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Is Ichiro Suzuki a Hall of Famer?

While it might be premature to consider Ichiro Suzuki's career to be at a close—he is still the starting right fielder for the Seattle Mariners—he enters the 2012 season as a 38-year-old major-league ballplayer. In baseball terms, that's pushing retirement age—and his performance in 2012 will determine whether it becomes a forced retirement. What is not premature is determining the answer to this question: Is Ichiro Suzuki a Hall of Famer?

Ichiro is signed to play for Seattle through this year, and while the Japanese hitting machine has succeeded through extraordinary conditioning and discipline, his decline is inevitable as it is with any mere mortal playing at the highest level of baseball on the planet. His 2011 season seemed to show significant cracks in the façade—we'll explore that presently—and although he has averaged an amazing 221 hits per season in his 11-year career, what might qualify him for enshrinement among the greatest to ever have played the game has more than likely been accomplished already.

Rising Sons: The Dawn of Japanese Position Players

Ichiro Suzuki is the exception that proves (meaning tests) the rule: Except for Suzuki, Japanese position players have yet to establish that they are consistently equal to domestic and Latin talent. True, the sample size is not large enough yet: Only a relative handful of Japanese position players have managed to break into the majors, and of those, apart from Ichiro, only Hideki Matsui has had any real success.

Matsui, nicknamed “Godzilla,” hardly posted metropolis-razing numbers but proved to be a solid if journeyman power hitter (although injuries did hamper his efforts) who did have a monster 2009 World Series, helping the New York Yankees win it all and getting himself named as the Series' Most Valuable Player with three home runs and eight runs batted in in six games against the Philadelphia Phillies. However, as of this writing Matsui is an unsigned free agent, and based on his unremarkable 2011 stint with the Oakland A's—for the first time in his career, Matsui was below-league-average in OPS+ (on base plus slugging percentage, league- and park-adjusted), not a good sign for a player who is essentially a designated hitter now—his prospects look dim.

Of the other Japanese position players who played in 2011, Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a backup infielder for the Minnesota Twins while Kosuke Fukudome, who proved to be a major-league disappointment for the major-league-disappointing Chicago Cubs, has landed on Chicago's South Side with the White Sox. Meanwhile, Kaz Matsui, So Taguchi, Tadahito Iguchi, and Akinori Iwamura are hardly making anyone nostalgic, although Iguchi and Iwamura, both second basemen, did get exposure when their teams went to the World Series—Iguchi won a ring with the White Sox in 2005, while Iwamura was part of the Cinderella Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

The relative inauspiciousness of Japanese position players in Major League Baseball makes Ichiro Suzuki's performance even more auspicious. However, Ichiro's legacy will be measured not by how much better he was than other Japanese players but by how he measures up against both all the players he played with and against during his major-league career and the best to have ever played baseball.

Of course, his record playing for the (then-) Orix Blue Wave in Japan from 1992 to 2000 won't count as part of his major-league totals. That in turn leaves us to wonder what he could have accomplished had he began his career in the United States.

Ichiro began his career with the Blue Wave at age 18 but didn't become a full-time player until age 20. During his nine years in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Suzuki in 951 games produced a .353/.415/.522 slash line with 1278 hits including 118 home runs, yielding 573 runs and 529 runs batted in, while stealing 199 bases. Naturally, we can't expect that to translate to major-league success. Apart from the qualitative differences between the American and Japanese major leagues, it is possible that had Ichiro been in the American system, he might have been brought along more slowly, meaning that he might not have been a starter until age 22 or older, and the stiffer competition would similarly have curtailed his production. But even if he had produced at half of what he did in NPB, he would already be at 3000 hits—and no eligible hitter with 3000 or more hits has failed to be inducted into the Hall.

Again, all of this is conjecture and shouldn't apply to Suzuki's case when, in a few years, it is time to evaluate his Hall-worthiness. But has Ichiro played long enough, and accomplished enough, to warrant a spot in Cooperstown?

Did Ichiro Dominate His Era?

