After a season where he passed the 3,000-hit and 500-steal benchmarks, Ichiro Suzuki will return for the 2017 season with the Miami Marlins. For all his greatness, however, Ichiro didn’t even enter the major leagues until he was 27 years old. He spent nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave of the Japan Pacific League, most of them outstanding, before coming to the United States to join the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro has more than 4,000 hits combined between the leagues, but for obvious reasons we can’t just sum up the totals he amassed in each league, not with the differences in culture, play of game, and even length of season (the Japan Pacific League has 144 games in a season instead of our 162). So let’s try a Thought Experiment: what if Ichiro had spent his entire career in the major leagues?
To do this, we start with the averages of his first five major league seasons: 2001-2005. Then we see what a ridiculous 2004 season he had with his record 262 base hits, so we throw that out to keep a more even average. So now we have an average of his 2001-2003 and 2005 seasons to make for a “normal peak” Ichiro season. Those numbers, which come to 674 at-bats, 217 hits and 39 steals, are now the baseline from which we work.
Ichiro began his Orix Blue Wave career at the age of 18, and was playing at peak level two seasons later. Let’s assume that he came right to the Mariners organization and got some seasoning in the minors for a year or so before being called up. That puts him in the majors at age 19 for a partial season in 1993. That would give him about 30% of what a normal Ichiro season would be, using the baseline numbers above: 65 hits in 202 at-bats with a dozen steals. Not too bad – the kid’s showing some promise.
Ichiro makes the big club in spring training entering the 1994 season. At 20 years old, he’s improving and now has about 50% of the baseline numbers above: 109 hits in 337 at-bats with 19 steals. His healthy batting averages and speed earn him a permanent spot at with the Mariners at the Kingdome. However, the 1994 players’ strike ends the season.
So now it’s 1995, the season starts a month late after the work stoppage ends and Ichiro starts the season like a house on fire. He finishes 1995 at 83% of the baseline numbers above, since only 83% of the season was played. That translates to 180 hits with 32 steals. So he’s now old enough to legally drink and has already accumulated 354 hits and 63 stolen bases.
He enters 1996 now at full peak, with five extra major league peak years before the 2001 season, when he actually did join the Mariners. Those five seasons, at 100% of the baseline numbers above, would give him more than a thousand extra hits and nearly two hundred more steals before he even begins his legendary 2001-2011 Mariners stint.
Let’s take those extra numbers, add them to what Ichiro did accumulate in the major leagues starting in 2001 (including his later years with the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins), and see where he ends up:
Hits: 4,469. Easily #1 all-time as Pete Rose gets demoted from Hit King to Hit Prince.
At-Bats: 14,159, now also #1 all time.
Stolen Bases: 763, landing him at #6 on the all-time list. Everyone higher on this list is in the Hall of Fame except for Tim Raines (at #5) and he seems likely to get in this year.
Ichiro would also have 187 home runs (fewer than his actual bi-continental totals since he hit for more power in Japan) and 1,174 RBI (as many as Boog Powell and more than guys like Joe Torre and Craig Biggio), coming while mostly hitting in the leadoff spot. And let’s not forget his great fielding over the years and incredible durability all while being a trailblazer from a different culture. Ichiro Suzuki will sail into the Hall of Fame in five or six years, but had he entered the league sooner he very well might have had his own wing there.