As he’s done so many times before, Ichiro Suzuki led off Wednesday’s game with an infield single. This particular hit—a dribbler up the first-base line that didn’t make it more than 50 feet from home plate—was his 2,978th in America, which combined with 1,278 hits in Japan gave him a total of 4,256 to tie Pete Rose’s all-time record. He then broke Rose’s record a couple hours later by lining an off-speed pitch into the right-field corner for a ninth-inning double and his 4,257th hit.
Of course, that’s not how the major-league record books work. By this point no one should question the high quality of baseball played in Japan—or the many hitters, pitchers, stars, and role players who’ve thrived in America—but that doesn’t change the fact that different leagues have different record books. To consider Suzuki’s hits in Japan part of his MLB total would open all kinds of doors. Do we then similarly count, say, Jackie Robinson’s hits in the Negro Leagues or Minnie Minoso’s hits in Cuba or Julio Franco’s hits in Mexico? And how do we treat Sadaharu Oh and his 868 home runs or Satchel Paige and his (literally) countless wins? You get the idea.
I’m not clutching my pearls arguing that doing so would ruin the sanctity of MLB’s record books as much as saying it would just be really, really hard to thoroughly account for. And in this specific case, counting hits outside of the major leagues would increase Rose’s total. Rose debuted with the Reds at age 22, but before that he played three seasons in the minor leagues and batted .317 with 427 hits in 354 games. You can argue all day about how Japanese baseball in the 1990s compared to the American minor leagues in the 1960s, but to view Suzuki as having 4,257 “professional” hits likely also means viewing Rose as having 4,683 of the same.
But the hypothetical question of how many major-league hits Suzuki would have today if he spent his entire professional career in America fascinates me. What we know for certain is that he debuted with the Mariners at age 27 and is now playing for the Marlins at age 42. And he’s playing well, hitting .349 with just seven strikeouts in 140 plate appearances after looking washed up during a miserable 2015 season.
Here are the all-time MLB leaders in hits from age 27 on:
- 3,357 – Pete Rose
- 2,979 – Ichiro Suzuki
- 2,925 – Sam Rice
- 2,766 – Honus Wagner
- 2,727 – Cap Anson
- 2,635 – Stan Musial
- 2,589 – Ty Cobb
Suzuki is probably a month or so away from becoming the second player in major-league history to record 3,000 hits after age 27, which is absolutely incredible. From the moment Suzuki started playing in America he was doing things very few hitters in major-league history have ever done. What we don’t know for certain is what things look like in the alternate universe where Suzuki either signed with or was drafted by the Mariners out of high school. We can’t ever know that, but we can have some fun speculating and hypothesizing. So let’s do that.
1. One key detail to consider is that Nippon Professional Baseball played 130 games per season from Suzuki’s debut in 1992 through 1996 and then switched to 135 games per season from 1997 through his final season there in 2000. He was a career .353 hitter in Japan, but because of the shorter seasons (compared to the 162-game major-league schedule) Suzuki topped 200 hits just once and averaged 177 hits per full year. As a rookie with the Mariners he batted .350 and notched 242 hits. Three years later he set the all-time major-league record with 262 hits, and he topped 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons in America. He’d likely have totaled more hits in America even if his batting average were much lower than it was in Japan.
Which brings us to the question of how much lower his batting average would have been. There are multiple ways to come up with an estimate, but let’s start with the simplest. Suzuki hit .387 in his final NPB season, compared to .350 in his first major-league season. Combined during his final five NPB seasons (from ages 22-26) he hit .357, compared to .332 in his first five major-league seasons (from ages 27-31). Based on those numbers, it seems fair to speculate that Suzuki’s batting averages in Japan would have been 20-30 points lower in America. For this quick-and-dirty view let’s split the difference and assume a 25-point drop per season.
Instead of hitting .357 in 130-135 games per season in Japan from age 22 through age 26, he’d have hit .332 in 162 games per season in America. Suzuki played 93.3 percent of his team’s games in Japan and averaged 159 games per season with the Mariners. Let’s be somewhat conservative and assume he’d have played 155 games per season from age 22 through age 26. Crunching all those numbers gives Suzuki a hypothetical total of 1,097 hits in America from ages 22-26, compared to his actual total of 853 hits in Japan. Add those 1,097 hits to his current major-league total of 2,979 and you get 4,076. And that’s not even accounting for what Suzuki did prior to age 22.