So far, Suzuki has played 11 seasons and is expected to play this season. Whether he returns in 2013—at age 39—remains to be seen. It is not unheard-of for a player with that short a career to become a Hall of Famer, although said player had to have been a dominant player during the time he played in order to justify induction.

Two such players were Ralph Kiner and Sandy Koufax. Kiner was the slugging left fielder, primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose career lasted just ten years but who led the National League in home runs for the first seven of those, and who averaged just shy of 37 home runs a season over his entire career. Kiner also led the league in walks three times and had six consecutive years of 100 or more. In fact, Kiner walked 1011 times in his career against only 749 total strikeouts—a remarkable accomplishment for a power hitter.

Koufax was the left-handed power pitcher for the Dodgers, starting in Brooklyn in 1955 and moving with the team to Los Angeles in 1958, where he pitched until 1966. He struggled with his control early in his career before absolutely dominating the National League in the last five years of his twelve-year career. In that five-year span, from 1962 to 1966, Koufax led the league in earned run average for all five years, in wins and strikeouts for three years, and in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) and strikeouts per nine innings for four years. He won the Cy Young Award three times during that span—and during that time, the award was given to only one pitcher from both leagues—and the Most Valuable Player Award in one of those Cy Young years, 1963.

Both Kiner and Koufax had their careers ended prematurely by injury: Kiner had back problems while Koufax had arthritis in his pitching elbow. But while Koufax sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, Kiner literally scraped in by the skin of his teeth—garnering one vote over the minimum required in his last year of eligibility. Moreover, both players were power players—Kiner crushed the ball for home runs, and Koufax blew the ball by hitters. By contrast, Ichiro is the antithesis of the power style.

In fact, Ichiro Suzuki is essentially a throwback to the dead-ball era, the modern incarnation of slap-hitters like Ty Cobb and Willie Keeler—all the more conspicuous for it in our slugging era. When Ichiro debuted in 2001, it was during the height of an offensive feeding frenzy—fueled by performance-enhancing drugs—that saw Barry Bonds set the single-season record for home runs with 73. And while in 2001 PED-positive sluggers Sammy Sosa (64 HR), Alex Rodriguez (52 HR), Rafael Palmeiro (47 HR), and Manny Ramirez (41 HR) figured into that frenzy, even assumed-to-be-clean hitters like Luis Gonzalez (57 HR) and Shawn Green (49 HR) joined the fray. (Which calls the whole cheating-to-hit-home-runs issue into question, but that's for another column.)

Yet in 2001 Ichiro exploded onto the scene in his own distinctive way. He hit .350 while amassing 242 hits—the most-ever by a rookie and the tenth-most-ever since 1901—and 56 stolen bases, leading the American League in all three categories, while scoring 127 runs for a Seattle team that won an AL-record 116 games that season. But Ichiro wasn't just a star at the plate. The league's hitters and baserunners learned what an outstanding right fielder he was. He committed just one error in 344 chances, and if he notched "only" eight assists that's because the opposition learned very quickly—during his first week in the majors—not to run on that cannon of a right arm: When Oakland's Terrence Long tried to go first-to-third on a single into right field, Ichiro gunned him down at third with a laser shot, a throw that remains a fielding highlight-reel staple. In his first season in America, Ichiro not only won a Gold Glove, he was named both the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, an honor that only Fred Lynn, for the Boston Red Sox in 1975, has ever held.

That auspicious debut heralded a decade-long period that in each year saw Suzuki hit better than .300 with at least 200 hits—his ten consecutive years of 200 or more hits is a major-league record—while earning a Gold Glove and being named to the All-Star team in each of those years as well. He led the league in hits seven times, five of those consecutively, from 2006 to 2010. In 2004, Ichiro broke the single-season record for hits when he banged out 262, breaking George Sisler's 84-year record of 257. He has stolen at least 30 bases in ten of eleven seasons for a total of 423 in 518 chances, an 81.7 percent success rate. All this was done on a Mariners team that, starting with the 2004 season, posted a winning record only twice, with five of eight seasons seeing the Seattle franchise win fewer than seventy games.

