had 3,771 career hits. Add his 324 hits in the minors and you get 4,095 (and that’s not counting what he had in the Negro Leagues, a number no one is quite sure of). Musial had 3,630 career hits. Add his 371 hits in the minors and you get 4,001.

Like it or not, Ichiro falls into their category.

Why? All he has to do is look at his American League Rookie of the Year trophy for the answer. If he was considered a rookie when he broke into the majors with the Mariners in 2001, then the statistics Suzuki piled up in Japan were not considered equal to the major-league standard. That is the opinion of Major League Baseball.

You can argue left and right about whether that is fair or not, but the fact is that if Ichiro was considered a rookie in 2001 then the hits he had in Japan are akin to what minor league records are in North America.

This issue was first broached in 1995 when Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo began the migration of Asian players to the majors. As the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and responsible for conducting the annual awards voting, I contacted the commissioner’s office for a clarification of Nomo’s status. Did he or did he not qualify for the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award?

Yes, I was told, which was not good news for Chipper Jones that year. He finished second to Nomo in the voting. The reasoning used was that players who entered the majors from the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s were considered rookies in the majors even though they had been professionals playing in organized leagues, and that Asian players entering the majors fit the same profile. That opened the door for Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro to also win Rookie of the Year honors in 2000 and 2001, respectively, the same way that Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Sam Jethroe, Willie Mays, Joe Black and Junior Gilliam won the award five decades earlier.

Not all the writers agreed with this viewpoint. Some still don’t. I remember how upset Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner was in 2003 when Hideki Matsui finished second to Royals shortstop Angel Berroa for AL Rookie of the Year. Two writers on that committee later admitted that they did not believe Matsui should have been considered a rookie and left him off their ballots.

Steinbrenner called me personally to complain about the balloting. I told him the two writers’ prejudice was expressed after the fact. How could I know when counting the ballots what was on the minds of every voter? I told him that if those writers had told me of their opinions beforehand I would have excused them from voting and replaced them. On Rookie of the Year ballots, it clearly states that players from foreign leagues who are in their first year of play in the American or National League are considered rookies.

What I am getting at is that it is a bit murky about how we should treat the statistics that Nomo, Ichiro and Matsui put up in Japan in comparison to their major-league achievements. In no way am I undermining what Ichiro has done. I have already written stories in two prominent Japanese publications that Ichiro is on a fast track to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

What Suzuki has done in the States is phenomenal — 10 straight seasons of 200 or more hits and the all-time record for hits in a single season (262 in 2004), breaking the previous mark of Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler of the old St. Louis Browns that stood for 83 years. Despite that, Ichiro cannot fairly be placed in the same category with Rose and Cobb, but I would take being compared with the Hammer and the Man any day of the week.

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