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:
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.