Ralph Kiner and Sandy Koufax displayed decade-long dominance (although in actuality Koufax's was closer to a half-decade) in live-ball prowess—homeruns and strikeouts. Ichiro Suzuki has displayed decade-long dominance in dead-ball prowess—hitting singles and stealing bases. Indeed, of Ichiro's 2428 hits, only 449 are extra-base hits: 280 doubles, 74 triples, and 95 home runs, although 35 of those have been leadoff home runs, tying him with Bobby Bonds for sixth all-time. The wiry Suzuki has a home-run stroke—in Japan, he hit 118 homers in half as many at-bats—but, idiosyncratically, has steadfastly remained a singles hitter in the American major leagues, particularly in an era when the long ball is considered the hitting gold standard.

Additionally, although Suzuki has 168 career intentional walks—perhaps as much a reflection of Seattle's paltry offense as a sign of respect for his hitting proficiency—and has led the league three times in that category, he has walked unintentionally only 328 times in 8060 career plate appearances. In the current analytical environment that values getting on base and hitting with power—both OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, league- and park-adjusted) have become the yardsticks for offensive performance—Ichiro does not measure up favorably. His on-base percentage last year was a pedestrian .310, and for the first time in his career, Suzuki's OPS+ was a below league-average 84—not what you look for in a leadoff hitter. (Over the off-season, the Mariners have suggested that Suzuki might not be their leadoff hitter in 2012.)

Suzuki might bounce back, although for a 38-year-old hitter to rebound when he relies on placement and speed to hit safely might be a stretch. Last year, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which measures a hitter's batting average on contact, dipped below .300, to .295, for the first time in his MLB career. (The mean range for hitters is between .290 and .310.) Suzuki has always had an extraordinarily high BABIP; his career BABIP is .351. One explanation is that he just got "unlucky" last season—defenders were more likely to be in position where he hit the ball—although his slowing up due to age is also a consideration. His ground-ball rate of just under 60 percent is up from his career rate of 56.1 percent, while he grounded into 11 double plays, the most he has hit into in a single season, with a double-play opportunity rate (his batting with a runner on first and less than two outs) of 12 percent, a career high. This suggests that not only was he not able to hit the ball out of the infield as easily as he had done previously, but that he was not able to get to first base as quickly as in previous seasons. Of his 184 hits, 42 were infield hits, a 22.8 percent rate that is a little below his career mark of 23.4 percent, although he did steal 40 bases in 47 chances, his fifth-highest total in eleven seasons, while his success rate of 85.1 percent is better than his career rate of 81.7 percent.

We can continue to crunch the numbers and factor in age, but the question remains: Was Ichiro Suzuki's sub-par 2011 season an aberration or the beginning of his decline? Only his 2012 performance will tell. But regardless of how he does this season, his retirement is imminent, and thus also is the evaluation of his legacy.

2004: A Season for the Record Books

One facet of Suzuki's career that I don't think receives enough recognition—and could be a bellwether for his Hall of Fame chances—is his remarkable 2004 season, in which he not only led the AL in batting average with .372, the highest batting average in the Majors since Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Helton both hit .372 in 2000, but, more importantly, saw Suzuki get 262 hits, breaking George Sisler's 84-year-old record. Since 1920, a few hitters have come close to matching "Gorgeous George," but none have broken the record until Ichiro did it.

Actually, since Bill Terry came within three hits of tying Sisler's record in 1930, setting the National League record in the process, only three players have had as many as 240 hits in a single season: Wade Boggs and Darin Erstad each had 240 hits in 1985 and 2000, respectively, and Suzuki himself had 242 in his rookie year of 2001. Since the start of the post-integration era in 1947, only twelve players have had as many as 230 hits in a single season (Ichiro has done it three times), with Stan Musial (230 hits in 1948) the only one of those to do it before the season expanded to 162 games in 1961. Sisler got his 257 hits over the course of a 154-game schedule.

