The Ichiro Suzuki and Ty Cobb Dilemma

This last week Ichiro Suzuki passed Ty Cobb in all time, professional non-minor league hits. There has been some commentary on it, here, here and here. First, I would like to point out where I believe a couple of the authors have erred, and then give my own assessment of the occasion.

Christina Kahrl, in her article, pinpoints issues that have been discussed in baseball circles for decades. One being the lack of competition in the Pre-Integration era that Cobb played in. We, of course, cannot control the era we play in, only what we do within that time. It’s fun to talk about what Rickey Henderson would be doing in the dead-ball era, but it’s just conjecture. What we do know is what Cobb did during his time (spoiler, it was phenomenal). In Cobb’s best season, using wRC+ as our barometer, he had a 206 in 1910. For reference, anything above 160 is considered excellent. Ichiro by comparison in his best season had a 131 in 2004, certainly nothing to sneeze at, but doesn’t even come close to Cobb’s mark.

Something that is also used to contest the lack of talent in the Pre-Integration era argument is the players’ lack of quality training and game preparation. Cobb was arguably the most meticulous player to ever play the game. He even would abandon his love of reading during the season, because he feared it would affect his vision. Constantly practicing, imagine if he would have had access to today’s bevy of information and statistics, let alone strength and conditioning advancements. In his time he had to personally catalog each pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses. Cobb saw before many the usefulness of ruminating on the game long before others did.

Kahrl also compares Ichiro’s current situation with Cobb’s. In 1927, Cobb left the Detroit Tigers, where he had constantly feuded with management and ownership, to go to Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics. Cobb had great respect for Mack and wanted a chance to play for the great manager, as well as the lucrative salary that came with the honor. Mack was interested in acquiring aging stars, signing future Hall of Famers Zack Wheat and Eddie Collins that season. Cobb had a great ’27 season, hitting .357.  Ichiro is currently hitting .251. She then goes on to, somewhat, identify his retirement after the ’28 season as a factor into the Athletics World Series wins in ’29 and ’30. Yes, because replacing a player hitting above .300 for one that hit around the same in ’29 is the reason the Athletics won back to back World Series titles. It probably had nothing at all to do with the emergence of Jimmie Foxx and the astounding excellence that was Lefty Grove on the mound. Plus in ’27 the Athletics had finished in second place in the American League to the Yankees. You know, the greatest-team-to-ever-take-the-field ’27 Yankees. They could be excused for not winning the championship that year.

Kahrl isn’t as sanguine as C.J. Nitkowski is about Ichiro’s future prospects. He surmises that Ichiro could play another 4 to 5 years, to reach the age that Pete Rose did playing in the big leagues. As I already said, Ichiro is hitting .251 and hasn’t hit above .300 since 2012. At this point Ichiro is actually contributing negative WAR (-0.5 according to Baseball Reference). To think that a team would want to play Ichiro full time is baffling to suggest. For the Marlins to use Ichiro as an everyday player though is not too baffling, being the second worst team in baseball, but the Marlins behavior falls into a territory much lower than baffling.

We love to compare players in baseball; we all do it. We even love to compare ones from different eras. This though can diminish them. Ted Williams is great, not just because he’s better then Honus Wagner, but because he is great. Cobb and Ichiro are two herculean figures in baseball and (hopefully) will not be too easily forgotten. It’s fun to compare, I do it all the time, but it degrades the greatness of one to raise the prominence of another. They’re both great, and – in this instance – I’m fine leaving it at that.

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