With his hair graying and playing time almost nonexistent, former Mariner Ichiro Suzuki could be returning to Safeco Field as an active player for the last time when the Miami Marlins start a three-game series with Seattle tonight.
While a segment of the Mariners fan base may be ambivalent towards Ichiro’s homecoming, a considerable number are certain to celebrate the player who took Major League Baseball by storm as a 27-year-old rookie in 2001.
During Ichiro’s debut season, his dynamic play helped propel the Mariners to a record 116 wins and an AL Championship Series appearance. Along the way, the Japanese import won a batting title and earned both Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year honors.
Over the next decade, Ichiro dazzled fans on both sides of the Pacific with his prolific hitting, blazing speed, and howitzer-like arm. During that time, he collected more hits (2,244) than any player. Next closest behind him was future first-ballot Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, who trailed by 326.
When he left the Mariners in July 2012, Ichiro held franchise records for highest batting average (.322) and most hits (2,533), triples (79), and stolen bases (438). Since leaving, he’s continued to grow his hit tally with stints in New York with the Yankees and now Miami.
Last June, the 43-year-old’s professional playing career reached a pinnacle when his combined Japanese and North American hit total surpassed the all-time MLB mark (4,256) held by Pete Rose.
Some scoffed at Ichiro passing Rose’s milestone — including the Hit King himself — because 1,278 of those hits occurred in Japan. At the time, Rose told USA Today, “I don’t think you’re going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to major-league baseball.’
While I agree with Rose’s assertion, the furor left me wondering.
How does Ichiro stack up to Pete Rose as a hitter?
From a statistical standpoint, answering my question is challenging. Ichiro was five years older than Rose was during their respective rookie campaigns. The player known as “Charlie Hustle” had too great of a head start to use career totals as a basis for comparison.
With that in mind, I performed a narrower search to get answers. Since Ichiro was 27-years-old when he debuted, I decided to compare each player’s production from ages 27-42. For those wondering, that encompasses all of Ichiro’s completed seasons.
When the numbers are placed side-by-side, we receive the first hint Ichiro holds an advantage over Rose in the hit collection department.
|Rose/Ichiro (Ages 27-42)|
During the selected 16-year span, Rose had 61 more hits than Ichiro despite playing in nine fewer games. Initially, that sounds impressive. However, he had 868 more plate appearances than the Marlins outfielder.
To put that into perspective, that’s a full season and two months of another based on Ichiro’s average plate appearances-per-season during his career. Clearly, he was better at accumulating base hits.
My first comparison piqued my interest, but I would’ve preferred to have a smaller margin between total plate appearances. So, I took another stab at it.
Remember Ichiro’s first decade in MLB when he led baseball in hits? He was between ages 27-36 during that span. With that in mind, I compared him to Rose during the same ages and discovered results that were more telling.
|Rose/Ichiro (Ages 27-36)|
This time, plate appearances were very close and just one game separated both players. However, Ichiro had significantly more hits (177) than Rose. That’s nearly a season’s worth.
My takeaway is Ichiro was the superior hit-maker. Nevertheless, Rose was the better offensive player due to his approach and the outcomes produced.
Throughout his career, Ichiro’s strategy was straightforward and consistent — swing aggressively, put the ball in play, use his speed to reach base. It worked. The left-handed hitter accumulated 696 infield or bunt hits. That’s 23-percent of his career total.
Conversely, Rose drove the ball with authority leading the league in doubles five times. The switch-hitter also drew more walks and struck out less often, leading to a superior on-base percentage (OBP).
Reaching base is especially crucial when discussing two players who didn’t hit for power and were leadoff men for the majority of their respective careers. This is why Rose was the better hitter in my eyes.
Personally, Ichiro’s impact on baseball has nothing to do with statistics. Sure, getting 3,000 hits has guaranteed him a plaque in Cooperstown, which he richly deserves. But, his true legacy is rooted in proving position players from Asia could succeed in MLB.
Breaking that cultural barrier is Ichiro Suzuki’s true Hall of Fame feat and merits celebration.
I suspect Safeco Field will oblige tonight.