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September 26, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

Is 12 Enough for Ichiro?

by Michael Bates

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Despite what has been a tremendous week for Ichiro Suzuki (he hit .533/.563/.867 from September 19th to 24th), there's been understandable speculation that one of baseball's most iconic figures is coming toward the end of the line. Not that he has to, but if he retires at the end of the year, Ichiro will finish somewhere north of 2600 hits in 12 Major League seasons, with two batting titles, the single-season record for hits, in excess of 450 stolen bases, 10 (consecutive) Gold Gloves and All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year award and an AL MVP.  It's a short but storied MLB career, and it's going to lead to a lot of questions about whether Ichiro belongs in the Hall of Fame.

There's no doubt that, at his peak, Ichiro was a Hall of Fame-level talent.  The problem, of course, is that his career in the majors began when he was 27. If he retired this year, Ichiro would finish with fewer than 2000 games.  Historically, the Hall of Fame has found a place for players with short careers.  Indeed, 48 players who played the majority of their careers in the 20th and 21st centuries have made the HOF despite finishing below that playing time threshold.  These players even include inner circle Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Arky Vaughan, Hank Greenberg and Home Run Baker.

So it's clear that a player with a short career CAN be a deserving Hall of Famer, but it's also clear that voters have become reluctant to honor those players.  They value longevity, and have only valued it more as more players pass statistical milestones and make the HOF field seem more crowded. 

Indeed, only one position player to play fewer than 2,000 games has debuted since 1949 and been inducted into the Hall of Fame: Kirby Puckett.  And while voters have been willing to make exceptions in recent years, they often look for mitigating circumstances that explain a player's short career.  They look for pioneers, soldiers, and tragedies.  Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, was inducted in 1998 with only 1,533 career games played.  Joe Gordon, who served two years in World War II, made it in 2009 with 1,566 games.  And Puckett, a unique case, was voted in in 2001 after glaucoma cut his career short at 1,783 games. 

Ultimately, it's these players that Suzuki is going to have to be compared to, especially Puckett.  There's no doubt that Puckett was the better hitter, displaying almost identical ability to hit for average and get on base (Puckett hit .318 and had a .360 OBP for his career, Ichiro .322 and .366), while providing much more power than Ichiro ever did (.477 SLG and 207 homers for Puckett to .419 and 104 for Suzuki), while winning six Gold Gloves of his own.  He also had postseason heroics on his side and was one of the most beloved figures in the game during his career.  But if the numbers are to be believed, we’re talking about players of almost equal quality. 

As a Twins fan, you’re never going to convince me that Puckett isn’t a legitimate Hall of Famer, even if my brain continually reminds me that he’s on the extreme low end of the Hall’s membership.  Indeed, my beliefs aside, I have a hard time faulting anyone who thinks that Puckett just didn’t play long or well enough to have deserved induction.  But how much credit do you give Puckett because his eyes betrayed him?  How much do you give to Roy Campanella for the car accident that cost him the use of his legs?  How much do you hold a quirk of geography against Ichiro Suzuki?  Or does he get extra credit for his Japanese League exploits, like Doby and Monte Irvin did for playing Negro League ball? 

These aren’t easy questions.  Ichiro has 49.4 WARP,  and Jackie Robinson produced 56.9.  Of course Suzuki didn’t face the same prejudice that Jackie Robinson did, and please don’t think I’m comparing one to the other. But it’s clear that Ichiro faced at least some discomfort as the only Japanese superstar in the game for much of his career, and as usually the only Japanese player on his team.  How much do you want to credit him for his handling of that pressure?  Do we consider the phenomenon that grew up around the man or is that just hype that results in his career being overvalued?

I don’t know that I have the right answers.  In fact, I don’t think there are right answers.  But I do think that Ichiro is going to prove a unique case for modern voters.  And it’s going to say a lot about whether the stathead community values numbers over narrative.  Because I’ll be honest, numbers or not, I’d vote for Ichiro in an instant.

Michael Bates is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

Related Content:  Ichiro Suzuki,  Kirby Puckett

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BurrRutledge

In. Easy.

