Friday, August 23, 2013

Will 4,000 hits take Ichiro to the Hall of Fame?

So, Ichiro made his 4,000th professional career hit this week (and his 4,001st at time of writing). Now this is, as it should be, a time of celebration for Ichiro and in fact for the Yankees as a whole. Watching the game on Wednesday, you could see that Ichiro's hit was a big thing for the whole team and to be honest, you can see why. 4,000 hits is quite the milestone and for him to do it as a Yankee is something special for the fans, the team and I'm sure for Ichiro himself. In a season that has so far seen a lot of mediocrity (at best) in terms of performance, Ichiro has been a constant, often providing fireworks and doing his best to provide some offense in a lineup that, certainly pre All Star break, has been lacking.

With hit 4,000 Ichiro joined a very elite group of baseball players. Only two other people have made 4,000 in their careers - Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,191). You've got to admit, this is a massive achievement by anybody's standards. You would think that 4,000 hits would more or less guarantee Ichiro a spot in Cooperstown and to be fair, we won't know for a number of years whether this is the case or not. However, there are a number of voices at the moment saying, "But he hit almost a third of those in Japan - not the major leagues, so these shouldn't count". The actual percentage of hits that Ichiro made in Japan is 31.94% (taking his 4,001st hit into account). He has 2,723 hits over 13 years in MLB and 1,278 over nine years in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan. It is also worth noting that Ichiro's 2,723 hits is the most in a 13 year period in the majors by ANY player! He beats both Rose (2,650) and Cobb (2,300) already by a long way and he is only going to improve this!

The question is, is Japan that much different to the USA when it comes to professional baseball? Look at the number of players who have come from Japan and the impact that they have had on the MLB.

Hideki Matsui - A name all Yankees fans know
Yu Darvish - Anybody want to argue that he is not one of the best pitchers in the majors?
Daisuke Matsuzaka - Another top quality pitcher
Hideo Nomo - 2 major league no hitters - no other Japanese pitcher has achieved this

It seems like every year, teams are signing Japanese stars and as was the case with Darvish, bidding wars can take place just for the right to offer them a contract, which at the end of the day he might not even accept! Therefore, you must appreciate that at least in some part, Japan can and does breed top baseball players. Since Japanese players have to spend time playing in Japan before they have a shot at the MLB, they have to prove that they can play at a high enough level. The case of saying, "Oh well, he made some of those hits in Japan" only really has merit, if you are saying that the Japanese professional league is of a poor standard overall. I'm not saying that it is a rival to MLB, as the general standard is lower but players who leave Japan, come to the majors and then flourish, clearly have talent and prove that their Japanese success, that the MLB teams based their decision to hire the guy on, is not simply luck.

To give a different perspective, lets briefly look at the world of soccer in the UK and Europe. Each European country has its own professional football leagues of varying qualities and the number of players from the top leagues in each country that transfer is much higher than in baseball. Some may argue that the European club championships they compete in, breed a level playing field but if players are no good, they won't be pursued. As in baseball, natural talent like that of Ichiro will always shine through. Whilst soccer has no league that is the absolute pinnacle, there is never any suggestion that other countries have inferior leagues.

Anyway, back to the man of the moment. People seem to be missing the fact that Ichiro has 2,723 hits in the majors since the age of 27! I also repeat, he has the most hits in a 13 year period OF ANYBODY ALL TIME in the majors! With the influx of young players like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout who start in the majors whilst they are still teenagers, they have almost 8 years on Ichiro and have still to reach their peak, which generally occurs around the mid twenties. Will Harper or Trout get 3,000 hits in their careers? Possibly. Will they reach 4,000? History says this is highly unlikely. If Ichiro plays for another 2 years, which would require a 1 year contract extension (he will be 41!), he is highly likely to reach 3,000 hits in MLB alone. If he adds a further 277 major league hits, he will have 4,278 in total, which will beat Pete Rose's all time hits record. I know people would never accept it as a true record as 29.87% of these were in Japan but he would also have joined the 3,000 hit club in the MLB on its own! This should be sufficient for Ichiro to make it to the Hall of Fame with no questions asked. For a guy who, if he plays until 41, will have had a 14 year MLB career and a 23 year career in total, having debuted in Japan at 18, to reach this milestone would be epic and should qualify Ichiro as a true great of the game!

If you ask me, Ichiro should be inducted no matter what happens from now on. He has made 4,001 hits in a professional baseball career that has already spanned 21 years! He always plays to his limits, gives 100% every time he plays and does not get involved in the circuses that often come with a major league career. Another aspect that is harder to quantify is that he seems to have led an influx of Japanese players joining the majors and could be seen in a way as a trailblazer. Since joining the Yankees (let's remember that he only joined in 2012), Ichiro has brought passion, a good bat and speed to a lineup that has been filled with big name stars. He has quietly got on with the job he was employed to do, kept his head and has remained grounded. Rudyard Kipling once said, "If you can keep your head, whilst all those around you are losing theirs, then you will be a man my son". This is what Ichiro has done and even in an interview following number 4,000, he remained grounded and was genuinely overwhelmed by the reaction of the fans, his teammates, his opponents and the situation as a whole. As he started to well up, you got the impression that he got here through sheer determination to play the game he loves as well as he can and 4,000 hits is simply a nice little stop along the way. Compared to some people who seem to see it as their right to break records, Ichiro really does play for the love of the game.

So there we have it. Whether Ichiro is inducted or not will not be decided for some time and will be decided by a panel of people who will have to assess his achievements but I really do believe that fans want to see him there. From a Yankees perspective, if he had not done enough up until now, Ichiro has made himself a Yankee superstar, if not a legend, despite his short time with the team.

Ichiro Suzuki, take a bow, we salute you!

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)