In Sunday's 5-0 victory for the Seattle Mariners over the Texas Rangers, Ichiro Suzuki's one hit was his 200th of the season. While normally this would not be incredibly notable for Ichiro (he has reached the mark every year he has played in North America), the normality of the occurrence was the reason for the notoriety of the hit.
With his RBI single Ichiro reached yet another level of prestige, becoming the only player in the history of Major League baseball to collect 200 hits in 9 straight seasons, breaking his tie with the master of the Baltimore Chop, Willie Keeler.
Because Suzuki entered the league after playing nine years in Japan, his career numbers likely will not set many records. But the player who is the single season hits leader (262) has now set another mark that raises him above the greatest hitters ever to play the game. The statistical accumulation is stunning in and of itself, but when considering the names that Ichiro has now set himself apart from, the accomplishment is enough to make one reconsider the normal stalwarts — and Ichiro's place among them — traditionally named as the "all time greatest" hitters.
One would assume the natural tendency would be to compare Ichiro to Keeler but unfortunately this comparison is less than constructive. Keeler was an outstanding hitter in the early days of organized ball, posting a .341 career average with 2,932 hits. The eight consecutive seasons he collected 200 hits were his only seasons reaching that mark, a stellar run but not enough to get him to 3,000 hits in a full 19-year career.
The other variable is the amount of time Keeler spent playing in the 19th century. It is hard enough to judge the statistics of "dead ballers" that played near the turn of the century but Keeler started playing offical organized baseball in 1892 with the New York Giants, recording all but two of his 200 hit seasons before 1900. Because of these difficulties, we will acknowledge Keeler's historical greatness but omit him from the Ichiro anaylsis beyond the acknowledgement of the record the two players once shared for a season.
From the dead ball era there were many players who put together ridiculous offensive stats (absent the power numbers of course, the ball being "dead" and all). Men like Tris Speaker (fifth all time), Cap Anson (seventh), and Honus Wagner (eighth) all compiled numerous amazing seasons and all eventually collected well over 3,000 hits. But the undisputed hit-king of this era was inarguably Ty Cobb.
Cobb played 24 seasons in the league (from 18 to 41 years old), collected 4,189 hits (second all time), hit .400 or better three times including a .420 season in 1911, and topped 200 hits nine times in his career, but not in a row. In fact, the most times Cobb ever topped 200 hits consecutively was three seasons.
The all time hit king Pete Rose played 24 seasons himself and collected 4,256 hits for a record many feel will never be broken. In other areas though Rose and Cobb are incomparable. His .303 batting average pales in comparison to Cobb's .366 mark and the closest Rose ever came to hitting .400 was in 1969 when he posted a league best .348 mark. In his career, Rose actually reached at least 200 hits 10 times (most all time, and one more than Cobb and Ichiro) but the most he achieved the mark consecutively was three (equal to Cobb, although Ty did it twice).
In Ichiro's nine seasons in the big leagues he has been essentially a hybrid of Rose and Cobb. His .333 batting average falls directly between the two but Ichiro has come much closer to reaching the .400 mark than Rose, batting .350 his first season in the league and on the continent (2001), .372 (2004), and .351 (2007). Currently, Ichiro is second in the AL with a .353 mark, which means he will further raise his .333 career average, barring an unlikely late season slump.
With another 200-hit season Ichiro is in Cobb-like territory. He has topped 220 hits four of his nine seasons in the league (with this season obviously still in progress). In comparison, Pete Rose bested the mark once in his entire career and Cobb passed the mark thrice. While his career total stands at only 2,005 hits, it must be noted that Ichiro didn't enter the league until the age of 27. His career totals may always fall short of defining his prowess but his volume is more than representative.
Assuming Ichiro would have hit an average of 200 hits every fictitious season in the league after had broken in at the standard age for a ballplayer (allowing for dips and raises above the 200 hit-mark, similar to those Cobb and Rose displayed), his projected hit totals fully illustrate the extent of Ichiro's greatness. Had Suzuki debuted at age 19 (the age Cobb was in his first full season) Ichiro's total would stand at "roughly" 3,605 hits (fifth all time). Had he broken in at 22 (as Rose did) he would be at 3,005.
While neither of these numbers are anything beyond rough estimates based on what Ichiro did in Japan and with Seattle, the reality is that had his career been entirely played in the U.S., he likely would have broken in at some point between the ages of 19 and 22 and likely would have average nearly 200 hits in those seasons. At the very least, those years would have put him at or very near to 3,000 hits by the age of 27, giving him a clear shot at obliterating Rose's record. Right now the youngest player to achieve 3,000 hits is still Ty Cobb, who cracked the mark at 34 years old; Rose got there at 37. Even at a generously slower rate than my estimate allows, Ichiro would still have reached 3,000 before Cobb with ease.
The fact that Ichiro Suzuki has now gathered 200 hits in 9 straight seasons is a poignant reminder that with his every at bat the baseball public is watching inarguably one of the most talented, artistic hitters to ever display his craft on a baseball diamond. He is a modern embodiment of players like Eddie Collins, Napoleon Lajoie, and Rod Carew. A refined contact specialist like Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, and Wade Boggs.
But astoundingly, Ichiro may be better than them all.