I live in Southern California, and although I am a die-hard Giants fan, I do find myself watching "enemy broadcasts"—Dodgers games—fairly often, not just when the Giants are playing them, largely because Vin Scully broadcasts them (at least the home games, anyway). As much as I shouldn't admit it, I do love Vin Scully, for reasons from which I shall spare you at this time. However, as I was watching a Dodgers game near the end of the 2004 season, as Ichiro was closing in on Sisler's record, I did hear Scully opine that should Suzuki pass Sisler, it shouldn't count as a new record because—wait for it—Suzuki would have broken the record during a 162-game season while Sisler set his record during a 154-game season.

Ah! The infamous asterisk! Shades of Roger Maris! As much as I love Vin, when I heard him say that, I began immediately to counter that argument, and you, dear reader, shall now read it thusly.

Yes, George Sisler accomplished his feat in 154 games. And Ichiro Suzuki had many more chances to reach Sisler, as this table shows:

 

Games

Plate Apps.

At-Bats

Hits

Average

George Sisler (1920)

154

692

631

257

.407

Ichiro Suzuki (2004)

161

762

704

262

.372

Suzuki had 73 more at-bats than Sisler had. Furthermore, Sisler had 13 sacrifice hits (intentional bunts to advance a runner) in 1920 while Suzuki had two, meaning that Sisler had 13 plate appearances (11 net plate appearances compared to Suzuki) at which he could have swung away to try for a hit had he not deliberately made an out. By contrast, in 1961, the first year of the 162-game schedule, Roger Maris had seven more plate appearances than Babe Ruth had in 1927, a 154-game season, in which Maris could hit one additional home run to break Ruth's mark of 60 home runs. Statistically, Suzuki looks as if he enjoyed an advantage over Sisler. Maybe Vin Scully was right—and who am I to argue with a man who has seen as much baseball as Vin?

But what was the environment in which Sisler banged out those hits, and how did it differ from Suzuki's environment?

First, Sisler set his record in 1920, the first year of the live ball. Perhaps a quick explanation of that term is in order. Prior to 1920, in what is known as the Dead-Ball Era, a baseball remained in play until it was almost literally falling apart. Fans would even throw foul balls back onto the field so the same ball could be put into play again. As anyone who has played sandlot baseball with a single ball over the course of a game (let alone a single summer) knows, the ball deadens—becomes loosened and deformed—as it is repeatedly struck. Moreover, pitchers would continually scuff, mark, and doctor the ball over the course of the game until it became progressively harder to see, particularly as twilight approached (and this was in a period before outdoor lighting).

Beginning in 1920, though, umpires replaced any ball with even the slightest mark on it, ensuring that a fresh, elastic, "lively" ball would always be in play. As a result, offensive production exploded beginning with the 1920 season. Babe Ruth, for instance, almost doubled the number of home runs he hit from the previous season, from 29 in 1919 to 54 in 1920. Sisler, although he played in only 132 games in 1919 with 120 fewer at-bats than he had in 1920, still went from 180 hits in 1919 to his record-setting 257 hits in 1920, with a 55-point increase in his batting average.

Across the American League, the following table illustrates the rising offensive trend during a 154-game season immediately before and after the inauguration of the live-ball era in 1920.

Year

Runs Scored

Home Runs

Batting Average

On-Base %

Slugging %

OPS

1919

4596

240

.268

.333

.359

.692

1920

5868

369

.283

.347

.387

.734

1921

6296

477

.292

.356

.408

.765

During this period, Sisler's American League enjoyed a higher offensive surge than did the National League, although offensive production would continue to rise throughout the "Roaring '20s" in both leagues, with one National League hitter, Rogers Hornsby, hitting for an incredible .402 average from 1921 to 1925.

The practice of replacing any ball with even a hint of a blemish continues to this day. In other words, that factor is constant between Sisler's 1920 season and Suzuki's 2004 season. But let's address the differences between Sisler's era and Suzuki's era to determine whether Suzuki's accomplishment really is remarkable.