Sep 26, 2012 04:39 AM
rating: 14
 
azynkewl

Be surprised if he doesn't get in first ballot.

Sep 26, 2012 04:53 AM
rating: 2
 
grandslam28

I'm guessing this is a stupid debate. There is no way he is not first ballot. Let alone if he wants to play 2 maybe three more sub par years then he will have 3000 easy.

Sep 26, 2012 05:36 AM
rating: 3
 
Ric Size

Can someone post his numbers from his years in Japan, to give the readers some more perspective? I'm sure it would help his case.

Sep 26, 2012 05:40 AM
rating: 0
 
Randy Brown
(189)

Played two partial seasons when he was a teenager, then seven full seasons. Slash line of 353/421/522. Once cleared 200 hits in a season despite the season only being 130 games. Good for about 15-20 HR a season.

And 1,278 hits. I've often wondered if MLB would have some sort of ceremony if his combined hit total eclipsed Pete Rose. I still think he gets there, but it is looking like less of a sure thing than it used it.

Sep 26, 2012 06:20 AM
rating: 7
 
Randy Brown
(189)

....used to, of course. Stupid auto-correct.

Sep 26, 2012 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
jmoore

Ichiro is a somewhat iconic player. The numbers may not be overwhelming but they are defensible. That combination gets him in easy. Agree with the comments above - first ballot.

Sep 26, 2012 06:13 AM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

When people bring up Ichiro, the conversation always turns to his hit total. But really, his case should be made as a multi-dimensional player.

My favorite comp is Roberto Clemente-- an excellent defensive right fielder, who also gets 'trailblazer' credit for being the first Latino player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Look around MLB a generation or two later, and the explosion of MLB's popularity in the Caribbean during Clemente's career is obvious. Ichiro wasn't the first player from Asia, but he was the first superstar.

UZR only counts recent players, but among them Ichiro is 5th behind only Beltre, Andruw, Crawford, and Rolen. He won 3 of the first 6 Fielding Bible awards for RF as well. Ichiro isn't quite the hitter Clemente was (when you consider their eras), but he also stands among the game's all-time greats as a baserunner. Suffice to say that the "integrity, sportsmanship, character" portion of the voting instructions apply more to Ichiro than a number of his contemporaries, and Kirby Puckett for that matter.

Throw in the standard 'trophies' (10 Gold Gloves, RoY, MVP, 3x SS, 10x All-Star) data, the JAWS-style 'high peak' argument, and the voters will put him in easily.

Sep 26, 2012 11:02 AM
rating: 10
 
dianagram

Paging Jay Jaffe ....

Sep 26, 2012 07:55 AM
rating: 4
 
mdangelfan

1278 hits in Japan, so he's got 3873 in total.

Now the Japanese league isn't as strong as MLB, so his numbers would take a hit if he played his whole career in USA. Instead of hitting .353 those years, he'd have probably hit .320-.330. But with another 30 games on the schedule, it is almost certain that he would have had at least as many hits, and probably a few more.

Yeah, value stats from here, bbref, or fangraphs better describe a player's contribution than hits, but 3873 is just a freaking ton of hits.

I hope Ichiro passes Rose because I'd much rather recognize Ichiro as the hit king than that pathetic scumbag.

Sep 26, 2012 10:04 AM
rating: 0
 
SC

Unlike notorious non-scumbag Ty Cobb? Baseball is full of louts who are good on the field. That you don't like Rose doesn't change the fact that he's one of the best players of all time.

Sep 26, 2012 10:09 AM
rating: 8
 
sapsparky

Ichiro certainly won't have as many HW (Hit Woman) as Puckett...

But that is mainly the problem with giving extra credit for thinking someone is a "good guy" in what is essentially a series of one on one battles.

Sep 26, 2012 10:08 AM
rating: 8
 
SC

Of course he's in. Because it's the "National Baseball Hall of Fame" not the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Ichiro did not have a 12 year career, he has a 19+ year career. Especially given that he was effectively forced to stay in Japan, rather than choosing to compete in an inferior league (much like Negro League players who ended up in the MLB), he's a shoe-in first balloter.

