LOS ANGELES, August 22, 2013 — Ichiro Suzuki went 1 for 4 last night in New York. The lone hit represented his 2,722 career hit. Yet, much is being made about Ichiro’s 2,722nd hit.
If you combine Ichiro’s MLB stats with the stats he accrued while playing in Japan, last night’s hit actually represents hit number 4,000 for Ichiro in his international career. Is this a worthy milestone to be celebrated?
Ichiro signed at 18 and played nine years in Japan for the Orix Blue Wave before signing with the Seattle Mariners in 2001. He collected 1,278 hits in the Nippon Baseball League.
There are varying opinions on the talent level of the Nippon Baseball league compared with the various professional leagues in the U.S. It is safe to say that the NPB is about the equivalent of AAA here. Sure, there have been some fantastic players that have come from Japan, but like AAA, the majority of the players will never have MLB level talent.
Furthermore, MLB players whose careers had just about come to an end in the U.S. can usually eek a few more years of professional baseball by making the leap to Japan. Some younger U.S. players who have lost their touch will sometimes head to Japan to see if they can figure it out against sub-MLB level talent for a year or two before trying to restart their careers in the U.S.
Other players just can’t cut it in MLB, yet end up having great careers in Japan. Greg “Boomer” Wells did just that. Wells spent eight years in the minor leagues where he hit for both power and average, but only played 47 games in MLB with Toronto and Minnesota in 1981 and 1982, respectively. He hit no homeruns at the MLB level. He went on to play for ten years in Japan and even won an MVP award, while reaching the 40-homer plateau multiple times. He was a legitimate superstar there.
Ichiro is without a doubt one of the best hitters MLB has ever seen. Unfortunately, MLB did not see him until he was 27 years old. Had he started his career in the U.S., it s fair to assume he would have reached the 3,000-hit milestone. Any further assumptions than that are in the hands of speculation, opinion and mathematical theories.
If reaching certain MLB milestones, such as 4,000 hits, is important to Ichiro, then he is a victim of playing in Japan. If being remembered as one of the greatest hitters baseball has ever seen, then Ichiro hit it right on the mark. Boomer Wells may have just missed being elected to the NPB Hall of Fame, but when Ichiro hangs ‘em up, he will be a first ballot Hall of Famer in Cooperstown.
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