The Hit Machine

It's not getting as much attention as it deserves, but what Ichiro is doing is a pretty significant achievement.  After becoming the first player in history to begin his career with four consecutive 200-hit seasons, Ichiro is well on his way to breaking George Sisler's all-time hits mark of 257.  In terms of how his hits affect the outcome of each game, this is not as big as what Bonds is doing, but in several ways his is a more significant achievement. 

In the 128-year history of organized professional baseball, only six players - Sisler, Lefty O'Doul, Bill Terry, Al Simmons, Rogers Hornsby and Chuck Klein - have ever had 250 hits in a season, each doing it once.  If you are not overly familiar with any of those guys, there's a good reason: no one has had 250 hits in a season since 1930.   However, all but O'Doul are enshrined in the Hall of Fame and even he is borderline so you have to be a pretty special hitter to accomplish it.  To show you how rare this feat is, there have been eight 60-homer seasons by five different players.  Since 1901 when the American League was founded and Major League Baseball was divided into two leagues, there have been 13 seasons in which a player hit over .400, accomplished by seven different players. 

Sisler is the only player to have two 240-hit seasons.  Ichiro posted his first in 2001 and is just 17 hits away from joining him in that category.

Bonds' feats have come in an era when home run rates are at historical highs.  When he hit 73 homers in 2001, it was the 6th time in the last 8 years that someone had topped 60 homers in a season.  Over the last 30 years, only six players have managed as many as 230 hits in a season, each doing it once.   Surprisingly enough, Tony Gwynn wasn't one of them.  Wade Boggs, Darin Erstad (the only other active player with a 240-hit season), Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly are the others.  If/when Ichiro tops 240 hits, it will be just the fourth time in the last 70 years that has happened.   

Ichiro, now at 223 hits with 27 games left to play, is currently on pace for 268 hits.  If he reaches that mark, there will be as much distance between his record and number two all-time as there is between number two and number eight, which ironically enough, also belongs to George Sisler, just 4 hits ahead of what Ichiro did in 2001. 

In his 218 at bats since the All-Star Break he's hitting .477.   If he continues to hit and get at bats at that rate, he will not only obliterate the all-time hits record with 280 hits, he will also surpass the all-time record for most at bats (705) in a season with 709.  Even then, he'll finish with only a .394 average, joining O'Doul and Simmons as the only players who had at least 250 hits but didn't hit .400.  If that ends up being the case, people will look back at what he did in April and wonder what might have been: he had just 26 hits that month, hitting .255.  Since May began, he's hitting .405 and from the beginning of July to today, he's failed to get a hit in just seven games including contests in which he did not play.

What I am probably enjoying most about Ichiro's run at the record is that there is no taint to it.  No whispers of performance enhancing drugs, no connections to BALCO, no managers intentionally walking him all the time... it's just Ichiro versus the pitcher.  Baseball is the only sport where statistical comparisons between eras are viable.  Even so, those comparisons often break down when considering the effects that medicine/pharmaceuticals/nutrition, expansion, integration, new ballparks and transportation have had on the game and the performances of its players.  What Ichiro is doing transcends those barriers.  It is baseball distilled to it's purest form, dating back to the origins of the game: can the batter get a hit?  It's ironic that in a time when the game has become an entertainment carnival with wild cards, interleague play, home run contests and anything-for-a-buck mentality, that a Japanese player who plays the game the way it was played a century ago symbolizes what is best about baseball.