Batting average is overrated, and hits alone is not a sole marker for success in baseball. But for Ichiro Suzuki, reaching 3000 hits yesterday versus the Colorado Rockies was an amazing achievement in a career built on gathering base hits. For a guy who had difficulty deriving his value at the plate with anything else, he did an astonishing job of being a great player with that one very elite skill.
One Great Skill
Being a member of the 3000-hit club does not guarantee that you were a spectacular player of value offensively. It is easy to forget in this time that Ichiro never hit for power, posting just 113 home runs and a career ISO of .091. He also rarely walked, putting up just a six percent walk rate so far in his career. It is actually pretty difficult to be a valuable hitter when you do not do either of those things.
Yet somehow Ichiro was a valuable player. From his age-27 season in 2001 to his last full season as a starter in 2012, he was a .322/.365/.419 hitter, good for a .339 wOBA and a batting line 11 percent better than the league average. Last season, Dee Gordon essentially tried to be Ichiro and thanks to a stellar high BABIP was able to accomplish a batting title season and a career-best line worth 13 percent more than the league average. Ichiro was able to maintain that level of performance for a 12-year span all the way into his age-38 campaign. That is a long time to live off of one amazing skill.
And yet that skill was invaluable. Ichiro posted the 63rd lowest strikeout rate in the post-1993 era of baseball, out of 1065 qualified players. In an era when strikeouts and the home run became the ever-increasing norm, Ichiro was one of the best contact hitters of his generation. But perhaps even more impressive than that was the sheer ability to put the ball in places defenders did not occupy. Ichiro never had the advantage of smoking baseballs that guys like Barry Bonds or Giancarlo Stanton have, but his Marlins teammates / colleagues still have to marvel at Ichiro’s placement skills, because he sneaked baseballs past defenders just as effectively, if not more so, than those hard-hitting guys. Ichiro has so far posted a career BABIP of .340, which is the ninth-best BABIP in all of baseball among guys with at least 5000 plate appearances since 1993. In front of him is a who’s who of generational talents in terms of bat control, including names like fellow 3000-hit club member Derek Jeter, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, and Joe Mauer. Of those names, only Mauer and Jeter fit the mold of Ichiro as guys who had elite contact skills, lacked power, but somehow had the ability to put the ball in places no one else occupied.
Ichiro built his entire value on gathering base hits, and singles were the vast majority of those hits. Again, he played in an era where the home run and power were valued and increasing, with his career starting during the peak time period of scoring in baseball history. However, with the so-called steroid era rampant, no player in the game depended more on singles. Of the 30 men who now own 3000 hits in their career, Ichiro owns the highest rate of singles from his hit total. A whopping 81.5 percent of Ichiro’s hits were single-baggers. No other 3000-hit club member had more than 80 percent of his hits go for singles. Even notoriously light hitters like Jeter, Tony Gwynn, and hit-king Pete Rose only averaged around 75 percent of their hits being singles. In fact, in the game of power, no man could match Ichiro’s lack of it in the 3000-hit club, as only Eddie Collins and Ichiro own an ISO of less than .100 in the prestigious group.
The sheer number of hits is how Ichiro built his success. His batting average was tied for 60th in league history of among guys with 5000 plate appearances or more. His .357 on-base percentage is around the 70th percentile of baseball players who established long careers in the game, yet this was entirely built by his base hits, as his walk rate is in the lower third and only one other player (Baby Doll Jacobson, who played in the 1920’s) had a lower walk rate than Ichiro’s six percent mark and posted a similar on-base percentage. By sheer contact capability, Ichiro forced his way aboard.
This is a uniquely successful skillset in the modern era of the game. Since 1993, only 15 players have put up more than 5000 plate appearances and had an ISO less than .100. Only Ichiro has a batting line above league average among those players. Even the most elite contact guys like Juan Pierre or the most disciplined slap hitters like Luis Castillo could not be above average for long in their careers. Ichiro is still playing at age 42 and, despite a decline in the last few seasons, he is still an above-average hitter despite no power and no walks. You have to get to a .122 ISO before you see a player better who posted a batting line better than Ichiro’s, and that guy was Rickey Henderson, who may be one of the best hitters in baseball history.
What makes this even more incredible was the amount of time that it took for Ichiro to do this. He may have had one of the greatest latter half careers in baseball history. From age 27 to age 38, no player has more hits than Ichiro’s 2606 hits. In that age range, Ichiro collected about 130 more hits than Rose, 310 more than Jeter, and 385 more than the great Ty Cobb. That is a large part of the reason why, among guys in that age range, Ichiro was one of the most valuable players in baseball history.
When Ichiro finally retires, we can discuss the rest of his amazing numbers in a career that will certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Thirty men have 3000 hits, and only one (Rafael Palmeiro) has no shot at making the Hall of Fame at this stage. Ichiro was a singularly unique talent who derived value in a way that had rarely been used in recent years, and he was the very best at doing it. He did it in the fastest, most efficient way possible, with minimal time in the big leagues and starting at an older age. He reached 3000 hits his way, and I was proud to have been a witness to that history. Go Ichiro!