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Putting Ichiro's numbers into perspective
3:22 | MLB
Putting Ichiro's numbers into perspective
Wednesday June 15th, 2016

With a single and a double against the Padres on Wednesday, Ichiro Suzuki now has 4,257 hits in his professional career, one more than Pete Rose’s major league record of 4,256. But because 1,278 of Suzuki’s hits were collected during his nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave of the Japan Pacific League, there has been some controversy over exactly how to frame his accomplishment—and unsurprisingly, Rose has been at the center of the debate, not only as the record holder but also as an outspoken commentator on Suzuki’s challenge to his record.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about this situation, it’s that I don’t care what Rose thinks. He has long since abdicated any moral authority, particularly when it comes to baseball, and if he thinks that his legacy is defined by the all-time hit record, that’s just further evidence of how deeply self-deluded he has become, and perhaps always was. As much of a scoundrel as Rose has revealed himself to be over the last quarter century, his legacy as an all-time great ballplayer remains largely untarnished, but the same cannot be said for the career hits record.

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As celebrated as Rose was at the time for his pursuit of Ty Cobb’s record, which he broke in 1985, it was clear even then that Rose was hanging on past his point of usefulness as a player in order to make history. Thirty-one years later, we have the numbers to prove it: Rose, who played his final five seasons from the ages of 41 to 45, was 2.6 wins below replacement level over that span, via Baseball-Reference.com’s version of WAR. What’s more, we now have hard evidence that Rose both corked his bat and bet on games in which he played during those final seasons. At the time that he was most celebrated, Rose was, in fact, a blight on the game. For anyone—Rose especially—to grouse about the sanctity of his record or the legacy of that accomplishment being tainted by the celebration of Suzuki is ironic, to say the least.

Besides which, I have not seen any evidence of anyone outside of Japan—where, if you didn’t already know, they do consider Sadaharu Oh’s 868 career home runs to be the world record—claiming that Suzuki’s 4,257th hit will eclipse Rose in any meaningful way. That hit was the 2,979th of Suzuki’s major league career, still 1,277 shy of Rose’s major league record. That Suzuki has collected so many hits as a professional, however, deserves recognition, as only Rose and Cobb’s career totals can truly compare.

Three years ago, when Suzuki was approaching his 4,000th professional hit, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch noted that, even with minor and foreign league hit totals included, only five other players had reached that mark. Here’s that list:

player minors/japan mlb total
Pete Rose 427 4,256 4,683
Ty Cobb 166 4,189 4,355
Ichiro Suzuki 1,278 2,979 4,257
Hank Aaron 324 3,771 4,095
Jigger Statz 3,356 737 4,093
Stan Musial 371 3,630 4,001

Arnold John “Jigger” Statz accumulated those 3,356 hits with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League from 1920 to '42, before there was Major League Baseball on the West Coast and when the PCL was regarded as the highest level of play outside of the major leagues. The warmer climate in which the league played allowed for longer seasons: Statz appeared in more than 162 games in a single PCL season eight times, this at a time when the major leagues played 154-game seasons. From 1929 to '35, Statz averaged 181 games played per season, and in '26, he played in 199 games, accumulating 291 hits.

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By comparison, Nippon Professional Baseball—which, like the old PCL, is generally regarded as a level above the best domestic minor league—has shorter seasons than the major leagues. In his nine years with the Blue Wave, Suzuki never appeared in more than 135 games in a single season and only once accumulated 200 or more hits (210 in his age-20 season in 1994). NPB may be a slightly lower level of competition than the major leagues, but the fact that Suzuki had only 83% as many games in which to play at that level seems to largely self-correct for the difference.

Here’s another list to consider. Suzuki didn’t come to the major leagues until his age-27 season but is now just 21 hits away from 3,000 major league safeties. How many players have accumulated more hits in the major leagues from their age-27 season on? Just one.

player hits
Pete Rose 3,357
Ichiro Suzuki 2,979
Sam Rice 2,925
Honus Wagner 2,766
Cap Anson 2,727
Stan Musial 2,635
Ty Cobb 2,589

Suzuki is not going to play long enough to get the roughly 400 hits required to top Rose on either of the above lists. In fact, one could fairly accuse the 42-year-old Suzuki of having already hung around too long, echoing Rose by playing into his early forties to reach these career milestones. Suzuki hasn’t been a star-level player since 2010 and has posted an 82 OPS+ over the last five seasons in bouncing from the Mariners to the Yankees to the Marlins. He even sunk below replacement level last year at the age of 41. He has been earning his place on the Marlins' roster this year, however, and has been worth 5.2 wins above replacement since the start of the 2011 season.

This year, prior to Wednesday afternoon’s game,  Suzuki has hit .347/.410/.388 (122 OPS+) and remained a valuable defensive outfielder. Whether he has been energized by his pursuit of Rose or the Marlins’ improved play (they are 29–20 since April 24) or is just enjoying a streak of luck, he had been racing toward 4,256. In his last seven starts before Wednesday, the Marlins’ fourth outfielder had six multi-hit games and had gone a combined 15 for 32 (.469).

With his performance this season, Suzuki has proven that he deserves to continue his pursuit of both 3,000 hits and Rose's record. With his performance over his entire 16-year major league career, he has also proven that his accomplishments on both sides of the Pacific deserved to be celebrated. That celebration need not make Suzuki out to be anything he is not; to call him one of the most prolific hitters in baseball history and by far the greatest player to play in both MLB and NPB is enough.

To recognize Suzuki’s 4,256th and 4,257th hits, meanwhile, honors not only him but also Nippon Professional Baseball and, in turn, other foreign leagues such as the Korea Baseball Organization, which have provided the majors with an increased flow of talent over the last two decades. In that way, Suzuki’s 4,256th hit is more significant than Rose’s not because of the number but because of what it represents: the international reach of the game and baseball’s continued ability to represent America at its best, as a cultural melting pot made all the richer by its ever-increasing diversity.

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