Sep 26, 2012 10:08 AM
rating: 2
 
piraino

From the New York Times, "While most players dump their bats in cylindrical canvas bags when they are not using them, Suzuki neatly stacks his best eight bats inside a shockproof, moisture-free black case"

That's awesome and ninja-like, and is consistent with many other bad-ss behaviors practiced by Ichiro that belie his cultural link to the mythic Bushido mercernaries of feudal Japan. I suggest we add 287 hits to his career total to account for the fact that he is this awesome. Don't even wait until he retires. Hall. Of. Fame. Now.

Sep 26, 2012 11:00 AM
rating: 8
 
piraino

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/sports/baseball/for-ichiro-suzuki-respect-for-bats-is-key-to-hitting.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

Sep 26, 2012 11:00 AM
rating: 0
 
bbozorth

First Ballot. If you measure his shorter career against HOF players with longer careers , he is in. The fact that he has accumulated the numbers he has in a much shorter career is only icing on the cake. He gets into the hall in a New York second.....

Sep 26, 2012 11:42 AM
rating: 2
 
navarred

Of course, he can make it even easier if he impresses in a Yankees uniform in October.

Sep 26, 2012 14:24 PM
rating: 1
 
alangreene

He's in, easy. Likeable, big numbers, understandable reason why his career numbers aren't there.

I really can't see him being excluded.

Sep 26, 2012 12:21 PM
rating: 0
 
navarred

First ballot and expect every newspaper in Japan to send a reporter and a photographer. Iconic in at least two countries, if not more broadly.

Sep 26, 2012 14:21 PM
rating: 0
 
whichthat

To paraphrase a different right fielder, Ichiro didn't come to America to be a star. He brought his star with him.

Sep 27, 2012 19:54 PM
rating: 0
 
skelton

I thought his election was a foregone conclusion. Only debate is first ballot or not.

Sep 26, 2012 18:12 PM
rating: 1
 
jhardman

First ballot. No question. Done deal.

For me, it boils down to which player of each era I would most pay money to see play, regardless of team and fandom.

Ichiro is the clear winner of the past 10 years. He made the two hop grounder to the third baseman an exciting play.

Sep 27, 2012 07:00 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Did Jaffe take his proprietary database for JAWS with him? or is this something BP can still use?

Sep 27, 2012 07:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

I have no doubt that Ichiro is a Hall of Famer.

But then so is Jeff Bagwell. He and Ichiro both played during the steroid era.

Bagwell had Caminiti as a teammate, and Ichiro had Brett Boone, Ryan Frankiln, Mike Morse. Guilt by association? For only one or for both?

Obviously, there isn't a shred of evidence that either one ever used any PEDs. So why would writers vote for one but not the other?

Sep 27, 2012 09:26 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Kopec

Are you kidding? Ichiro might get 90% of the vote. He'll absolutely get 100% of the "I can't wait to write a story about why I voted for Ichiro because he obviously didn't use steroids" vote.

Sep 27, 2012 12:08 PM
rating: 1
 
bigpete123

Ichiro broke records from the dead ball era. since 1930 he has had the 1st and 2nd most hits in a season. this is a testimate to his constancy and his ability to stay on the field. 1st Ballot

Sep 27, 2012 12:52 PM
rating: 0
 
godfather

it's quality over quantity, so the bbwa members who rely on accumulation of numbers to support their right to carry their know-it-all card really ought to take a look at that factor; if they can't take in context that both a koufax and kaat are deserving -- for almost opposing reasons -- they are recalcitrant...my pet peeve in this game for almost 80 years now is that the "experts" are most aware of dimaggio as an icon -- but all too few realize his worth as a player...do some mundane homework: check out his road stats vs. those of the acknowledged great hitters...of course, in my mind, your hall needn't be the same as mine, so if i admit ichiro, i really don't need anyone's affirmation

Sep 28, 2012 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
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