There has been a lot made over the last couple days about the idea that baseball has a new hit king. Ichiro Suzuki now has 4,257 hits between his years in Major League Baseball and in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. That number surpasses Pete Rose, who had 4,256 hits over his Major League career and currently holds the MLB record. That news has many writers proclaiming that Ichiro is baseball’s new “hit king,” but in my opinion it is a contrived attempt to create a false record and perhaps a veiled attempt to take a shot at Rose and his accomplishments.
At the crux of the discussion is really whether you should count the 1,278 hits that Ichiro got while playing professionally in Japan. The only thing this argument has going for it is that it is still a nation’s top league, just like MLB is for the United States.
But there are a number of stats that we don’t count torwards career records here in the United States. We don’t count spring training games or all star games or, the one that’s always puzzled me a bit, postseason games. Pete Rose has 86 career hits in the postseason that apparently don’t count towards his career numbers? Those literally came against some of the best teams in the Majors at the time.
And if hits are hits, as the President of baseball’s Hall of Fame has basically put it, why aren’t we counting stats from other U.S. based leagues? Why don’t we add in Rose’s 427 minor league hits? Those are professional leagues right?
Nobody ever makes that argument because it’s ridiculous. Nobody is still calling Hank Aaron baseball’s “home run king” because he has 786 home runs (Majors and Minors combined) while Barry Bonds has just 782. Or, if we’re combining statistics achieved in Japan with those achieved in the Majors, why don’t Sadaharu Oh’s 868 career home runs count?
It’s hard for me to accept the idea that the Japanese leagues are equivalent to the United States for one big reason: Japanese stars come to the U.S. to play while players who can’t stick in the Majors here go over there to play and often become stars. That damages the argument.
While I do believe that you’ll find the top talent in Japan to be on par with some of the top talent in the Majors, the same depth of talent is not present. One could say the same about Triple-A. You’ll run across some Major League caliber guys, but ultimately, the majority of guys in the league will never go further.
So I think to count his hits from Japan and say that Ichiro broke some kind of record last night is stupid and ill conceived.
Now there are some other ways you could approach to argue that Ichiro’s hit totals are more noteworthy than Rose’s, so let’s take a look at those.
First, I’ve seen some writers suggest that Rose hung on too long to simply pad his hit totals and that we should give more credit to Ichiro since he is still worth putting into the lineup. But I think that’s putting too much credit into his .349 batting average this season. Because when you look back over the past five years, he has not been better than Rose was in his final seasons.
If you look at Rose’s final five seasons, 1982 (his age 41 season) to 1986 (his age 45 season), Rose hit .261 with a .662 OPS and an 86 OPS+. Then let’s look at Ichiro’s last five seasons, 2011 (his age 37 season) to 2016 (his age 42 season), which even includes this year’s good start, Ichiro has hit .271 with a .654 OPS and an 84 OPS+. So at best, over Rose’s last five seasons and Ichiro’s previous five seasons, they were equals. And Ichiro’s sample happens is when he is four years younger.
So if Rose held on too long to pad his stat totals, Ichiro has too.
Second, there is also the fact that Ichiro made his debut in Japan at the age of 18 while Rose had to wait until his age 22 season to debut in the Majors. So Ichiro started counting four years earlier and it took him until age 42 (25 seasons) to get to 4,257 while it took Rose from age 22 to 45 (24 seasons) to get to 4,256.
And third, even if we just compare age years to age years for the time that they’ve overlapped in baseball, Ichiro has 2,979 hits from his age 27 season to his current age 42 season. Meanwhile, from age 27 to age 42, Rose had 3,091. At his current pace, Ichiro should add about 76 more hits this season, so he still won’t reach Rose’s number. So he can’t even beat Rose head-to-head on as equal ground as we can place them on.
So the bottom line in all of this for me is that Pete Rose was a great player who had a ridiculous number of hits in his career.
And Ichiro Suzuki is a great player who has had a ridiculous number of hits in his career.
It’s amazing and worth noting, but it’s not any kind of record. There is no need to contrive some record for him to make it seem bigger than it is. You can celebrate Ichiro’s accomplishment without discounting what Rose has done. They both stand as unique in my mind.
I believe Ichiro is a great player and an easy Hall of Famer, which for debuting at age 27 is quite a feat. I would have loved to see him in the Majors sooner. I think that if you put him in the Majors at age 20 in 1994, we would be talking about him breaking Rose’s record. But he wasn’t, so we shouldn’t be.
In a few weeks Ichiro will likely become the 27th Major League player to collect his 3,000th Major League hit. And on that day I will tip my cap to him.
4,257 was an amazing accomplishment and should be celebrated as such. But it’s no record.