Ichiro Suzuki just appeared in the likely last game of his long MLB career and his even longer professional baseball career. Playing for the Marlins, he even got to finish his career with an outing on the mound, where he showcased some nasty sliders. It seems like it will be his final season because he only hit .229, a full 30 points below his previous season low, and his contract with the Miami Marlins was only for a year. It was a great career regardless of whether or not it’s over, although he finished short of 3,000 hits (at 2,935.) He’ll still leave quite a legacy with a career .314 average over 15 great MLB seasons, most of them with the Seattle Mariners.
If Ichiro had been playing in MLB his entire career, he would have amassed over 4,000 hits.
He also left quite a legacy in Japan before most of us stateside had ever even heard of him, yet it’s hard to bring those two legacies together. We know he racked up 1,278 hits over in Japan, and that he had 4,213 hits altogether between the two leagues. If these were all major league hits, Ichiro would still be just short of Pete Rose’s all-time record of 4,256 (and a bit past runner-up Ty Cobb at 4,189), but coming even that close would merit automatic, unanimous induction into the Hall of Fame. Of course, they weren’t all in MLB, which is exactly why it’s hard to reconcile his overseas career with his Major League career, but that’s where I come in. I don’t need to tell you about his MLB legacy, or even his Japanese legacy, but let me try to combine them into one legacy. Allow me to convince you that if Ichiro had been playing in the Major Leagues his entire career, he would have amassed over 4,000 hits.
First of all, a note. I’m well aware that this is a ridiculous argument concerning a hypothetical situation, but those are what baseball is all about. Also, I’m not proposing that people accept this translation into Major League stats as fact, because that would lead to chaos as armchair baseball historians like myself attempted to translate Negro League statistics or tried to project season statistics for those who missed time while serving in WWII. By the way, if we did that, it would be clear that the season’s best pitcher should really be given the Satchel Paige award, but I digress. The point is I’m just doing this to see if Ichiro could have joined Pete Rose and Ty Cobb as hitters who have racked up 4,000 MLB hits, if things had gone a little differently.
So let’s get to it. To begin, let’s review some of Ichiro’s relevant Japanese statistics. In 9 seasons in his home league, Ichiro played 951 games and recorded 3,619 at bats. He ended up with 1,278 hits, good for an astounding .353 batting average. To compare to his career MLB totals, Ichiro just finished his 15th season, where he saw 2,356 games and 9,360 at bats. His 2,935 hits in those at bats left him with a career .314 average in MLB. An important thing to notice is that they only play 144 games a season in Japan, 18 fewer than they do here in the United States. This means that Ichiro missed out on 18 games a season in Japan, which would have given him at least 50 more at bats each season if he had played in every one of those games. Considering that, it’s not ridiculous to think Ichiro could have totaled over 4,000 MLB hits, even after accounting for his lower batting average in MLB than in Japan.
Anyways, if we just sum his time in both leagues, we’re looking at a 24-season career encompassing 3,307 games and 12,979 at bats. His 4,213 hits would leave him with a very impressive .325 batting average, but like I said before this is not a satisfactory method. Mine is not much more satisfying, but I’ll attempt a simple translation of his 9 Japanese seasons into what they might have looked like in the Major Leagues. If you find yourself skeptical, just think about the fact that Ichiro’s Japanese career occurred when he was 18-27, while his MLB career saw him from a 28-year old to a 41-year old. This means that Ichiro’s prime was probably fairly evenly split between both leagues, and he spent many declining years in the United States. If anything, I’m underselling the guy here.
So let’s take Ichiro’s career .314 batting average in MLB, and just assume if he had spent his first few seasons in the U.S. instead of Japan, he would have averaged .314 over those seasons. As we know, Ichiro came to bat 3,619 times in Japan, but this was in 144-game seasons. In Japan, he only averaged 3.81 at bats a game, while in MLB, he averaged just under 4 at bats a game. In Japan, he averaged 106 games a season, while in the United States that jumped to 157 games a season. Of course, if he was in the United States, he probably wouldn’t have started in the Majors as an 18-year old, so let’s say he spends those 3 years in the minors instead and actually starts as a 21-year old in MLB, as plenty of phenoms have in the past. This leaves us with 6 seasons of 157 games each that Ichiro would have played in the Major Leagues instead of in Japan for a total of 942 (just 9 fewer than he actually played through 9 years in Japan.) Based on his 4 at bats per game (more like 3.97) average in MLB, this would give him 3,742 more MLB at bats than he actually has.
Now comes the easy part. Based on his career .314 average, we can expect Ichiro to have safely hit 1,175 times in these 6 hypothetical seasons and 3,742 at bats. This is just under the 1,278 hits he actually racked up in 9 seasons in Japan. Add these 1,175 hits to his true MLB total of 2,935, and we find ourselves with 4,110 hits over 21 MLB seasons. This would leave him a little farther behind Pete Rose and drop him behind Ty Cobb, but still securely in 3rd place all-time, and only the third hitter in over a hundred years of MLB to surpass 4,000 career hits. While it’s impossible to claim that this exactly would have happened if Ichiro had started in the Major Leagues instead of in Japan, this translation is based on his real-life performance through 15 MLB seasons, so it’s not completely unrealistic.
While Ichiro should and probably will get into the Hall of Fame pretty easily, it really should be a no-brainer. This is one of the greatest hitters of all-time, and here in the United States we got to watch him dominate at the plate for 15 years. If it had been 21 seasons, we might be talking about him in even more revered tones than we already do. Let me know if you think this sounds about right, or if you don’t, hit me up and tell me how my methodology could be better. Thanks for reading, and have a good postseason!