Friday, October 1, 2010

How many hits can Ichiro get in his career?

September 23, 2010
How many hits can Ichiro get in his career?
Larry Stone

Congratulations to Ichiro, who lined a single to center off Toronto's Shawn Hill in the fifth inning today at Rogers Centre for his 200th hit. That's 10 years in a row, a remarkable achievement when you consider that it took Pete Rose a 15-season span (from 1965-79) to accumulate his 10 seasons of 200 hits. And Ty Cobb , who held the American League record with nine years of 200 hits -- broken today by Ichiro -- needed an 18-year span (1907-24) to pull of his feat.

Ichiro has done it every single year since he came over from Japan's Orix Blue Wave in 2001, and it's hard to see him stopping any time soon. He now has 2,230 hits in his career (the Mariners' portion of his career, that is), which ties him with Todd Helton for 162nd on the major league all-time list (17 behind Edgar Martinez at No. 157, by the way).

Ichiro will turn 37 on Oct. 22, and has indicated he wants to continue playing into his 40s. With his conditioning and durability -- Ichiro's lone stint on the disabled list in his decade with the Mariners was because of illness (a bleeding ulcer), not injury -- I see no reason he couldn't do that. At some point, one would think, Ichiro will lose the ability to beat out the infield hits that are so vital to his batting success -- about 50 of them a year. Yet I've always felt that Ichiro is such an adept bat artist that he will adjust to the inevitable decline in speed by changing his approach, concentrating less on slashing (or dribbling) the ball to areas he knows have a high probability of resulting in infield hits, and instead focus on hitting the ball with more authority to the power alleys.

I think Rose's career could be a good gauge of what might lie ahead for Ichiro. While Rose recently put down Ichiro for loading up on infield hits, I could see a slowed-down Ichiro evolving into a Pete Rose type of hitter in his waning years. And Rose, from age 37 through his retirement at 45 (his last three years serving as the Reds' player/manager -- how'd that turn out for him?), pounded out 1,290 hits. He had 198 hits at age 37, 208 at 38, 185 at 39, and 172 at 41.

I don't see any reason why Ichiro, as long as he stays healthy, shouldn't be able to get roughly the 1,300 hits Pete Rose did after age 36. And that would bring him to 3,530 for his career, which would rank fifth all-time behind baseball royalty: Stan the Man (3,630), Hammerin' Hank (3,771), the Georgia Peach (4,189) and Charlie Hustle (4,256). (Clearly, Ichiro needs to get himself a flashy nickname. "Ichi" just doesn't cut it in this company).

Of course, if he could sustain his success longer than Rose -- and I wouldn't put anything past Ichiro -- he could rise even higher. It certainly makes you ponder what Ichiro's total would have been if he hadn't played his formative prime years (from age 20 to 26) in Japan. He torched Japanese pitchers for averages of .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343 and .387. Despite Rose's recent contention that the Japanese league is Triple-A quality and thus doesn't merit consideration, I'd say the fact Ichiro came to the majors and hit .350 his very first year proves that he could hit in any league.

I'd have to think that if Ichiro had come straight to the major leagues at, say, age 22 -- the age at which Rose broke in with the Reds in 1963 with 170 hits -- that the Hit King would be very, very nervous right now about holding onto to his record.

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