Ichiro Suzuki Gave Baseball a Model of Consistency and Understated Excellence

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Ichiro Suzuki carried himself, especially in recent years, like he’d play forever. He stuck out three full seasons in Miami—in 2016, as a Marlin, he notched his 3,000th hit, which will be a handy trivia answer someday if it isn’t already—and returned to Seattle before this season, with his compensation, tools and playing time all fractions of what they had been at his peak. These are not the pursuits of a man with any desire to depart the game.

But with just a .205/.255/.205 line in the 13 starts and 47 plate appearances he had accumulated to date in 2018, the time evidently came for him to depart indeed, at least for now. Seattle announced on Thursday that effective immediately, the 44-year-old outfielder would “transition” to a role as special assistant to the Mariners’ chairman for the remainder of the season. From that perch he will work with players, coaches and the front office. General manager Jerry Dipoto said, “With Ichiro’s track record of success, his personality, his unique perspective and his work ethic, he is singularly positioned to impact both our younger players and the veterans in the clubhouse. We really don’t want him to change anything that he’s doing right now, with the exception that he will not be playing in games.”

Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, said that Ichiro is not retiring and may still play in 2019, when the Mariners open the regular season in Japan. Ichiro said he envisions himself playing again. Yet it seems just as likely as not that we have seen the last of this great hitter in anything other than a ceremonial role, and with that in mind, it’s worth reexamining his trailblazing career.

No Japanese position player had ever appeared in an MLB game before Ichiro’s 2001 debut. There had been a handful of pitchers—some successful: Hideo Nomo won NL Rookie of the Year in 1995—but Japan’s hitters were presumed to be incapable of handling MLB pitching. (The Mariners took a risk by spending $13 million to negotiate with him and another $14 million to sign him; with Alex Rodriguez leaving in free agency, they had a lot of production to replace.) It didn’t help that Ichiro was all of 5’9″ and 160 pounds. A rival team’s scout put it this way to Sports Illustrated in Ichiro’s first spring training: “Ichiro Suzuki has some tools and won seven Pacific League batting titles in Japan, but in spring training major league pitchers are just knocking the bat out of his hands. He can’t hit the inside pitch; he just keeps fouling balls over the third base dugout. He can really run, but right now he’s a little overmatched.”

In Ichiro’s first month in the big leagues, he would hit .336. “Overmatched,” you say? He was SI’s cover star before May was through. He made the AL All-Star team, which he would go on to do each of the next nine seasons. By year’s end he had amassed 242 hits—then the ninth-best single-season total in history, and the biggest total since 1930—and his .350/.381/.457 batting line, coupled with his effective patrolling of Safeco’s expansive right field, won him the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. (He and Boston’s Fred Lynn remain the only men to win both honors in a single season, though a pedant might note that Ichiro actually ranked No. 4 in WAR among American Leaguers, behind, among others, his teammate Bret Boone.)

What remains unforgettable about that season is just how steady Ichiro, the unprecedented transplant whose every move was studied by the Japanese and American press, managed to be. He hit below .300 in only one month; he played in all but five of the team’s games; he had more three-hit starts (20) than 0-fors (19). And his steadiness on the macro level had everything to do with how steady he was on a micro level: In a game then dominated by big swingers—2001’s MVP in the other league was 73-homer-hittin’ Barry Bonds—Ichiro’s awkward but controlled slap stroke granted him the ability to single seemingly at will. He could place the ball wherever he wanted, Wee Willie Keeler-style.

Those Mariners won 116 games before losing to the Yankees in a five-game ALCS. They have (gulp) not made the playoffs since.

But while the team tailed off, Ichiro didn’t. He produced and produced and produced. In 2002, while his average dipped to .321, his on-base percentage increased, owing to a more-than-doubled walk total—almost half were intentional. His average fell again in 2003, to .312, but he hit five more homers than he had the previous year and increased his stolen-base success rate. In 2004, he had his best pure batting season, with a .372 average, .414 on-base percentage, and a hit total of 262, which broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old record of 257. (Incidentally, Ichiro probably deserved the MVP that year, as he led the league in WAR. He finished seventh in the voting. Only sluggers—Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz—received first-place nods.)

2004, when he was 30, would be his best season, but other strong ones followed. He hit .351 in 2007, .352 in 2009. In the back half of his thirties, though, his declining speed took a toll. In 2011, he hit a career-low .272, with just a .310 on-base percentage. Midway through the 2012 season, with the Mariners reeling and Ichiro seeking a trade to a contender, Seattle sent him to the Yankees, and for a moment he found a second wind, registering a .322 average in 67 games after the trade. That year, he’d appear in the playoffs for the second and final time, and again his team would lose in the league championship series, this time in four games. The years that followed, in the Bronx, Miami, and in Seattle again, served primarily to provide him the necessary at-bats to chase 3,000 hits. He hadn’t ceased to be a useful player, but he had ceased to be a good one, and he never really looked right in the pinstripes or in the Marlins’ black-and-Day-Glo unis.

The game Ichiro departs is one in need of more hitters like him. As many commentators have noted, the past April marked the first month in baseball history with more total strikeouts than hits. (For the record, Ichiro had 3,089 hits and just 1,079 strikeouts.) Hitters these days focus on power, not contact, and defensive shifts go essentially unchallenged by slap hits or bunts. The sport is less exciting without contact. There were those who used to say that Ichiro could have hit tons of home runs had he put his mind to it; I’m not sure whether they were right, but I and baseball fans everywhere remain forever delighted he didn’t.

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