Sometime soon the Yankees' Ichiro Suzuki will collect his 4,000th hit in professional baseball. He got 1,278 hits in the Japanese Pacific League and had 2,719 in Major League Baseball entering Tuesday's doubleheader against the Blue Jays, leaving him just three hits away from the milestone. His current level of play is not what it once was, but even if one regards his accomplishments in Japan separately from those in MLB, it constitutes a remarkable achievement for the 39-year-old rightfielder.
Ichiro spent seven full seasons (1994-2000) and parts of two others (1992-1993) playing for the Orix BlueWave in Nippon Professional Baseball, debuting as an 18-year-old and becoming a lineup staple at 20. In fact, despite his first manager's initial resistance to his unorthodox swing with its high leg kick, he set an NPB record and won a batting title in that first full year, collecting 210 hits in a 130-game season, finishing with a .385 average, and winning the first of three straight MVP awards.
Ichiro thoroughly dominated during his time in Japan, hitting a combined .353/.416/.522 (the most complete statistical record of his time in the league is here), winning batting titles and earning All-Star honors and Gold Gloves in each of his seven full seasons. Because Orix was going through a rebuilding process, the team allowed him to head to MLB via the posting process -- in which teams bid for the right to negotiate with a foreign player -- in 2000, one year before he reached free agency. The Mariners, who had lost Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez over the previous three seasons and needed a new star attraction, won his rights by bidding $13.125 million, then signed him to a three-year contract worth $14.088 million.
That worked out pretty well, to say the least. In his first year stateside, the 27-year-old Ichiro led the majors with 242 hits and 56 steals, won the AL batting title by hitting .350 and posted a .381 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging percentage. He not only won the AL Rookie of the Year award -- as a first-year major leaguer, he was eligible -- but the MVP trophy as well while helping Seattle win an AL-record 116 games, though the M's were ousted by the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
That year also began a decade-long string of All-Star and Gold Glove honors for Ichiro, not to mention 200-hit seasons and .300 averages. In 2004, he broke George Sisler's single-season record by collecting a staggering 262 and won his second batting title with a .372/.414/.455 line. His power never fully translated from Japan; he reached double digits in home runs just three times, with a high of 15 in 2005. Nonetheless, his slashing, slap-hitting style made for a wonderfully entertaining throwback to an earlier style of baseball, a compelling contrast in an era of musclebound sluggers.
Not until 2011, when he hit .272/.310/.335, did his play fall off significantly, largely due to a decline against lefthanded pitching. Last July 23, with his five-year, $90 million contract set to expire and the Mariners struggling to rebuild, he accepted a trade to the Yankees -- just prior to a series against them at Safeco Field, no less. Hitting a dismal .261/.288/.353 with Seattle, his bat nonetheless sprang to life upon donning the pinstripes. He batted .322/.340/.454 over the final 67 games of the season, helping New York win another AL East title. Surprisingly, the team re-signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal, one that didn't look particularly wise from a pure baseball perspective but hasn't been as bad as his .272/.307/.359 line suggests. Thanks to his defense (+12 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved), he's been worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement, his best total since 2010, and more than enough to justify this year's $6.5 million salary.
When he reaches 4,000 hits, Suzuki will join a very small crowd of players who attained that plateau professionally. Pete Rose holds the major league record with 4,256, and added another 427 during three seasons in the minors, for a professional total of 4,683. Ty Cobb, whose record Rose broke, is credited with 4,191 hits by the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians of MLB. Independent research by various members of the Society for American Baseball Research (including current MLB official historian John Thorn) credits him with 4,189 due to a double-counted game in 2010; it's that total with which he's credited at Baseball-Reference.com. The same site credits him with 166 hits in the minors, for a total of 4,355.
Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, who rank third and fourth on the all-time hit list, respectively, reached the plateau as well; the former racked up 3,771 major league hits and 324 minor league ones for a total of 4,095, while the latter accumulated 3,630 in the majors and another 371 in the minors for a total of 4,001. One much lesser known player reached 4,000 as well: Arnold "Jigger" Statz, who accumulated 737 in the majors from 1919-1928 as well as 3,356 in the Pacific Coast League in 18 seasons during the 1920-1942 span (he went back and forth between the two leagues several times) for a total of 4,083. Obviously, Statz's accomplishment differs from that of the other four players, even if one considers that the level of play in the old PCL wasn't far below that of MLB. Many players capable of playing in the majors found the combination of better pay and warmer climates more to their liking and forged substantial careers out west.
So too it is with Ichiro, though to a much different degree. In 2002, with that phenomenal rookie season still fresh, Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport -- the inventor of Equivalent Average, a forerunner to the True Average stat that I frequently cite here as the best adjusted rate stat for hitters -- studied the level of play of the NPB based upon players common to both leagues, including those from Triple-A. Crunching the numbers using weighted averages of players' plate appearances in Japan and the U.S., his conclusion was that the NPB was about 95 percent at the level of MLB, and 110 percent at the level of Triple-A (which is about 86 percent at the level of MLB), thus as good or better than other bygone major leagues:
For perspective, the Federal League, compared to the AL and NL of the mid-[1910s], rated as .93 and .95 in its two years of existence. It is considered a major league. The American Association of the 1880s lasted nine years; compared to the NL of the same era, it rated as low as .78 (in its debut year), and eventually got as high as .94. The AA is considered a major league. The Union Association only existed for one year, 1884, and it rated at .71, about the same as the present Midwest League. It is considered, by Major League Baseball, to have been a major league (a very bad decision, in my opinion; the St. Louis team, led by Fred Dunlap, was major-league quality, but no other team in the league was.) The Players League of 1890 actually rated as stronger than the NL, with a 1.01 rating. The American League of 1901, when Nap Lajoie hit .426, has a rating of .93.
The Japanese leagues meet or beat all of them. By historical standards, the present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the "major league" label.
While several Japanese pitchers had come stateside prior to Ichiro's debut, with Masanori Murakami (1964-1965) the first and Hideo Nomo (1995-2008) the most successful, Ichiro was the first native Japanese position player to come to America and he's been by far the most successful. In fact, Hideki Matsui is the only other one to accumulate more than 615 hits, 48 homers or 6.3 Wins Above Replacement in the majors (his totals from 2003-2012 are 1,253, 175 and 21.2, respectively). Most of the position players who have come over have managed to blend in as average but not exceptional players, wtih Kosuke Fukudome the only one besides Suzuki and Matsui to make an All-Star team. Here's a table of the dozen who have accumulated more than 100 plate appearances:
Note that I have excluded the Japanese-born Dave Roberts, a speedy outfielder who played 832 games in the majors from 1999-2008 and who's best remembered for his baserunning heroics for the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS; he's the son of a retired U.S. Marine who was living in Japan, and attended high school and college stateside. Most of those players were stars at some point in Japan, but much of that stardom was lost in translation due to a number of factors, among them age; they spent their primes in NPB before coming over in their late 20s or 30s. Suzuki is the rare exception.
As I noted a few weeks ago, considering only his MLB accomplishments, Suzuki compares reasonably well to the average Hall of Fame rightfielder using my JAWS system. The 24 such enshrined players averaged 70.9 career WAR, 42.0 peak WAR (their best seven seasons at large) and a 56.4 JAWS, the average of the two. At 59.1 WAR, Ichiro is short on career -- not surprising given his abbreviated tenure -- but his 43.6 peak WAR is above the line, and his 51.4 JAWS is good enough to rank 16th among all rightfielders, above 11 Hall of Famers, including Dave Winfield, Wee Willie Keeler and Enos Slaughter. Considering his robust totals, league-leading accomplishments, awards mantle and general ambassadorship of the game, I wouldn't hesitate to cast a vote for him to enter Cooperstown (I'm still seven-plus years of BBWAA membership away from attaining that privilege). I'll wager that the requisite supermajority of the voting body will feel similarly.