June 22, 2018

Best Pound-for-Pound 21st Century Player

July 6, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Ichiro Suzuki stands only 5-foot, 9-inches and is listed at 160 pounds. He passes under the bar of huge fame once reserved for Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and the rest of this era’s pumped up mashers. The 2009 All-Star selections include Ichiro for the ninth time in nine years.  He is the complete ballplayer.  One of the best we have seen in recent decades, a time when Ichiro stands head and shoulders above the crowd.

Ichiro Suzuki is 35 years of age and last season his numbers slipped noticeably. But he is likely to be batting leadoff for the AL All-Stars again this year. The only time he did not start during his career, Terry Francona batted Johnny Damon as the 2005 All-Star leadoff hitter even though Ichiro hit .372 in 2004.

Although I doubt there will be a mysterious spike in Ichiro’s performance at the end of his career, this season may be one of his best in several years. He is hitting .365–an average that leads both leagues.

Among current era players only Albert Pujols and Tony Gwynn have career batting averages better than Ichiro’s .333. He hits for high average but does so to make the most of his positioning at the top of the Seattle batting order. He has a career slugging average of .434 and an OPS of .812 and when batted lower in the order has responded with more power. He has scored more than one hundred runs in every year he has played.

The only active player with a higher batting average–Albert Pujols–is in a category of his own. But he is one of the wide body players about whom there will always be questions. Pujols is a favorite of mine and I mean no disrespect to his game or accomplishments. He is above reproach in my book, but Ichiro Suzuki is a very different kind of player, one that has been overlooked in this era of sluggers whose strength has derived from chemical enhancement more than skill.

Since coming over from Japan when he was 27, Suzuki has simply been one of the best and most consistent performers in the game. His MVP year as a rookie in 2001 is one of his most memorable. He led the Mariners to an amazing 116 wins that year, good enough for the AL West title, but not good enough to beat the Yankees in the AL Championship series.

As a right fielder Suzuki regularly has consistently won the Bill James’ Fielding Bible Award as the best at his position until he switched over to center field. Even there he was beaten out only by Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones before Jones crashed and burned of his own mysterious causes. His throws from the right field corner are a thing of beauty still and only Rick Ankiel has an arm that is better than Ichiro’s in his prime.

Although Ichiro’s career in the USA began during his peak playing years, his career in Japan was no less impressive. He carried a .353 batting average and was an annual gold glove winner there as well over a career that spanned seven seasons. He hit for more power in Japan reaching 25 during the 1995 season when he won his second straight MVP.

Ichiro’s appeal to Japanese Americans has been of great value to the American game. I will never forget seeing him play for the first time at RFK in 2005 and the cadre of women admirers who gathered in the right field stands to shout encouragement to him in his native tongue. He continues to be much loved in Japan where he has returned to lead his countrymen to two World Baseball titles. This past spring, Ichiro’s exciting two-run single in the eleventh inning against Korea provided the margin of victory in the eleventh inning.

It is early to consider the question, but there may be those who will question whether Suzuki’s numbers over the course of his abbreviated career in the US will warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame. For those it will likely be meaningless to project his numbers in the US, but it is still instructive. His stolen bases for example give a sound read as to where he belongs among the all-time talents in the game.

Suzuki currently has 332 steals and has averaged 40 steals per season during his American League career. He began playing in Japan at age 20, and his career would likely have started a few years later in the US. But it is fair to give him credit for approximately 200 steals carrying forward for his Japanese years. If he plays at near full capacity for another two to three years, he is likely to end his American career with fewer more than 450 steals. If so, a reasonable projection had he played only in America would be approximately 700 stolen bases.

That puts him with the elites of the game, although some with more than 700 steals–like Tim Raines–have not been elected to the Hall. Without debating that injustice, it is fair to compare Ichiro to others at the top of the stolen bases category like Eddie Collins whose career batting average is also .333.

On the strength of his career batting average, his unique speed and run production at the top of the order, and singular defensive skills, Ichiro deserves the American Hall of Fame. He broke George Sisler’s single season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits and eclipsed a record that had stood for 84 years. That feat alone should give him credibility among the writers when they cast votes for the Hall of Fame.  Along with his overall profile it should be adequate for admission.

I of course don’t get to vote. But for me, Ichiro Suzuki should be the first of what will no doubt be an expanding universe of international players whose entrance into the Hall is considered on an equal footing with his American peers. In an age of phoniness, Ichiro is the real deal. For me that counts, enough to warrant the Hall of Fame.


One Response to “Best Pound-for-Pound 21st Century Player”
  1. Marc says:

    Baseball needs more mere mortals that excel like Ichiro. Currently reading Shadow of the Game about the Bonds/Balco scandal and more than ever before want my ball players to also be good citizens

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