Appreciating Ichiro, who leaves Mariners as a legend in Seattle
Ichiro Suzuki is among baseball's all-time most technically proficient hitters. His two simultaneous, yet independent, motions at the plate -- slapping the bat on the ball while starting his legs moving -- are so intricately refined that he has amassed nearly 4,000 hits in his professional career, including 2,534 in the major leagues.
His style, in which singles and steals help make up for any deficiency in slugging, hails from a bygone time not only before the Steroid Era but also before the Live-Ball Era. Only five players in history have a career batting average better than .320, more than 2,500 hits and more than 400 stolen bases: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker and Ichiro. The other four are all Hall of Famers who made their debuts between 1901 and 1907.
So it is that, just as Ichiro's future Hall of Fame career belonged to another time, so too did it become apparent that the heretofore lifelong Mariner -- his only North American employer from 2001 until Monday -- no longer quite fit in with his club.
The outfielder is, after all, 38 years old and making $17 million this year, when the average age of the Mariners' hitters is 27.8, the second-youngest in the AL, and only one position player teammate was making even as much as a third of Ichiro's haul. While last-place Seattle retools for the future, Ichiro was enduring his worst two years while he becomes farther and farther removed from his lone playoff appearance, which happened back in his rookie season of 2001.
His presence on this Mariners team, therefore, was growing increasingly incongruous, something that he realized -- perhaps to his credit and perhaps a little to his self-interest -- prompting his trade request earlier this month, which came to fruition yesterday when he was dealt to the Yankees for two minor leaguers.
Ichiro now begins his new life as a Yankee, fittingly joining his new team as it played in his longtime home ballpark, where he went 1-for-4 with a stolen base in New York's win at Safeco Field. Fans in Seattle have the next two nights to serenade him for one final series before he chases a World Series in New York.
He deserves as much. Ichiro is, after all, the second greatest Mariner of all-time, behind only Ken Griffey Jr.
As the first Japanese-born position player to play in the major leagues, few knew how Ichiro's game would fare in North America when he arrived from Japan before the 2001 season, but he dazzled right from the start. He joined Fred Lynn in 1975 as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Ichiro's .350 average and 56 steals both led the AL, becoming the first player to lead his league in both since Jackie Robinson in 1949.
It's also worth noting that, while the late '90s Mariners enjoyed the early stardom of Griffey, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson, it was only after all three left that the franchise eclipsed 91 wins for the first time in its history. The M's won 116 games in 2001, the first year without the big three -- and also the first year with Ichiro.
That merely began a decade in which Ichiro never failed to smack 200 hits in a season, his streak of 10 straight (which was snapped in 2011) setting a new big league record. And he did so at a time when the frequency of 200-hit seasons was lessening. Since '01 there have only been 59 total 200-hit seasons, meaning Ichiro single-handedly accounted for 17 percent of them. Only seven players have had multiple 200-hit seasons and no one else has more than six.
Put another way, Ichiro
Such a propensity for hits and steals -- he topped 30 steals in 10 of his first 11 seasons with five years above 40 -- helped him circumnavigate the diamond better than any mariner since Magellan, as he scored more than 100 runs in each of his first eight seasons, before the club's dissipating offense and his own deteriorating skillset slowed that pace.
It's hard to make exact comparisons with other players of his era because of his aforementioned lack of in-game power -- though his batting-practice exploits are legendary, potentially making him a great fit to play his home games with Yankee Stadium's short porch to rightfield -- which was such the prevailing skill of his era.
But Ichiro was, nevertheless, an outstanding well-rounded player with four highly rated tools, who played both rightfield and centerfield with well above-average speed and whose cannon arm would have been even more renown had his ability to hit not been so exceptional.
The conversation of greatest Mariner is essentially a three-person discussion, though side-by-side stat comparisons, with defense factored in, indicates the ordering is pretty clear-cut with Ichiro finishing second, and he's closer to Griffey at the top than designated hitter Edgar Martinez in third (NOTE: WAR used below is that of Baseball-Reference.com)
If it's possible, Ichrio has perhaps been underappreciated in much of North America, owing to the fact that he played late West Coast games, participated in the postseason's national stage only once (his rookie season), didn't have the power-hitting skill set that dominates the highlights and only rarely did interviews. (Though these occasional utterances produced several comedic gems, usually at the expense of American League Central cities, such as
Now he moves on to a new challenge and the brighter stage in New York, though in the dusk of his own career. While Ichiro hasn't been nearly the same player the last two seasons as the one we've grown accustomed to, it's possible that a change of scenery will rejuvenate him. Even if it doesn't, it's time to appreciate an all-time great.