4000 hits. Now that is a milestone! Only three men have achieved it, and this past week we got to celebrate Ichiro Suzuki having become the third man ever to achieve that accomplishment. A few detractors have pointed out that they were not all in Major League Baseball. However, the fact is that Japanese baseball is legitimate, and the milestone is worthy of recognition.
Before coming over to Major League Baseball in the United States, he spent nine season with the Orix Blue Wave – seven of them full seasons - amassing 1278 hits and a cumulative batting average of .353. He struggled in his first two seasons, not getting consistent playing time. Then in his first full season in 1994, at age 20, he exploded with a .385 batting average and 29 stolen bases. For the rest of his Japanese career, he would never hit lower than .343 for a season, never fail to reach double digits in stolen bases, and would never fail to win a Gold Glove in any season there.
His hitting mechanics were, and still are, flawless. He has an even swing, and can hit to all fields. There is no point in trying to put the shift on him. The most curious thing about his hitting is his unorthodox swing. They teach you that when you swing, you plant your front foot while generating torque from your core and your shoulders to maximize bat speed and power. Ichiro does not plant his front foot. He swings his front foot in such a way that as he is already charging to first when his bat makes contact with the ball. As if his hitting is not good enough on its own, he has always been a threat to get an infield single on a slow or misplayed grounder.
By the winter of 2000, American baseball scouts had caught on to him, and the Seattle Mariners paid $13M for the rights to negotiate with him. They succeeded in signing him to a 3 year, $14M contract. The impact was immediate. He won the American League batting title with a .350 batting average, led the league with 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, was elected to the All Star team, and won Rookie of the Year and American League MVP. Additionally, the Mariners set the record for most wins in a regular season with 116, and made it to the American League Championship Series. He would continue his fierce hitting with the Mariners for 12 seasons, always hitting above .300, always making the All-Star team, always winning a Gold Glove, until 2011 at age 37.
By 2012, the Mariners had fallen into serious decline. They were on their way to the third consecutive last place finish. In fact, the Mariners finished last in seven of his 12 seasons there. By the middle of the season, it was reported that Ichiro had asked for a trade. He was batting in the .260 range for most of the season, and you could sense that he was losing the joy of the game. Then came the day when he was finally let go and sent to the New York Yankees. We couldn’t’ have been luckier.
The Yankees hitting was starting to falter. The only thing we kept hearing about from certain sportscasters was RISP – the Yankees’ failure to hit with men in scoring position. Ichiro added a spark that the Yankees needed, turning his season around and hitting .322 the rest of the way. Though the postseason did not go as we hoped, where the hitting all but disappeared against the Tigers, Ichiro hit .353 in that series.
In that off season, the Yankees were able to sign him to a 2-year deal, which means that we get to benefit from his excellent hitting, base stealing, and Gold Glove fielding through next year. Last week, we were fortunate enough to see this future Hall of Famer hit his 4000th professional baseball hit while he wore the pinstripes. It has been an honor.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Writer
My blog is: Shots from Murderer's Row