Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Would Ichiro have been the "Hit King" if he'd started his career in MLB?

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Ichiro Suzuki got his 2978th hit in Major League Baseball last night, which combined with the 1278 he had from the Japanese League before coming to the U.S. in 2001, gives him 4256. That happens to match Pete Rose's career total. None too pleased, Rose had this to say:
I don't think you're going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to Major League Baseball. There are too many guys that fail here and then become household names there, like Tuffy Rhodes. How can he not do anything here and hit [a record-tying] 55 home runs [in 2001] over there? It has something to do with the caliber of personnel.
I don't disagree with Rose that it makes little sense to count Ichiro's hits in Japan as being equivalent to MLB hits. But the interesting question is, what would Ichiro's MLB hit total be if he had started his career in the U.S.?

Ichiro debuted in Japan as an 18-year-old, but I don't think we can assume that he would have reached the major leagues at that age. Or, if he had, that he would have had success right away. Alex Rodriguez came up to the major leagues at age 18, and hit .204/.241/.204 in 17 games. The next year, he hit .232/.264/.408. And then he exploded into a near MVP season at age 20.

Ken Griffey Jr. arrived in the major leagues at age 19 and hit .264/.329/.420. And then he too became a superstar the next year.

Like Griffey, Mike Trout came up at age 19. He hit .220/.281/.390. He's been the best player in baseball since then.

Bryce Harper, who rivals Trout as the best player in the game today, came up at age 19 and hit .270/.340/.477 - a decent year but far from superstar status. His next two seasons were pretty similar. Then, at age 22, he won the MVP.

Now, I'm not saying Ichiro was as good at his peak as those guys, but it's not unreasonable to think that he could have reached his peak at his kind of game (lots of ABs with a ton of singles and some extra base power) fairly quickly, say somewhere between ages 20 to 22.

If you take the 217 hits/year that he averaged as a full-time player with Seattle from 2001 to 2012, and use that as the baseline, then the five years from 22 to 27 would give him 1085 more MLB hits, plus whatever he might have amassed in earlier formative years. If you start at age 21, he would have 1302 more MLB hits.

So he'd be somewhere around the missing 1278 hits between him and Rose, either above a little, or short by a couple of hundred.

But here's the thing: of Rose's 4256 hits, at least 159 of them are pretty illegitimate. In his last two years, Rose hit .264/.3195/.319 and .219/316/.270. While playing a power position, first base. In that last year, he ranked 18th in the team in OPS, behind two pitchers and every position player who played more than 12 games, except the shortstop. It's not like Cincinnati didn't have good players who could have played first base over Rose - Kal Daniels only got 200 at bats despite leading the team in OPS.

Why did Rose suck up so many precious at bats? Who in their right mind would have started Rose?

Well, um, Pete Rose did. He was a player-manager for those two years, so he started himself in all those games, because he was chasing the hit record. It's one thing if a team decides to start a legendary player to see if he can reach some record. It's another if the player himself gets to start himself.

Without those 159 hits, and even with a relatively late MLB arrival age of 22, Ichiro would be within striking distance of Rose's "earned" hit total.

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