First, to address some of the collateral conditions. In Sisler's day, teams traveled by train, played more doubleheaders, and did not have the nutrition, conditioning, and coaching that modern ballplayers like Suzuki have. With respect to travel, Sisler's St. Louis Browns were the westernmost team in either league, and to reach their farthest American League opponent, the Boston Red Sox, is a distance of just over 1000 miles. (All mileages cited are "as the crow flies.") Coincidentally, Suzuki's Seattle Mariners are also the westernmost team in either league, but to reach their farthest American League opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays, is about 2500 miles (and it is almost as far to Boston). Furthermore, Sisler's Browns had about one-quarter of the country to travel—in 1920, all the American League teams were located in the northeast quadrant of the United States—while Suzuki's Mariners range over the four corners of the country. The Browns' closest opponents, the White Sox, were only 262 miles away in Chicago; the Mariners' closest opponents, the Athletics, are more than twice that distance in Oakland, 678 miles from Seattle. However, given the relative luxuries of charter air travel and the almost complete absence of doubleheaders in Suzuki's day, we can call this a wash.

What we cannot call a wash is the quality of opposition faced by Sisler and Suzuki—and here is where the magnitude of Ichiro's accomplishment becomes apparent. Put simply, Suzuki plays in an era of talent compression: Players in aggregate are much better than the players in aggregate in Sisler's era. This has a direct and profound effect on the quality of play in each hitter's era: You are only as good as your opponent is bad.

George Sisler played in an era in which there were several great players (a Hall of Famer himself, Sisler could be counted among those) but many mediocre ones. He played in the pre-integration era, before baseball allowed African-American players into the major leagues, before the influx of foreign players, primarily Latin-American players, enriched the talent pool substantially. The continual increase in the quality of players, coupled with continual improvements and sophistication in the approach to playing baseball—nutrition, individual training and conditioning, player development and coaching at all levels, opposition research and statistical analysis, and so forth—has resulted in a level of play today that far exceeds that of Sisler's era.

The direct effect of this continual excellence on the quality of hitting can be summed up in three areas: better pitching, better fielding, and better managing. For this summation, I am indebted to the late, lamented paleontologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould, who examined the "extinction" of the .400 hitter in Major League Baseball in his book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400 when he hit .406 in 1941, and although a few hitters have come close (including Williams again in 1957), no one has reached that plateau in the 70 years since Williams did. The challenges of hitting for a .400 average are directly related to getting as many hits overall because they both involve having to overcome opposing forces.

The art of pitching has almost become a science in the 84 years since Sisler set his seasonal hits record. The types of pitches thrown by modern pitchers has grown since Sisler's era, with cut- and split-fingered fastballs practically non-existent in 1920 along with the widespread use of the slider, which was in its infancy in 1920, although in fairness the spitball was still legal during the 1920 season, the last season it was allowed to be used universally. (Only existing spitballers were grandfathered to use it after 1920; they could use it for the rest of their careers.)

But it wasn't just the types of pitches either Sisler or Suzuki had to face. By the time Ichiro debuted in 2001, the deployment of relief pitchers had essentially revolutionized the art of pitching from Sisler's era. In Sisler's era, a starting pitcher was expected to finish his game; he was relieved only if he was getting shellacked or had grown demonstrably tired. In 1920, the American League had 701 complete games in 1234 games played, or 56.8 percent of all games. In 2004, the American League had 79 complete games in 2266 games played, or 3.5 percent of all games. In 1920, the AL had 67 saves, or 5.4 percent of all games. In 2004, the AL had 533 saves, or 23.5 percent of all games. (The save did not become an official statistic until 1969.)

True, the 2004 American League played roughly twice as many games, because the league had twice as many teams as it did in 1920. But even the crude approximation of doubling the 1920 totals (or halving the 2004 totals) will show that there was a radical shift in pitching strategy between the two eras: Usage of the bullpen was a contingency in 1920 but had become integral by 2004, with crucial ramifications for hitters. In 1920, a batter was likely to see for three or four at-bats the same pitcher, throwing the same pitches, who was progressively tiring as the game wore on. In 2004, a batter was likely see the starting pitcher for two or three at-bats before a squadron of fresh-armed relievers entered the game. Moreover, some of those relievers might have entered the game expressly to face that particular batter (the "LOOGY" or "ROOGY" phenomenon), which we'll examine in a moment. ("LOOGY" stands for "Left-handed One Out GuY"; "ROOGY" for "Right-handed One Out GuY.")