2. That’s where the hypothetical gets trickier. For one thing, Suzuki’s age-20 and age-21 seasons were the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 campaigns that cut into everyone’s hit totals. Beyond that, while it seems safe to assume a Hall of Fame talent like Suzuki would have impressed enough in the minors to be called up at 22, reaching the majors at 20 or 21 is no sure thing. It’s certainly possible, considering the Mariners had 19-year-old Alex Rodriguez up for 48 games in 1995 (and 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez briefly up the year before that), but across the majors only Rodriguez and 21-year-olds Johnny Damon and Edgardo Alfonzo got more than 150 plate appearances at 21 or younger in '95. In the 1994 season, when Suzuki was 20, no player 20 or younger logged even 100 plate appearances.
For some insight into how the Mariners or another major-league team might have viewed Suzuki as a 19- or 20-year-old prospect, I turned to Robert Whiting, who wrote the book on Ichiro—literally. Published in 2004, his book “The Meaning of Ichiro” was a great read then and now stands as a wonderfully written, detailed origin story. “He only weighed around 120 pounds coming out of high school,” Whiting told me. “He looked like he was about 14 years old, but he had a very quick bat and his speed was off the charts.” However, according to Whiting he was not considered a top prospect post-high school and was kept in the minors long after showing big-time promise. Then in 1994 the Orix Blue Wave hired a new manager and he “immediately called up Ichiro” at age 20.
What are the chances that a major-league team would have recognized his talent at 20 and given him a chance? Whiting credits Lou Piniella for believing in Suzuki and helping him adapt his hitting style. “If he had come up with a manager like Piniella, he would have been an instant success,” Whiting speculates, adding that others may not have been as quick to buy into Suzuki’s stature, swing, and skill set. Piniella was in his second season as Mariners manager in 1994. Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. and right fielder Jay Buhner were two of the league’s best players, but that team used 10 left fielders in the shortened 112-game schedule and the Eric Anthony-led group hit just .233 with an OPS nearly 100 points below average for the position.
Suzuki was in the Opening Day lineup as a 20-year-old in Japan and hit .385, never looking back. It seems far-fetched that he’d be in the Opening Day lineup with the Mariners that same season, but perhaps Piniella and company would have turned to the minor-league hitting machine to fix their left field problems around midseason. If not, then Suzuki impressing everyone once the strike ended was also an option, as the Mariners got even worse production from their Vince Coleman-led left fielders in 1995. By that point, it stands to reason that he’d be putting up some ridiculous numbers in the minors that would be nearly impossible to ignore.
I feel pretty confident saying that, once he reached the American big leagues, Suzuki would have recorded hits at a higher per-season rate than he did in Japan, but far less sure of his getting called up at 20 or 21. And that’s key, because he debuted at 18 in Japan, playing sparingly for his first two seasons before hitting .385 in 130 games as a 20-year-old and .342 in 130 games as a 21-year-old. He totaled 425 hits through age 21, but in this alternate universe there is essentially zero chance of him reaching the majors at 18 or 19, and my worry is that Suzuki may also have spent a lot of his age-20 and age-21 seasons driving Double-A and Triple-A pitchers nuts instead of building up his major-league totals.
So how many major-league hits would Suzuki have if his entire professional career had been spent in America? If you take a conservative approach and assume that he wouldn’t have become a regular until at age 22, then Suzuki likely has around 4,100 hits. If you give his American team a bit more credit and assume he’d be playing regularly at 21 then 4,250 hits is a decent estimate. If you buy fully into the alternate universe placing him with the Mariners again and Suzuki taking the same full advantage of Piniella’s faith and coaching to crack the lineup at age 20, then 4,400 hits is doable.
Ichiro will never be MLB’s all-time hits leader, but it only takes a small amount of imagination and some simple math to see a reality in which he either already topped Rose’s career hits mark or is on the verge of doing so. !.
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