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The meaning of Ichiro Suzuki's 4,000 hits

Jim McIsaac

In the first game of Tuesday night's day-night doubleheader, Ichiro Suzuki went 2 for 5 against the Blue Jays. This left him with 3,999 hits as a professional baseball player: 2,721 in Major League Baseball plus 1,278 in Japan's Pacific League.

That's a lot of hits. And with 4,000 professional hits just around the around, lately there's been a lot of commentating. Let's start with Frank Deford last week on National Public Radio:

At the Hall of Fame they're already expecting by far the largest crowd ever when Suzuki is inducted seven or eight summers from now –– numbers way in excess of what Mike Schmidt and Cal Ripken drew up the Susquehanna from Philadelphia and Baltimore. Cooperstown will be little Tokyo that day, and Tokyo will be big Cooperstown.

It would also be so appropriate at that time for baseball to finally show some mercy to Pete Rose and let him enter the shrine with Suzuki. The drug cheats have put Rose's offense in perspective. He did not damage baseball one iota as a player, and his misdeed as a manager now appears as small beer alongside how those druggies dishonored the game, distorted history and robbed their fellow players.

Gee, Frank, why don't you tell us what you really think? And while you're at it, please feel free to ignore Rose's variety of ill behaviors as a player -- don't worry, you'll hardly be alone with your blind eyes -- including his involvement in a drug scandal that made headlines in 1980 and '81.

Sorry. That was a digression that I just couldn't resist. Back to Ichiro's hits ...

As he nears his 40th birthday, Suzuki has long since played more in the United States than in Japan –– nine seasons there, 13 here –– on his way to, surely, accumulating more hits than anyone who has ever stood in a batter's box. He's a handful short of 4,000 now, with better than 2,700 made in our American League. Beyond lie only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, who holds the record with 4,256 — a total Suzuki could very well eclipse only two summers from now.

Of course, should he stay healthy and pass Rose, there will be some patriots who will dismiss the accomplishment, arguing that the 1,200-plus hits that Suzuki slapped out in Japan were against pitchers inferior to the American mound cadre. Fair enough, but surely it evens out that Suzuki has managed to achieve his extraordinary success playing on two continents, in two cultures, with two different-size baseballs, while Rose did it all in a familiar few ballparks.

Don't you think that sometimes, even in baseball, with all its sacred statistics, you can round numbers off and call it equal, plus or minus a margin of admiration?

Well, yes and no. Yes, you can round numbers off, plus or minus a margin of admiration. That's a good way of putting it, don't you think? It's impossible to not admire Ichiro's talents and his dedication and his consistency and his style and his respect for the game.

But how many hits is 4,000, really? More to the point, what will Ichiro's 4,000 hits mean? Phil Rogers:

While it's unclear exactly how many hits some warriors piled up in the Negro Leagues and places like Mexico, when you consider in the major leagues the only other names that stack up ahead of Ichiro are those of Pete Rose and another hard liver, the late Ty Cobb.

If you factor in the minor leagues, you also have to include the not-so-legendary Arnold John "Jigger'' Statz. The Waukegan native had 4,093 career hits, although 3,356 of those came in his 18 minor league seasons.

Let's leave Statz out of the argument. Let's also admit that a lot of great players were denied the chances that Cobb, Rose, Statz and Ichiro had because baseball wasn't an inclusive sport before 1947.

Okay, let's do that. But even if we leave Statz out of the argument, what about Cobb's and Rose's time in the minor leagues? Or even the high minor leagues, since we may assume that Japan's CC League is roughly on par with the high minor leagues in the States.

Ah, but there's a catch! Pete Rose never played in the high minor leagues. He jumped straight from the Class A Sally League to the majors. And in a lovely coincidence, so did Cobb, almost exactly 60 years earlier! Rose played for the South Atlantic League's Macon Peaches, and Cobb graduated to the majors from the Sally League's Augusta Tourists. The circuit was Class C in those days, which was roughly equivalent to Class A in Rose's (and our) era.

So yes, in this particular sense -- career hits in the high minors and above -- Ichiro has a chance to catch Jigger Statz, and later Ty Cobb and Pete Rose. More Rogers:

The point here is acknowledging Ichiro's standing as one of the biggest collectors of base hits ever, and weighing whether he has a chance to get another 259 hits and catch Rose. I think he can do it.

All Ichiro needs is a team that will keep him in the lineup for two seasons after this one, and he's already set for one more year with the Yankees. I have a hard time saying he won't be able to help anyone in 2015, especially given the difficulty the two Chicago teams have getting runners on base.

Well, we'll see. His .307 on-base percentage this year suggests that he's not good enough to play regularly, or won't be good enough in 2015. His Wins Above Replacement (Wins+) is pretty good, though: +2. By definition, if you've got 2 Wins+ you're good enough to play. Will he be good enough in 2015? Not to play every day, no. But he might still be good enough to merit the job as some club's fourth or fifth outfielder. He might still be able to give you a base hit against a righty, and he might still be able to play pretty good defense in right field.

Again, he needs 259 hits. I can see him picking up another 40 this season. He's got a contract with the Yankees next season, and shouldn't play every day but might pick up another ... what? Maybe 120 hits? That would still leave him 100 short, and looking at limited duties as a 41-year-old singles hitter in 2015.

Seems pretty tight to me. Especially considering the possibility that he'll bow out gracefully if faced with the prospect of playing irregularly, especially if it's for a non-contending team.

Putting all that together, and I would make his chance at hustling past Peter Edward at maybe 1 in 4. Maybe a little higher, but more probably a little lower.

And to what end, really? This is an interesting bit of statistical trivia. Yes, you can round numbers off. Yes, everyone admires Ichiro Suzuki's hitting accomplishments. But it's either dishonest or intellectually sloppy to argue that Ichiro's 1,278 hits in Japan are the same, or even almost the same, as the same number of hits that Cobb and Rose collected while hitting against the best pitchers on the planet.

Later Tuesday, I might see Ichiro rap his 4,000th hit. This would be a thrill. In 2015, I might see Ichiro collect his 4,257th professional hit. This would be an even bigger thrill.

But when it comes to prolific hitting against great pitchers, Ichiro's no Pete Rose. And he's sure as hell no Ty Cobb.