Similarly, fielding has improved enormously since 1920, starting with the equipment. In Sisler's day, the fielding glove just covered the hand and was designed to lessen the impact of the ball hitting the hand, which still caught the ball. Now the ball is caught in the pocket of the glove, which extends the fielder's reach considerably with the corresponding increase in range. Balls just out of a fielder's reach in Sisler's day are routine outs in Suzuki's. The quality of the field of play is also at a much higher standard today than it was in Sisler's day—infields and outfields are scrupulously maintained even during the course of the game. This makes the behavior of a ball in play much more uniform and controllable—and predictable, thus reducing anomalies that could result in unexpected (and perhaps unwarranted) hits.

Finally, the art of managing today is leagues beyond where it was in Sisler's day. Every match-up is studied scrupulously, as hitters are platooned or relievers deployed accordingly; the "book" on each hitter and pitcher is well-understood by all players and coaches through scouting, watching video, and statistical analysis; and every on-field situation is scrutinized closely. Of course, the search for better intelligence on the opposition, and the corresponding tactics and strategy to implement that intelligence against the opposition, has been occurring for decades. Player-manager Lou Boudreau is credited, in 1946, with inventing the "shift," or the stacking of fielders on the right side of the diamond to counter pull-hitting left-handed batters; it was first deployed specifically against Ted Williams—who famously refused to simply bunt down the third-base line for an easy single—and has become a regular defensive alignment in today's game.

In fairness to Gould, he rightly pointed out that hitting too has improved in tandem with improvements in pitching and fielding, with the upshot being his thesis for why the .400 hitter has become extinct: As overall excellence in performance is reached, as performance reaches the "right wall" or the limit to human ability (think of a bell curve with the highest values to the right of the bell), variance shrinks, making "outliers" (such as a .400 batting average) less likely to be achieved.

Simply put, if everyone is good, it is harder to be better, whether it is batting .400 or getting more than 257 hits. In 2004, Ichiro Suzuki broke through the wall, and if you fault him for doing it in more games or in more at-bats than it took George Sisler to set the record in 1920, then you also have to credit him for doing it against opposing pitchers, fielders, and managers who in aggregate are much superior to the opposition Sisler faced. How many more hits would Suzuki have gotten had the opposition been less effective, or, conversely, how many hits would Sisler have lost had the opposition been more effective?

That is the mug's game of what-if. In the last analysis, breaking Sisler's record was a remarkable accomplishment, and I don't think Suzuki gets enough recognition for doing it. Part of the problem might be that Suzuki is a singles hitter in a home run world, a dead-ball throwback in a live-ball slugging gallery. In 2004, Suzuki also broke the single-season mark for most singles, with 225, eclipsing Wee Willie Keeler's 206 mark in 1898. In fact, Suzuki owns four of the top-ten single-season marks for singles; Lloyd Waner (198 singles in 1927) and Wade Boggs (187 singles in 1985) are the only other live-ball players in the top ten.

Another part might be that hitting safely just isn't valued as highly as it used to be. Odd as that might sound—isn't it the obligation of the batter to hit safely?—it is true that getting on base overall is more highly valued today than just hitting your way on. As noted previously, Ichiro does not walk much, and as happened in 2011, when his batting average plummets, so does his on-base percentage. A third part might be that the Mariners have not made the postseason since Ichiro's rookie year in 2001; in 2004, when he broke Sisler's record, the Mariners had the second-worst record in the American League, losing 99 games. Was Suzuki's accomplishment merely personal aggrandizement? Or even if it weren't, does it help the team to win games?

