Ichiro Suzuki got his 2,979th hit in Major League Baseball this afternoon against the Padres, and this is a remarkable thing, because Ichiro played in Japan for nine seasons and did not debut in the majors until he was 27. If you add up his regular season hits in Japan and MLB, he now has 4,257 hits, one more than Pete Rose had in MLB. Does that make Ichiro the new “Hit King”? Rose says no, and knocks the quality of Japanese competition. What’s the right answer?
You can’t have records in sports unless you define your parameters, and the record for the most hits in regular season MLB games remains Pete Rose 4,256, Ty Cobb 4,189 – interestingly enough, with Rose having compiled every single one of those hits in the National League, Cobb every one of his in the American League. The fact that somebody else could have or might have had as many hits under other circumstances does not change that. That being said, there is more than one way to look at hit totals. For example, if you add in hits in the postseason and the All-Star Game, the hit leaderboard above 3,500 hits looks like this:
Pete Rose 4349
Ty Cobb 4206
Hank Aaron 3809
Derek Jeter 3678
Stan Musial 3672
Tris Speaker 3536
Is that fair? Maybe not to Aaron, who played in the Negro Leagues in parts of 1952 (his hits there are not included here for lack of reliable records), but then he was 18 when he first crossed over into the still-integrating minor leagues. Maybe not to Rose, who missed a third of a season in 1981 (when he led the league in hits) to a players’ strike. Maybe not to Cobb and Speaker, who lost some time to war-shortened schedules in 1918-19 and served time in the military in 1918. Maybe not to Musial, who missed the 1945 season at age 24 due to World War II. Maybe not to everyone but Musial, since a notoriously lenient St. Louis draft board let him, like other Cardinals players, beat up on war-weakened competition in 1943 and 1944. What’s “fair” is more than a little debatable. And the length of the postseason and ease of getting in has changed a lot over the years, plus there was no All-Star Game until 1933, and there were two a year for Musial and Aaron in the late 50s and early 60s.
On the other hand, if you add up regular season hits and count all kinds of seasons – the minor leagues, Japan and other foreign leagues, the Negro Leagues and MLB-Negro Leagues exhibitions, etc. - but exclude postseason and All-Star games, you get a list that looks like this above 3,800 hits:
Nap Lajoie 3889
Julio Franco 3864
Is that fair? Franco and Ichiro each got 1,278 of their hits outside the U.S. major leagues, in Franco’s case all over the map – the minors, independent leagues, Japan, Mexico, Korea. Derek Jeter’s 200 postseason hits seem rather more legitimate. Then again, Rose’s 249 hits in Class D and 178 hits in Class A were probably against a lot weaker competition than Ichiro faced in Japan. If you add up all regular season hits plus all U.S. postseason and All-Star Game hits, you get this list above 3800:
Carl Yastrzemski 3816
There’s still no perfect answer. Cap Anson, for example, had 3451 hits, 3435 in the regular season and 16 in a postseason that’s not officially recognized today, and Anson was 32 years old before the MLB regular season reached 100 games in length. And old-time recordkeeping was spotty: we don’t have all of Honus Wagner’s minor league hits, and we may not have all of Cobb’s.
For all of that, we can say this: Ichiro’s regular season Japanese hits may not be Major League, but there is substantial evidence to show that he would have met or exceeded Rose’s hit total if he had been able to play in America when he started playing regularly in Japan (Japanese players are bound to their teams by tighter contracts than Americans are). Let’s go by age. Age 17-19, Ichiro, Rose and Cobb were all getting started: Ichiro had 36 hits in 83 Japanese League games with the Orix Blue Wave; Rose, starting at 19, had 89 hits in 83 games in Class D low minors; Cobb, starting at 17, had 319 hits, (170 in the low minors, 149 with the Tigers). At 20, Ichiro became an everyday player in Japan, Rose in Class D ball (making the majors at 22), Cobb with the Tigers.
Now here is the part that matters a lot in evaluating Ichiro. From age 20-26 in Japan, he averaged 177 hits per year, but 216 hits per 162 scheduled games. That’s because the Japanese schedule in those days was 130, then later 135 games per year, compared to 154 in Cobb’s era and 162 for Rose. That’s a big difference for guys like Ichiro and Rose who never missed a game in their prime (Ichiro did miss around 30 games each of his last two years in Japan). Granted, Ichiro’s first two years as a regular were 1994-95, when MLB itself was playing a shortened schedule, but the remaining years from age 22-26, he averaged 171 hits per year, but 206 per 162 scheduled games. By contrast, from age 27-36, normally worse years for a hitter than his mid-20s, Ichiro averaged 224 hits a year in the American League (Cobb averaged 210 a year from 22-26, 185 from 27-36; then again, Rose averaged 180 hits a year from age 22-26, 207 from age 27-36). Will Carroll uses advanced translation metrics to reach a similar conclusion about the number of hits Ichiro might have had in the U.S. In either event, it’s not at all unreasonable to conclude from the available evidence that he would have gained more hits from the longer schedule than he lost from tougher competition if he had played in the U.S, those seasons.
Which again is what-ifs; we know Rose languished in Class A at age 22 batting .330 because his team was the defending NL champs at the time, and maybe Ichiro would have been blocked that way too, depending what team he played for (the Mariners were good in the 1990s but would have made room for him, as they did for talented youngsters like Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez).
This much we can say: Pete Rose remains Major League Baseball’s hit king. But that title does owe something to his good fortune in playing when and where he did, and there’s plenty of reasons to think that both Ichiro and Cobb could point to their own hit totals as equally legitimate, based not on fanciful speculation but on a serious analysis of the conditions they played in. And complicated men as they were and are, all remain exemplars of some of the cardinal virtues of baseball: toughness, tenacity, durability, consistency, and a single minded focus on hitting a rapidly rotating baseball where nobody can catch it.