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.