Winning is a team effort, and Suzuki's 8.1 WAR (wins above replacement-level player) in 2004 is at the Most Valuable Player level. He placed seventh in MVP voting that year, with a higher WAR than the other six players with more votes including winner Vladimir Guerrero. But even a record-breaking season only justifies part of the argument for the Hall of Fame. And as he enters his age-38 season, those MVP-type years might be behind him. Even his vaunted fielding took a hit last year: He was 10 runs below average as his range in right field shrank against the league overall, yielding a minus-one defensive WAR (and denying him a Gold Glove for the first time in his MLB career). Even a rebound year in 2012 might be what economists like to call a dead-cat bounce, because that puts him at age 39 in 2013, and in this era of high talent compression, it is the rare 39-year-old who can find steady employment in the bigs.

Headed for the Hall?

Is Ichiro Suzuki that rare? Rare enough to merit a Hall of Fame berth? Certainly he is (pardon the expression) singular enough, a throwback to dead-ball hitters in a time when getting on base and hitting for power are the coin of the realm. Suzuki is a singles machine with speed (he will probably notch 450 stolen bases, and his 81.7 percent career success rate is impressive), a top-flight right fielder in his prime with one historic season among the eleven he has played already. Although he led the league in hits in seven of those years, and in batting average two of those years, he is not a dominant player in his era as were Ralph Kiner and Sandy Koufax in theirs—and even the slugging Kiner scraped into the Hall of Fame only by the thinnest of margins.

Having expended so much text in examining Suzuki's bona fides for the Hall, I will confess that the fan in me wants to see him elected to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible. Part of that has to do with his quixotic approach to the game—insisting on being a place-hitter in an era that insists on walks and power-hitting. A few years ago, at Angel Stadium to see the Angels play the Mariners, I watched Ichiro casually stroke a shot into the right-field pavilion seemingly without effort. He could be a more contemporary hitter, meaning that he hits with power, if he chose to be. He has chosen not to be (although he has reached double digits in home runs three times). Having lived in Tokyo for two years, I developed an admiration for Japan and its people. It is gratifying to see Suzuki succeed so impressively in American baseball, particularly when most of the Japanese players who have tried to play at the major-league level have not made an auspicious mark—except for Suzuki.

However, the Left-Brain Larry in me must admit that Ichiro Suzuki is ultimately a borderline case. In just eleven years, he has compiled some impressive overall statistics, and his string of ten consecutive 200-hit seasons, a major-league record, is similarly notable. He notched two great seasons, his 2001 rookie year and his record-breaking 2004 year, while adding two outstanding seasons in 2007 and 2009. His 54.5 WAR is within the top 150 all-time, again impressive given the eleven years in which he amassed that total, but it puts him among a pile of players with varying credentials for the Hall. Suzuki was the first everyday Japanese position player in the Major Leagues, but this hardly makes him the Asian Jackie Robinson.

Again, it is not premature to start measuring Ichiro Suzuki for his Hall of Fame viability when he is still a starting player. He will be retiring soon, and barring an improbable late-career rebound, his legacy has already been written. As it stands now, he is a Hall of Famer, perhaps not a first-ballot one, but his induction is warranted.

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DDT - 16:25

RIP Johnny Winter, dead at 70, cause not known at this time. Fine, pioneering guitarist who is in the Blues Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. "Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo," Johnny.


DDT - 16:45

RIP: Tony Gwynn, dead from salivary-gland cancer at age 54. Cherish your memories of this great Hall of Famer.


bojanthebest - 23:31

Congrats to Oscar De La Hoya for getting into the Boxing Hall of Fame.


bojanthebest - 06:03

Congrats to Ronnie Milsap. Some reason I can't read the main articles.


Committee Chairman - 06:25

Saw this today....a must read IMO: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/10261642/mlb-hall-fame-voting-steroid-era


DDT - 02:01

Baseball's newest HoFers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas. Craig Biggio is hurting: 74.78 percent! PEDs guys still being punished; bye-bye, Rafael Palmeiro. Not a travesty like last year.


bojanthebest - 01:58

Congrats to Maddux, Glavine and Thomas for making the Hall today. Biggio should have made it also.


Spheniscus - 07:12

Torre and Cox were taken on by Rick Reilly, as well as LaRussa. I am in the camp that they should all be in, as should Bonds, Clemens, and McGwire. But the double standard is interesting.


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  • red gold blue

    © 2009-2012 Kirk Buchner & David Johnson