Ichiro’s Quest

Ichiro! was 5 for 5 on Saturday, and as of Sunday has 223 hits through Seattle’s first 135 games. That’s an average of 1.7 hits a game, which is equivalent to 268 over the full season. As you probably know, that would break George Sisler’s all-time hit record of 257 — a record that has stood for over 80 years.

Ichiro’s pursuit of this record will hopefully make September a bit more exciting for baseball fans. It’s something we need, given that there may be only one or two close division races at best. Mariner fans, in particular, deserve some fun.

But let’s be clear about something: Ichiro gets a lot of hits, but he doesn’t do all the things that make a ballplayer great, such as hitting for power and walking. Win Shares measures all that stuff , and Ichiro ranks only fifteenth among the league’s Win Share leaders, with 20 Win Shares and 5 Win Shares Above Average. For comparison’s sake, Barry Bonds has 42 Win Shares and 30 WSAA. (Note to self: Bonds has more WSAA than any AL player’s total Win Shares. Crazy.) For more info on Ichiro’s strengths and limitations, you can also read Dayn Perry’s article.

Okay. So Ichiro’s record-setting pace doesn’t make him the most valuable player in the league. But he is still having a remarkable run. One of the great things about breaking records is that it reminds us what a great player the previous record-holder was. And George Sisler deserves remembering. From 1917 through 1922, Sisler recorded the following batting averages: .353, .341, .352, .407, .371, and .420. In addition, he was generally recognized as the best fielding first baseman of his time (along with Hal Chase, the Snidely Whiplash of baseball).

At 30 years of age, right after hitting .420, Sisler missed the entire 1923 season with an infection of his optic nerve, and was never the same. That’s one of the reasons you don’t hear more about the guy. Another reason is that he spent most of his career with the St. Louis Browns, which automatically bestows a certain anonymity.

But the main reason you don’t hear about Sisler is that he wasn’t as valuable as those stats indicate. Like Ichiro, most of his value was reflected in his batting average, and he didn’t contribute a whole lot more. For instance, he never walked even 50 times in a season; his OBP never reached .500, even when he batted .420. He never hit 20 home runs, and he only hit 102 over his career. He never led the league in OBP, SLG or OPS. He finished his career with 292 Win Shares, just short of the magic 300 number that typically qualifies a player to be a Hall of Famer (though he is, indeed, in the Hall).

In fact, Ichiro and Sisler have extremely similar profiles. Here are each player’s totals for their first three full years in the majors:

      Sisler  Ichiro
BA     .332     .328
OBP    .375     .374
SLG    .430     .440
SB      108      121
2B       72       90
3B       29       24
HR        8       29

Yes, Ichiro hit 21 more home runs in his first three years than Sisler in his; but, to be fair, Sisler’s first three years occurred just before Babe Ruth radically changed the game. Sisler’s post-Ruth home run totals are very similar to Ichiro’s. The only real difference between these two guys is age. Sisler was 23 years old his rookie year, Ichiro was 27.

For a little more history on hitting leaders, here is a graph of the total hits by each annual league leader since 1900:


I couldn’t fit it in Don Mattingly, but it’s worth noting that he had 238 hits in 1986, the year after Boggs hit 240.

As you can see, the National League and American League sort of switched places over the years, with the AL having the biggest years prior to 1930, then the NL taking over for about 40 years, then the AL taking over again. Still, most of the big years have been in the American League prior to 1930 and after the late 1970’s.

In the National League, Lefty O’Doul, who blew out his arm in his 20’s and resurrected his career as an outstanding hitter, set the NL record of 254 hits in 1929. One year later, Bill Terry matched Lefty’s record, and no National League batter has since come closer than Joe Medwick’s 237 in 1937.

Lefty O’Doul’s story is a great one. He is a minor legend in San Francisco where, among other things, he managed Joe DiMaggio before Joe became a Yankee star. Lefty was also the first leading ambassador of baseball goodwill between America and Japan. When asked about this in The Glory of their Times, he replied:

Yes, that’s true. I started professional baseball in Japan. How did that happen? Well, see, years ago — I think it was 1931 — I went to Japan on an American All-Star team. Interesting country, interesting people. I liked them, and they liked me. So the next year I went back and coached at the Six Universities. I kept going back and finally went to work organizing a professional setup, like we have here. I’m the one who named the Tokyo Giants. I was on the New York Giants at the time.

So you see, Ichiro is a direct descendent of the NL single-season hits record holder. Everything comes together in the end. It’s the great Circle of Baseball.

