We often talk about players who are unique. Derek Jeter is unique. Albert Pujols is unique. Chase Utley is unique. And so on.
Of course, every player in baseball is unique in the truest sense of the word -- being the only one of its kind. You know, with DNA and all. But in the baseball sense of "unique"... it is hard to find players who are so different that you cannot find anyone who even reminds you of them. Babe Ruth may have been the greatest offensive force in the history of the game, but there are seasons by Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, the Steroid Era Barry Bonds and others who would fit neatly into his career.
Ted Williams may have been the greatest hitter ever, but Stan Musial was awfully good. Willie Mays was a wonderful combination of power, speed and defense, but so were Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente and the young Barry Bonds.
Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew and Wade Boggs.
Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver and Walter Johnson.
Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton.
Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker.
This is not to say that these players were ALIKE, exactly, because they very clearly were not alike. They all had their own styles, their own skills, their own levels. But they were not SO different either. Pete Rose was sort of a thick-bodied version of his hero Enos Slaughter. Pedro Martinez was sort of a shorter and livelier version of his hero, Juan Marichal. Even Nolan Ryan -- who was in many ways one-of-a-kind -- shares at least some similarities in form and style and audaciousness with a young Bob Feller.
All which leads to this: I don't think there has ever been a player in baseball history quite like Ichiro Suzuki.
Or, anyway, there certainly has not been a player quite Ichiro since the Deadball Era, when players like George Sisler and Ty Cobb whacked lots of hits and didn't walk much and stole bases. Sisler, in many ways, seems like a decent offensive comp to Ichiro -- great batting averages (Sisler .340, Ichiro .333), surprisingly low corresponding on-base percentages (Sisler .379, Ichiro .378), good stolen base numbers, some ridiculously high hit seasons (Ichiro, of course, broke Sisler's hit record when he picked up 262 in 2004. They are the only two players to have two seasons with 240 hits).
But that's just offense. And while Sisler was a first baseman -- and there has been some disagreement about how good -- Ichiro is one of the most dynamic defenders of his time. You have already seen, I hope, the catch he made during a spring training game on Tuesday -- it's spectacular. I have watched it about 23 times already today, and I'll probably watch it at least a few more before dinner. One catch does not define a player, I suppose... but just WATCH THAT CATCH. It tells you an awful lot about the kind of defensive player Ichiro has been for almost a decade now.
And, of course, Ichiro has a fabulous arm, the best of his generation. There will always be those who say no one can compare to Clemente defensively, and I would not argue the point. But Clemente is just a touch before my time... and I think Ichiro is the best defensive right fielder I have ever ever seen.
And then there's the style of Ichiro... the unique warm-up golf swing, the way he breaks out of the box while he swings the bat, the way he purposely jams himself sometimes to get a hit (has anyone ever gotten more hits on pop-ups that drop behind the third baseman, to the left of the shortstop and in front of the left fielder?), the way he sometimes muscles up and drives the ball out -- there are many around the game who think that Ichiro could hit 25-30 home runs if he was willing to sacrifice hits and batting average, which he is not.
Put it all together, well, here are a few fun Ichiro tidbits to chew on:
• He has played nine seasons... and he has led the American league in singles ALL NINE YEARS. Nobody else has ever led a league in singles nine times.
• He missed the entire 2000 season (he was still playing in Japan)... and still had more hits than any player in the decade -- he had 90 more hits than second-place Derek Jeter.
• As Bill James points out... only Pete Rose, Sam Rice and Rogers Hornsby managed 2,000 hits in a decade. Ichiro, though, was the only one of the four to miss an entire season in that decade.
And here's a fun little list you can carry around in your wallet.
• Most times with 260 hits: Ichiro (1)
• Most times with 240 hits: Ichiro and Sisler (2)
• Most times with 230 hits: Ichiro (3)
• Most times with 220 hits: Ichiro (5)
• Most times with 210 hits: Ichiro, Cobb, Paul Waner (9)
• Most times with 200 hits: Rose (10); Ichiro and Cobb (9)
Pete Rose once told me that nobody -- NOBODY -- was going to break his hit record and, to punctuate the point, added: "And you can tell Ichiro he can count his hits in Japan."
Well, of course, they played shorter seasons in Japan. But, by my count, Ichiro had 1,278 hits in Japan. That would give him 3,308 hits for his career. Ichiro is about to enter his 36-year-old season.
Pete Rose entering his 36-year-old season? He had 2,762 hits. That would be 546 fewer hits.
In fact, counting Japan, Ichiro has more hits than anyone had entering their age-36 season:
1. Ichiro Suzuki, 3,3082. Ty Cobb, 3,2643. Robin Yount, 2,8784. Rogers Hornsby, 2,8555. Tris Speaker, 2,7946. Stan Musial, 2,7817. Pete Rose, 2,7628. Derek Jeter, 2,7479. Mel Ott, 2,73210. Sam Crawford, 2,711
Of course, when it comes down to it, I suspect that Pete Rose doesn't really want to count Ichiro's hits in Japan.
Ichiro is the only player to have nine consecutive 200-hit seasons. Rose never had more than three in a row. Cobb never had more than three in a row. Wade Boggs had seven 200-hit seasons in a row, which was the most.
People will always argue about the value of Ichiro. That's because his skill set is so different. How do you place value on a hitter who hits .330 without a lot of power, bangs 225 hits but doesn't walk much, plays a brilliant right field and almost never misses a game? In 2009 Ichiro ranked 12th in the American League in Wins Above Replacement, was in a three-way tie for third with 28 Win Shares and 11th in the league in Baseball Prospectus' Value Over Replacement Player. I'd say that's the general range -- some think he's one of the two or three best players in the league, others think he's plenty good but not quite that good. My analytical side tends to rank him as a Top 10 player, without a doubt, but beyond that I'm not sure.
I know I'd take him.
And I know that Ichiro Suzuki is one of those player who more or less qualifies for our baseball definition of unique. I've never seen a player like him, and never expect to see a player like him. And when it comes to watching and loving baseball, that means a lot. Whatever his pure value, I would hope to someday tell my grandchildren about Ichiro.