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A Mathematical Case for Ichiro's Hitting

by jimlapbap/Wesley Johnson

The consensus on the internet seems to be either:

-Ichiro Suzuki's hits in Japan should not be counted at all, PETE ROSE IS KING!

 

-Ichiro Suzuki's hits in Japan should be counted exactly the same as MLB, ALL HAIL OUR NEW JAPANESE OVERLORD!

I, as a realist who has lived and breathed baseball on both sides of the Pacific, believe the truth lies in between. And that that truth can be imagined with an Excel Spreadsheet.

Come, journey with me and my nerd brain to ponder what Ichiro might have been as a full career major leaguer....

Who I am:

First off, you are probably wondering who this guy is with a American name is telling you about Ichiro. Hi, by the way.

I attended my first Japanese baseball game in 1987 at age 7 in (now a shopping center) Nishinomiya Stadium.

I moved to Fukuoka, Japan at age 9 and have been a Fukuoka Daiei (now SoftBank) Hawks fan since. I would estimate that I have attended 150 games in Japan and watched countless more on TV. I learned "baseball Japanese" by listening to the radio while at games in Japan. I've seen (in person, on TV, and on my video game consoles) just about every Japanese player who has played baseball from 1987-1999 (Nomo, Ichiro, both Matsuis, Iguchi, Johjima, Taguchi, etc.).

Ichiro Suzuki has been a hit machine since 1994. I know because I saw it in person. I was sitting in the upper deck of Kobe Green Stadium in September of 1994 when, at age 20, he became the first player in Japan to get 200 hits (since Japan had 130 game seasons at the time), having already broken the all time hit record in Japan.

My "relationship" with Ichiro:

Yes, I attended the game he got #200 in 1994, but over the years, he was always covered in the media, his face was everywhere, and he always seem to deal the final blow to the Hawks (who in never higher than 4th from 1989-1998). I hated him as a teenager.

 

What level is Japan anyway?

From my personal experience, I would estimate Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is probably around a AAAA (if there were such thing) starting around the 90s. A good team from NPB could compete in MLB. Starting in the 90s, baseball stadiums in Japan went from 92m - 118m - 92m (302 - 387 - 302 in feet) to 100m - 122m - 100m (328 - 400 - 328, usually with alleys around 390 feet and 20 foot fences), particularly in the Pacific League (the league Ichiro played in). Kobe Green stadium was “Major League sized,” and by 1996, 5 of the 6 stadiums in the Pacific league were. Every Japanese stadium is on a coastal town so, there is no sea level factor.

 

Ichiro's Statistics in Japan:

Year    G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS    Notes
1992    40    99    95    9    24    5    0    0    5    3    .253    .276    .305    .581     
1993    43    67    64    4    12    2    0    1    3    0    .188    .212    .266    .478     
1994    130    616    546    111    210*    41    5    13    54    29    .385    .445    .549    .994     
1995    130    613    524    104    179    23    4    25    80    49    .342    .432    .544    .976     
1996    130    611    542    104    193    24    4    16    84    35    .356    .422    .504    .926     
1997    135    607    536    94    185    31    4    17    91    39    .345    .414    .513    .927     
1998    135    558    506    79    181    36    3    13    71    11    .358    .414    .518    .932     
1999    103    468    411    80    141    27    2    21    68    12    .343    .412    .572    .984    Injured
2000    105    459    395    73    153    22    1    12    73    21    .387    .460    .539    .999    Injured
Total    951    4098    3619    658    1278    211    23    118    529    199    .353    .421    .522    .943     
All stats adapted from Baseball Reference

*At the time, 210 was the all-time record and has been since broken with the 144-game schedule by several people.

Ichiro was basically Mike Trout in terms of "peaking." He was 20 years in 1994 when he broke the hit record and batted .385 when the next highest was .317 (Kazunori Yamamoto of my beloved Hawks, for those interested) that year in the Pacific League and never really looked back. As he went a little more for power in the following years as a #3 hitter, his average "dipped" to "only" .342-.358 in his following full years. (Power is another story, the guy put balls very few people can in batting practice.)