How outstanding is Ichiro’s hit pace? Well, he has 47 more hits than the league’s second-highest total, Michael Young’s 176. If he can maintain that difference, it will be the largest ever:

The Epistemology of Hitting; or, What Constitutes a Fact about Nolan Arenado?
As we pursue truth, are we striving too much for certainty?
 Year   Lg   Leader             H  Second             H    Diff
 1946   NL   Stan Musial      228  Dixie Walker     184      44
 1901   AL   Nap Lajoie       232  John Anderson    190      42
 1948   NL   Stan Musial      230  Tommy Holmes     190      40
 1974   AL   Rod Carew        218  Tommy Davis      181      37
 2001   AL   Ichiro!          242  Bret Boone       206      36
 1922   AL   George Sisler    246  Ty Cobb          211      35
 1922   NL   Rogers Hornsby   250  Carson Bigbee    215      35
 1917   AL   Ty Cobb          225  George Sisler    190      35
 1987   NL   Tony Gwynn       218  Pedro Guerrero   184      34
 1920   AL   George Sisler    257  Eddie Collins    224      33

I thought I would use some of our THT stats, courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions, to take a closer look at what Ichiro has done. As you hopefully know, one of the stats we report is the number of line drives hit by each batter. In general, Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) can be estimated by taking the percent of batted balls that are line drives (LD%) and adding .110. You can read more about it in this article.

In general, if the difference between a batter’s BABIP and LD% is greater than .110, then he’s probably being lucky. If it’s under, he’s unlucky. So who have been the leading “lucky” batters this year (minimum 300 plate appearances)?

Player       Team    PA    P/PA   G/F    LD%   BABIP   Diff
Bay J.       PIT     325   3.90   0.9   .168    .393   .225
Suzuki I.    SEA     591   3.51   3.2   .178    .391   .214
Erstad D.    ANA     404   3.87   2.2   .156    .357   .201
Sanchez A.   DET     352   3.08   2.4   .177    .375   .198
Ramirez M.   BOS     529   4.00   1.0   .163    .349   .186
Clayton R.   COL     531   3.82   2.2   .163    .345   .181
Stairs M.    KC      357   3.91   1.3   .125    .303   .178
Harvey K.    KC      451   3.76   2.2   .162    .338   .177
Patterson C. CHC     529   3.41   1.0   .180    .356   .176
Rios A.      TOR     330   3.75   2.0   .186    .361   .175

Jason Bay is a fine young hitter, but he’s just not going to keep this up over his career, let alone next year. Same thing for some of the other players on this list who don’t hit the ball on the ground, such as Corey Patterson and Matt Stairs. Manny Ramirez is obviously an extremely gifted hitter, though his profile is unusual. He gets a lot of help from his ballpark. As does Royce Clayton. Alex Sanchez bunts his way on.

Which leaves Darin Erstad and Ichiro — two remarkably similar types of hitters. Erstad has his mojo going this year — not as well as he did in 2000, but he’s doing the Erstad thing pretty well. And Ichiro is obviously on. You can’t really call his performance “lucky.” He’s just a remarkable hitter, with a truly unique approach to the plate.

Among major league regulars, only Luis Castillo has a higher groundball/flyball ratio (3.7) and no other player comes close to Castillo and Ichiro. The next highest figure is 2.4. Obviously, hitting the ball on the ground and taking advantage of their speed is a huge part of both player’s games.

Let’s do one more thing and break these stats down by month. Ichiro has been on fire in July and August. Maybe some of the underlying stats will tell us why. Here’s a simple chart which shows the percent of Ichiro’s plate appearances that resulted in a strikeout, walk, line drive, groundball, flyball or other (usually bunt). We’ll also include his BABIP and Pitches/Plate Appearance for each month:

           K  BB   BIP      GB   FB    LD  Othr  BABIP   P/PA
April    10%  7%   83%     57%  10%   15%    2%   .287    3.9
May       5%  7%   88%     51%  19%   17%    0%   .414    3.2
June     10%  8%   81%     51%  15%   13%    3%   .316    3.7
July      8%  5%   87%     56%  17%   13%    1%   .461    3.4
August    9%  6%   85%     48%  17%   17%    2%   .500    3.5

“BIP” refers to the percent of times he put the ball in play (didn’t strike out or walk). As you can see, his three best months were May, July and August, which were also the three months he put the ball in play most often and looked at the least pitches per PA. Ichiro is at his best when he’s swinging away and making contact.

There are some other interesting insights in the data. For instance, line drives have been positively associated with his BABIP, but not overwhelmingly. Even more interesting is that his BABIP has been highest when he’s hit relatively more flyballs. For instance, his GB/FB ratio was an astonishing 5.7 in April, his worst month. During the rest of the year, it’s been 3.0. It appears that even Ichiro can hit too many groundballs.

It will be a lot of fun to see if Ichiro can set the new record. Enjoy it, because it only happens once every 80 years.

References & Resources
There are a ton of Internet resources for Mariner fans, including the online Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the U.S.S. Mariner, and Mariner Musings.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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