Baseball is the ultimate numbers game. Always has been, always will be.
Start a debate about the sport, and the argument will eventually devolve into a comparison of statistics and formulas.
So sometime in the future, when it’s time to look back after Ichiro Suzuki has stood in the batter’s box with his arm outstretched — bat firmly in grasp — and directed a steely gaze at the pitcher’s mound for the very last time, the numbers won’t lie.
They’ll say Ichiro was one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen.
Ichiro went 2-for-5 on Thursday in Toronto, in the process becoming the only player in major league history to string together 10-consecutive 200-hit seasons.
In the history of Major League Baseball, Pete Rose is the only other player to even have 10 200-hit seasons. Ichiro has now done it 10 years in a row.
“I tell you, it’s not easy,” said Yomiuri Giants slugger Alex Ramirez, one of the four NPB players to have had 200 hits in a single season. “That’s something that takes a lot of consistency. He’s proven that he’s the best.
“. . .He has proven himself, not only here in Japan, but also in the major leagues, as one of the greatest players ever.”
As Sports Illustrated columnist Joe Posnanski noted earlier this year, the numbers will tell you only Ichiro, Rose, Sam Rice and Rogers Hornsby have amassed 2,000 major-league hits in a single decade. More impressively, Ichiro is in that group despite missing an entire year (he spent the 2000 season with the Orix BlueWave).
Posnanski also notes Ichiro is the only player to lead the American League in singles nine times. He’s currently on his way to a 10th . . . in a row. No one has ever done it in the National League, either, by the way.
In terms of BABIP (the rate batted balls end up as base hits), Ichiro is among the best with a .357 lifetime average in the majors.
In Japanese baseball, Ichiro holds the single-season hits record, connecting on 210 during a 130-game season in 1994. He’s also the MLB single-season record holder with 262 in 2004.
“You have to go through a lot of things,” Ramirez said of a 200-hit season. “You have to be able to stay mentally strong. Ichiro is one of those guys who can. He knows what he can do and he believes in himself.
“Physically, you can stay in good condition for the whole year. But are you going to be able to stay mentally focused the entire year? That’s the question, and he has done it all these years.”
Beyond the numbers, Ichiro is more than a ballplayer.
For the Japanese, he’s a source of pride. He’s proof that a Japanese position player can take on the world’s best on their own terms and come out on top.
In Seattle, he’s one of the few things left to cheer about, as the team suffers through another terrible season.
For baseball fans still reeling from the slew of former icons found to have taken artificial shortcuts, Ichiro is proof there’s still a lot to be said for work ethic and doing things the right way.
Famed Japanese baseball historian and author Robert Whiting made him the titular focus of his book, “The Meaning of Ichiro,” and Ichiro famously moved a fan to hysterics with the slightest of touches in Seattle earlier this season.
Simply, Ichiro is a sensation unto himself. The things he can do at the plate are amazing and some of the plays he makes in the field defy logic.
He’s become almost a folk-hero type figure who, with a cool air of confidence, a pinch of mystery and a dash of “Ogi-Magic” (in honor of his former manager, the late Akira Ogi), used his play instead of words to win over a legion of critics in the NPB and later the MLB.
Rose, who had a MLB-record 4,256 hits, is telling anyone who will listen Ichiro’s 1,278 hits in Japan shouldn’t count toward his career total. Rose also dismissed Japanese baseball as “Triple-A,” conveniently omitting that Japanese seasons are markedly shorter than those in the MLB.
On that train of thought, it’s worth noting that through 18 professional seasons Rose had played in 2,830 games and had 3,557 hits. Ichiro after Thursday’s game — counting his time with Orix — had 10 games left in his 18th professional season and 3,508 hits in 2,559 games.
Comparing their MLB statistics, Rose ended his 24-year career with a 162-game seasonal average of 194 hits and a .303 batting average. Through 9.74 years, Ichiro has a 162-game seasonal average of 229 hits and an average of .331.
Rose’s train of thought on Ichiro is understandable. He’s proud of his status as the Hit King and has to know Ichiro could surpass him in the minds of many when the whole of their careers are laid out side by side.
It’s a major part of Rose’s gambling-tainted legacy and one of his few connections to the game the MLB can’t take away.
Maybe Ichiro is better than Rose and maybe he isn’t, but there’s no denying he’s among the best hitters to ever play the game.
The Rose vs. Ichiro debate will have its day, and it’s possible Rose won’t like what he hears.
Because when it’s all said and done, the numbers won’t lie.