Ichiro in MLB

If you are a fan of Major League Baseball, you may have heard of him. Here are his MLB stats (as of June 14, 2016):

Year    G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS
2001    157    738    692    127    242    34    8    8    69    56    .350    .381    .457    .838
2002    157    728    647    111    208    27    8    8    51    31    .321    .388    .425    .813
2003    159    725    679    111    212    29    8    13    62    34    .312    .352    .436    .788
2004    161    762    704    101    262    24    5    8    60    36    .372    .414    .455    .869
2005    162    739    679    111    206    21    12    15    68    33    .303    .350    .436    .786
2006    161    752    695    110    224    20    9    9    49    45    .322    .370    .416    .786
2007    161    736    678    111    238    22    7    6    68    37    .351    .396    .431    .827
2008    162    749    686    103    213    20    7    6    42    43    .310    .361    .386    .747
2009    146    678    639    88    225    31    4    11    46    26    .352    .386    .465    .851
2010    162    732    680    74    214    30    3    6    43    42    .315    .359    .394    .754
2011    161    721    677    80    184    22    3    5    47    40    .272    .310    .335    .645
2012    162    663    629    77    178    28    6    9    55    29    .283    .307    .390    .696
2013    150    555    520    57    136    15    3    7    35    20    .262    .297    .342    .639
2014    143    385    359    42    102    13    2    1    22    15    .284    .324    .340    .664
2015    153    438    398    45    91    5    6    1    21    11    .229    .282    .279    .561
2016    53    134    120    20    42    5    0    0    9    6    .350    .282    .392    .674
Total    2410    10235    9482    1368    2977    346    91    113    747    504    .314    .357    .405    .762
The most noticeable change in Ichiro from Japan to MLB is his power numbers. His slugging and extra bases are much lower, but because the MLB plays 162 instead of 130-140, Ichiro’s yearly hit totals actually increased. Only once did he break 200 hits in Japan, but in MLB he posted 10 straight seasons with 200 hits, including the individual hit record with 262.

"Translating" NPB to MLB:

I decided to make a spreadsheet that averaged out his “prime years” in Japan (1994-2000) and his prime years in MLB and “equalize” them by reducing everything down to a "per game" statistic.

Here are his "prime years" (1994-2000) in Japan:

     G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS
     868    3932    3460    645    1242    204    23    117    521    196    .359    .434    .533    .966
/season    124    562    494    92    177    29    3    17    74    28    .359    .434    .533    .966
/G         4.53    3.99    0.74    1.43    0.24    0.03    0.13    0.60    0.23                    


Here are his "prime years" in MLB:

     G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS
     1588    7339    6779    1047    2244    258    71    90    558    383    .331    .385    .430    .815
/season    159    734    678    105    224    26    7    9    56    38    .331    .385    .430    .815
/G         4.62    4.27    0.66    1.41    0.16    0.04    0.06    0.35    0.24                    


Here is a side-by-side comparison of his "per game" rates in Japan and MLB:

     PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB
Japan    4.53    3.99    0.74    1.43    0.24    0.03    0.13    0.60    0.23
MLB    4.62    4.27    0.66    1.41    0.16    0.04    0.06    0.35    0.24
Ratio    1.020    1.071    0.887    0.988    0.691    1.687    0.420    0.585    1.068


So, if I assume Ichiro was about the same player in his prime both in Japan and MLB and would have been called up to MLB at age 20 (meaning he got the Griffey/Harper/Trout treatment), I can project his approximate statistics using the "ratio" multiplied by the equivalent. For example, in 1996 at age 26 when he got 193 hits in 130 games (full season):

162/130 games (full season) = 1.24615
1.24615 x 193 hits = 240.5
240.5 x 0.988 (average ratio of hits per game from Japan to MLB) = 238 hit projection in 1996. This is on the high end, but he got higher totals twice in MLB.

Ichiro Suzuki's MLB projections 1994-2000:

Year    G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS    Notes
1994    115    565    517    87    183    25    7    5    28    27    .354    .393    .458    .852    Strike
1995    144    683    622    102    196    18    7    12    52    58    .315    .373    .424    .798    Strike
1996    162    777    723    115    238    21    8    8    61    47    .329    .372    .414    .785     
1997    162    744    689    100    219    26    8    9    64    50    .318    .363    .418    .781     
1998    162    689    650    84    215    30    6    7    50    14    .331    .367    .428    .795     
1999    124    574    530    85    168    22    4    11    48    15    .317    .362    .436    .798    Injured
2000    126    557    508    78    181    18    2    6    51    27    .356    .406    .435    .841    Injured
Total    1099    4589    4239    651    1400    160    42    58    354    238    .330    .375    .429    .804     
A few observations:

