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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The Throwback

He's not a five-tool player, and he doesn't hit home runs, so he won't get the publicity that the Cardinals' trio (Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen), Barry Bonds or Albert Beltre, among others, are getting. He runs like a deer, has a good arm, fields his position well, and is perhaps the best pure hitter in the Major Leagues today, a complement to his soon-to-retire teammate, who for years was labeled the best right-handed hitter in the game.

His name: Ichiro Suzuki.

His issue: he plays for a lousy team in one of the most remote parts of the country, especially as far as ESPN and the East Coast papers are concerned. So, he won't get the attention that even the Yankees' shellacking at the hands of the Cleveland Indians last night (22-0 for those of you who missed) it, got. And there are wild card races in both leagues, there's a race in the AL West and, lo and behold, the once dismissed and often dissed Boston Red Sox are now only 3 1/2 games behind the starting pitching-challenged Yankees in the AL East.

Except for one small thing.

Ichiro has 212 hits on September 1. In most seasons, as a fan you're lucky to see say 3 or 4 guys get 200 hits -- by the end of the season. Ichiro has 31 games left and needs 45 hits in September to tie Hall of Famer George Sisler for the record for hits in a season. He had 56 hits in August, a record for most hits in a month, and he hit .463 for the month. He's hitting .371 for the season. Let's say he has 130 at-bats in the next 31 games (an average of 4.2 per game). he'll need 46 hits to break Sisler's record, and that would mean, for him, a very doable .354 batting average. Can he hit .400 for the year? That's doubtful -- he'd need to get 69 hits in September and a .530 batting average -- lofty numbers even for Ichiro. If he gets 46 hits and breaks Sisler's record by one, he'll end up hitting by my estimate .368 for the season (so, believe it or not, his average would drop three points from its current perch of .371). If he hits .463 or so in September, he'll end up with 272 hits, shatter Sisler's record, and end up with a batting average of .387 for the season. A .255 batting average in April is the only blemish on this outstanding record. Get all of us some oxygen -- these are pretty amazing heights!

Have you ever seen him play? In person? I haven't; I've only seen him on TV, but he hits the way you imagine Honus Wagner, Paul Waner, Ty Cobb and, of course, Wee Willie Keeler hit. Quick slashes, hitting the ball to openings, running to first almost at the same time as he's finishing his stroke, and since he's the fastest player from home to first, the combination of his battting eye and speed is a lethal combination. He's certainly fun to watch on TV.

Ichiro now presents baseball's best individual drama since 1998, when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris's record for home runs in a season. And while I appreciate home run hitters, I also allow for the doubting that it wasn't only their batting eyes and talent that helped them reach prodigious numbers, it also, for some, was banned substances (McGwire took the now-banned Andro, Bonds is under investigation, and many wonder about the 50-HR season that Brady Anderson had years ago).

But this isn't about raw strength or hitting the ball over walls. It's about batting eyes and the ability to do perhaps the hardest thing in all of sports -- hit Major League pitching. And, unless there's some genetically modified carrot juice that Ichiro has made for him by a mad scientist in Ottuma, Iowa to improve his eyesight, there's nothing out there other than good training methods and the maximation of talent that helps someone approach, if not break, George Sisler's record.

In other words, this quest seems as pure as it gets. We loved McGwire, we loved Sosa, and we loved that great home run chase. We stand in awe of Bonds, who accomplishments are unmatched.

And we should afford Ichiro the same amount of appreciation. Even in the era of Moneyball and on-base percentage, there still is (and boy does this sound trite) great value for good, timely hitting. Otherwise, we'd have to question our overall sanity, that somehow good hitting didn't mean as much anymore. Of course it does. Walks help, sometimes very significantly, but hits are what makes the difference between a good team and a great team, a good player and a great player.

And, no matter how you look at it, this lithe, acrobatic outfielder is as good as it gets.

I look forward to the cutaways on ESPN and Fox to Ichiro's at-bats come late September.

Tune in, because this is one quest that you surely want to watch.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ichiro is fun to watch. He is probably among the best baserunners from first to third and among the best defensive RFs in baseball. It would be great to see him compete for Sisler's record. He is having his best year since coming to the US.

That said, he uses a lot of outs to get his hits, and he rarely walks considering that he is a lead-off hitter. And he does not get as many extra base hits. You'd think he would have more than 21 doubles just by using his speed.

Offensively, he is not among the 15 best outfielders in baseball.

But if I had a runner on third and one out in a tie game in the ninth inning, he'd be my guy.

That's the shortcoming of the Moneyball analysis in my view. It works on a large data sample, for example over a whole season, to predict value in creating runs, but it doesn't predict as well the ability to create one run. That can make the difference in one game, or in a short series.


5:34 PM  

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