I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Starting in 2001, I got to watch Ichiro Suzuki play. Live, in person. My own contemplative approach to baseball fandom often being drowned out by some forty-seven thousand voices doing that stilted, nearly anti-rhythmic “I-CHI-RO!” chant I held in such disdain. I didn’t like it, because it felt like the un-funny cousin to Steve Martin’s The Jerk.
Watching Ichiro play, on the other hand, was a delight. He could seemingly command the ball with his bat to find the gaps between defenders for single after single; a beat you could dance to, I guess. In other at-bats, he would will these weak little choppers, combined with his speed out of the left-handed batter’s box, to animate more infield hits than extras in an episode of Game of Thrones. His knock-kneed batting stance, where he looked like a marionette at rest, befuddled everyone, but we soon didn’t care. It worked; no one knew exactly how, but it did. Here’s this spindly little guy, standing in there as if he’s hovering above an outhouse toilet seat, raking away. He was the singles-hitting, junkball-slapping version of Vladimir Guerrero. Ichiro, as I’ve already mentioned, had great speed that didn’t truly diminish until well into his thirties. Lastly, if we’re recounting his four tools, he had a laser-guided missile of a throwing arm. I’m sure Terrence Long still remembers it.
As part of that Seattle Mariners team that won 116 games, The First Son won both Rookie of the Year and AL MVP honors. He led the league in hits (242), stolen bases (56), and average (.350), disproving all the haters — I’m eyeballin’ you, Joe Morgan! — who posited that Japanese position players wouldn’t be able to adapt and thrive in the majors. Over the course of his first ten seasons, he laid waste to those haters by being an All Star in each of those seasons, in which he also had at least 200 hits (leading the league seven times), winning another batting title, and collecting ten Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers. Oh yeah, he also broke George Sisler‘s single-season record for hits in 2004. It was safe to say he belonged in the majors. I’ll get back to Joe Morgan in a bit.
On Saturday, playing in his 15th major league season, Ichiro collected two hits. Those two knocks moved him just 85 hits shy of 3,000 for his major league career. But, and that’s a big but, should I qualify that statement to read, “3,000 for his American major league career”? That is the argument swirling around lately — and it seems to be a mostly semantic one, based primarily in opinion, with very little statistical analysis. Ichiro played nine seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball, amassing 1,278 hits. If you add those to the 2,915 he has in Major League Baseball, you would conclude that he has 4,193 hits in professional baseball — two more than Ty Cobb had. And you’d be correct in that assertion … kind of. Maybe? Oh gods, I don’t know.
So, one of my fellow editors asked me to talk about whether Ichiro’s NPB hits should count or not. I’m not sure I can give the clearest answer ever, as I am a paradoxical man adept at thinking myself inside wormholes in spacetime built out of kittens playing with endless balls of yarn. Alas, I will try and in my attempt, hopefully piss somebody off. Especially Joe Morgan. Here it goes!
No, Ichiro’s hits in the NPB shouldn’t count on record towards his MLB totals. Why?
Well, first of all, they are not officially kept in the major league record books. And this question is not being posed for Jung Ho Kang (yes, I’m quite clear he’s Korean, but I feel that the example lends credence to the argument) or Nori Aoki. This question is not about inclusion of a league often seen as a “Quadruple-A” league compared to MLB. This argument is not being made towards an infusion of NPB and MLB. People who want Ichiro’s NPB hits included in his MLB totals seem mostly concerned with seeing somebody pass Cobb in their lifetime … oh, did Pete Rose already do that?!? Yeah, I’m being a little snarky, but I just really don’t see why some folks want this to happen. Unless, of course, they feel that by including his NPB hits, it would guarantee his entrance into the Hall of Fame. I guess, as long as he doesn’t bet on the Marlins to lose every night, maybe it could.
This also doesn’t mean that I’m one of those folks saying that NPB is a “4-A” league. In fact, I’m more swayed by a heady, logical argument to the contrary made by Clay Davenport over at Baseball Prospectus. Yet, just because I can agree with the sound argument that NPB and MLB are more or less equal in terms of play quality, they don’t share the same official record. They don’t even play each other, save for pre-season exhibition games. Those don’t count towards the official record either — which is not to say that’s the anchor of my opinion-editorial argument, but it is a salient point.
So, while I wouldn’t dismissively say that the NPB is a Quadruple-A league, I would posit an allegorical correlation. Without seeming to disparage Japanese baseball, the NPB is to the MLB as the MLS (Major League Soccer) is to the EPL (English Premier League). The fact of the matter is that the talent and money are driven at higher levels to the MLB and EPL. Have we fully considered the fact that the NPB won’t allow Major League teams to bid on their players until after a service-time requirement? That, in part, seems to illustrate an understanding of the competitive imbalance between the two leagues. This kinda leads me to my next point, which is also where I take a bite outta Joe Morgan (like nobody’s ever done that before).
During that wonderful 2001 season — despite Bret Boone‘s penchant for the juice — I recall a game on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. I know it was later in the season, because why would ESPN care to broadcast the Mariners. Before the M’s were dismantling every team in their path, ESPN would have surely taken a Nielsen Ratings hit by broadcasting a Mariners game. I also know it was later in the season because the discussion of Ichiro as a Rookie of the Year candidate had gained serious steam. At some point in the game, Morgan was waxing to Jon Miller about why he felt Ichiro should be ineligible to win the award. His argument centered around the notion that Ichiro was already a pro, albeit in Japan, but already a pro. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure I threw something at the television and throated a chain of expletives towards Morgan. I was aghast, looking at my buddy, “Wait! How the hell does that make sense?!?” My diatribe lasted at least an inning and a half, probably outlasting a relief-pitcher appearance in there somewhere.
Did Joe Morgan even know who the $%^&* Rookie of the Year Award was named for?!? I’m not sure he remembered who Jackie Robinson was at that moment. Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues, for money, before breaking the color barrier in the majors. Now, the context is very different, as blacks were being actively excluded, so please don’t preach to me that I don’t understand that. I’m making a simple argument that both men played professionally before getting to the Majors, and if one was eligible for the award, then the other should too, unquestionably. Robinson paved the way for you to have a career, Joe. Much the same way that Ichiro’s success as a Japanese position player has and will for other players coming over from the NPB. It’s also similar to Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain simultaneously making Native American players more visible. I can continue to cite examples for Cuba, the DR, Puerto Rico, et al, but I think you get the point.
In closing, I’d like to know what our readers think, so I’m including a simple binary poll. Let your voice be heard!