This removes his "call up" years in Japan at age 18 and 19.
He would actually not have led the American in batting average in the high-hitting 90s once.
It's not a guarantee a club would have put Ichiro in the top level at age 20, but the Mariners did it with both Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.
Speaking of, imagine this "what if" lineup: Ichiro Suzuki-Alex Rodriguez-Ken Griffey Jr.-Edgar Martinez-Jay Buhner in the mid 90s.
Because of the strike in 1994, Ichiro would have been projected at 257 hits in a 162 game season.
1996 seems like an anomaly because of the at bats. If you just take his 4.16 AB/G, that puts him at 675 AB. But Ichiro doesn't walk in MLB, that those numbers are skewed that way in the projections.
The final "projected" tallies:

     G    PA    AB    R    H    2B    3B    HR    RBI    SB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS
If entire Career in MLB:    3509    14824    13721    2019    4377    506    133    171    1101    742    .319    .363    .413    .775
Rank all time    2nd    2nd    2nd    8th    1st                        10th    54th               
This would put Ichiro at 100 over the MLB hit record. Ichiro's current .314 MLB average is still only 2nd among active players behind Miguel Cabrera's .320, his earlier years would give him a bit of a push.

So, what does this mean?

Officially, nothing. Pete Rose has the most hits in MLB history. Don't take this too seriously, it's an "educated if: If Ichiro put up numbers comparable to what he did in MLB. The point of this is essentially to answer those who do not want to take his career in Japan into consideration. Ichiro was held back in Japan for 7 years, and his rookie year at age 20 was one of his best.

Of course Japanese baseball leagues are below the Major Leagues (still to this day); they have foreigner limits and a population of about 120 million to draw on, whereas the Majors have no foreigner limit and draw upon around 500 million in baseball playing countries of the world, including Japan.

Ichiro is still going to be in the BBWAA Hall of Fame (as well as the Japanese Hall of Fame) no matter what. To collect 3000 hits debuting in the majors at the age of 27 is still a Hall of Fame feat. I didn't touch much upon his running and zero on his fielder, but he generally clocked in throws from the mound at 90mph during exhibitions in Japan.

Japanese Records

Japanese players have and had held several records. Now, finally, a player could actually prove that they are Major League worthy with Ichiro and test it on a regular basis. His only "crime" is that he happened to be born in Japan, so we don't know exactly what would have happened.

Sadaharu Oh hit 868 home runs in Japan, still regarded as Japan's most prolific power hitter. When he hit number 756, there was a celebration in Japan as "the world record." If Twitter existed then, I'm sure Henry Aaron/Babe Ruth fans would have broken the internet. It's a celebration of achievement for a Japanese player who couldn't control his circumstances, that's it.

Sachio Kinugasa (raised by a single mother and his father was an African American GI, fascinating story in itself) played every game for the Hiroshima Carp starting in 1971 to 1987 for a 2,215 consecutive game streak, broken by Cal Ripken in 1995. Kinugasa's achievement at the time took longer than Gehrig's and Ripken's with 130 game schedule, and if he had played the same time with 162 games per year, he'd have 2760.

There is a similar situation for Yutaka Fukumoto, who ended his career with 1060 steals, "translating" to around 1320 over 162 game stretches (which would still be 2nd to Rickey Henderson now).

Apples to Apples Comparing to Pete Rose

Pete Rose has made it blatantly clear that Ichiro is not "the hit king."

Let's compare.

Ichiro had to spend 7 full seasons at the top level in Japan before he could go to MLB. If the 1st 7 years of Rose's career were taken away, Ichiro would come out on top because he got more hits per at bat:

Ichiro 2977
Rose 2929

If you only counted after age 27 (pretending Rose's two full years in the minors would have happened to Ichiro), then Rose is on top because he got 699 hits after the age of 40, and Ichiro has 235 so far:

Rose 3357
Ichiro 2977

Other Comparisons

These projections and conjectures are also similar to the Negro League comparisons. Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige played in leagues that had few official games and went barnstorming for many more unofficial games. Though, in this case, there enough of a sample size for Ichiro.

In the end, it's just interested to ponder what might have been had Ichiro played in MLB his entire career.

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