Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th man to reach the 3000-hit mark yesterday as the Miami Marlins defeated the Colorado Rockies. Ichiro did this amazing feat of hitting in a manner completely different from almost any other player in the modern era. Players nowadays hit for more power than ever before. In order to accomplish the hard-hitting task, they sold out for power more often, lending to the rising strikeout rates of the 1990’s and beyond. The game of baseball is irrevocably changed now with the home run and strikeout being more pervasive with increasing talent levels for hitters and pitchers alike. However, if you look at the Baseball-Reference comparators for Ichiro by Similarity Scores, he does not fit into this era
You can see plenty of Hall of Famers in that list, but as you can tell, the vast majority of them came from a time long past. In fact,t hte only Hall players who did not play before World War II were Richie Ashburn and Rod Carew. Ichiro was a strict throwback to an era that passed in baseball. That made what he did so much more interesting, because when you try to look for a more modern version of Ichiro, you will find it very difficult to spot.
I grabbed all players with at least 4000 plate appearances from 1993 on and took a look at several characteristics that defined Ichiro at the plate and tried to see what hitters best fit those marks.
Strikeout and Walk Rates
Clearly it was difficult to find five guys who approached Ichiro’s moderately low strikeout and walk rates during that time period. His combination of contact and lack of patience made him more like the Juan Pierre-type of contact hitter, but he began to strikeout and walk a little more later in his career because of a potentially slowing bat or a need to be more selective on his swings due to other declining skills.
Of the players noted above, longtime Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Mark Loretta best fits the profile among these players. Loretta struck out and walked at similar but low rates, but they were not drastically low like Pierre or Placido Polanco’s contact performances. He had little power and hit a bit better on balls in play than the average guy, but his approach at the plate lent itself to consistent contact and probably helped him more than it hurt.
This subset of players most closely fit Ichiro’s statistics by view. Loretta would have also fit into this list among the players with low power and similarly low strikeout and walk rates. These players represent the “slap hitter” stereotype of a guy who tends to put the ball in play without having a whole lot of pop. Often guys like these put the ball primarily on the ground, much like Ichiro did for all of his career. He put the ball on the ground an average of 56 percent of the time during his career. However, this particular cohort did not necessarily put it on the ground often. When you look at ground balls and a lack of power for similarities, guys like Andrus, Luis Castillo, and Erick Aybar are among the players who might be considered.
In considering these types of players with low power, which among them was most similar to Ichiro? When you include grounders into the sample, Jason Kendall in the middle of his career fit the profile. He was never a fast player, especially after the gruesome broken ankle injury at first base years ago. However, once he lost power sometime around 2000, he became a contact-first hitter with low power, and his best seasons were based on high-BABIP campaigns. Elvis Andrus fits the picture as a guy who made reasonable contact primarily on the ground and used speed to beat out infield hits rather than just solid contact.
Here was the hardest part. Ichiro was such a unique player as a low-power guy who had a huge BABIP that it would have been tough to find a career comparison with similar numbers from this standpoint. Joe Mauer, Luis Castillo, and Kenny Lofton all struck out and walked more. Derek Jeter did too and had a little more power. It should be noted that these listed players all did hit the ball on the ground fairly often, with the exception of the engima that was Michael Young. It is likely that bat control and hitting it on the ground were the keys to holding up a high BABIP over the course of a long career.
Which of these guys seemed most similar to Ichiro? Kenny Lofton had better walk totals, but he also hit an acceptable but not insane number of home runs for a leadoff man while still using speed to get on base on infield hits. Castillo depended a lot less on power, even less so than the others listed, and more on pure plate discipline. Jeter was an artist with contact with his bat and felt like one of the few other guys who had the “bat control” magic over his entire career, so it feels as though Jeter would be the most similar in this case.
As you can see, there are so many different names who each helped to embody an aspect of Ichiro’s game, whether it was speed, contact, lack of walks, or great bat control. But no player fit an “Ichiro” archetype because he was a unique hitter. He has the contact approach to avoid the strikeout and not require walks. He was a slap hitter who did not have power at all in-game. But at the same time, he had more directional aiming ability than perhaps any other hitter in recent baseball history, and his one-of-a-kind stance allows him to better utilize his speed for infield hits. For a guy who does not walk and does not hit for power, it is amazing that Ichiro has carved out such an impressive career, but given his unique style, maybe we should not be surprised.