On this date 13 years ago, Ichiro Suzuki was chasing baseball’s single-season hits record, and the eyes of the world were watching. The day before, September 18, he’d gone 1-for-5, bringing his season total to 236, 21 short of George Sisler’s unmatched mark for the 1920 St. Louis Browns. The 2004 Mariners were way out of contention en route to a distant last-place finish, but Suzuki’s pursuit was still the stuff of headlines. “Ichiro gets a hit, but A’s win,” read the wire report in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on September 19, which, like many papers, printed an “Ichiro watch” recapping the star’s recent performance and previewing the next matchup on his march to history.
If you stopped paying attention to baseball in mid-September 2004, I’ll spoil the suspense: Ichiro broke the record. One of his standard seeing-eye singles sealed the deal on October 1, and he added four more hits in the schedule’s closing stretch to finish at 262. That season Ichiro (the AL leader in WAR) played in 161 games, mostly batting in the leadoff spot, and made 762 trips to the plate, the eighth-highest single-season total of all time. Pair a near-record plate-appearance count with a .372 batting average, and you have a recipe for a record that looks unlikely ever to be broken, especially in a high-strikeout, low-average era ill-suited to the singles-slapping style that vintage Ichiro employed.
Ichiro was already 30 when he surpassed Sisler, but all these years later, he’s somehow still going, a little more than a month from his 44th birthday. Not only has he hung on, but he’s pursuing another single-season hits record, one that drives home how different his role is in 2017, how singular a career he’s compiled, and how gamely he’s clinging to major league life.
The record Ichiro is nearing now, as he totes a .265/.332/.348 slash line and a career-low contact rate toward an October 1 end date, isn’t as significant or as storied as Sisler’s, so it doesn’t draw daily updates or live look-ins. It’s the record for pinch hits in a single season, set by longtime part-timer John Vander Wal in 1995. With 12 Marlins games remaining, Ichiro has accumulated 26 pinch hits, tied for second with the owner of the career pinch-hits record, Lenny Harris. He trails only Vander Wal’s single-season record of 28. Three more pinch hits in the next two weeks, and baseball’s single-season hits and pinch hits leader would be one and the same.
Pinch Hit Leaders
|John Vander Wal
Vander Wal got to 28 in the average-inflating confines of Coors Field, in a league that hit nine points higher, on average, than the 2017 NL. But Ichiro has had his own advantage: extra pinch-hit opportunities. The 43-year-old has come to the plate as a pinch hitter 100 times, breaking the single-season record for pinch-hit plate appearances previously held by Rusty Staub. He’s also displaced Harris on the single-season leaderboard for pinch-hit at-bats.
“Most prolific pinch-hitter in a single season” isn’t a sexy distinction, especially when juxtaposed with the loftier career accomplishments that already litter Ichiro’s résumé. Every active athlete of a sufficiently advanced age is perpetually on the precipice of a record, a milestone, or a slightly higher placement on an illustrious leaderboard, and Ichiro isn’t an exception. This season, he’s bumped Rod Carew, Rickey Henderson, and Craig Biggio a little lower on the all-time hits list, becoming the career hit king among foreign-born players (at least until Adrián Beltré overtakes him). But in this relatively low-visibility limbo between the career-capping highlights of last season — his Pete Rose–passing 4,257th hit as a professional and his 3,000th hit in the majors — and the final curtain calls that will greet his last trip around the league, his professional life looks a lot less glamorous than it did in 2004.
Ichiro is still playing outfield for an out-of-contention team, but his current club draws 15,000 fewer fans per home game than the 2004 Mariners did. He’s gone from being more than twice as valuable as his closest teammate to being the 10th-most valuable Marlins position player. His annual salary is less than a quarter of his inflation-adjusted 2004 take. He still gets into most games, but he’s started only 21 times. Only six of his 200 plate appearances have come in the leadoff slot.
In 2004 Ichiro was almost always on the field. Now his season unspools in small spurts, as if he’s stuck in a strobe light or playing peekaboo. Back then, he led the majors in plate appearances; now, he has 122 fewer than the next-closest player who’s appeared in as many games. At this stage, he’s neither adding to nor subtracting from his career value; he’s making frequent cameos, tipping his cap, and crossing items off his baseball bucket list. Baseball changes, but the Ichiro abides.
At the plate, Ichiro has never looked like anyone else, but age may have made him more of an outlier. Only four batters who’ve put the ball in play at least 100 times this year have hit it less hard, on average, than Ichiro. He may not have hit it much harder in his prime, but back then he could fly, as can the four hitters whose average exit velocities rank lower than his this season. That quartet — Mallex Smith, Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Delino DeShields — comprises the 15th-, second-, fifth-, and eighth-fastest players in baseball, as measured by Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s sprint speed. Ichiro, meanwhile, ranks 350th of 499 qualifiers. The sport’s oldest position player isn’t slow, exactly, but he’s closer to the bottom of the list than the top — and he’s falling fast, which has hurt him in the batter’s box, on the base paths, and in the field. By the same sprint-speed metric, only 10 hitters who qualified for the leaderboard in both 2016 and 2017 have lost more than the 1.1 feet/second Ichiro has surrendered since last year.
The way rosters are structured in 2017, it’s almost miraculous that Ichiro has lasted this long. He’s a backup outfielder on the team with the sport’s most valuable outfield, a slap hitter who’s no longer speedy, and, most anachronistic of all, a pinch hitter in an era when pinch hitters are increasingly scarce.
The graph below displays the number of dedicated pinch hitters — defined as hitters with at least 75 PA in a season who made at least half of those PA as pinch hitters — per team grouped by decade, going back to 1953, when Baseball Prospectus’s complete pinch-hit splits start.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2010s stand out as the most hostile to pinch hitters. With bullpens swelling by the season — the Rockies relief corps briefly had a head count in the double digits in July — bench space is shrinking, positional flexibility is in vogue, and teams are running out of room for hitters whose primary purpose is to replace a weaker hitter in a high-leverage spot. No player met my requirements for a “dedicated pinch hitter” in 2013, 2015, or 2016. Yet here’s the ancient Ichiro, setting the record for pinch-hit opportunities in a season that’s already established a new all-time high in pitchers used.
It’s not clear that any club would carve out Ichiro’s current role for anyone other than Ichiro, who’s far from his heyday but still a beloved legend and teammate on an afterthought franchise with one other widely known star. Nor is it apparent that many players with his Hall of Fame pedigree would stick around in a dramatically reduced role at so advanced an age. Most of the pinch-hitting precursors Ichiro has eclipsed were born to bench roles. You have to scroll down to 11th on the single-season pinch hits list (Red Schoendienst) and 12th on the pinch-hit PA list (a 42-year-old Tim Raines, who also hid from the career reaper as the Marlins’ 20-somethingth man) to find other Hall of Famers who embraced such ancillary roles.
It takes a particular type of athletic obsession for a star to stick around despite the indignity of part-time play, with his legacy long cemented and his career earnings easily in the nine figures. It’s the sort of obsession that prompted Ichiro to tell the Miami Herald in March that he wants to play until he’s 50, likening retirement to death. The latest buzz from the Miami media is that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ichiro return in 2018, when avowed Ichiro admirer Derek Jeter will most likely take over the team. We’re still waiting to see which heretofore insurmountable barrier in the path of Ichiro’s retirement time and decline can conquer first: our desire to have him around or his own desire to stay.
Ichiro’s stateside career started in baseball history’s second-highest home run era, and it’s winding down in the highest. Amid all of the moonshots, he’s followed his own flight path, eschewing much of the power that he may have had to adopt a distinctive, run-and-swing stance that produced dead-ball-era batting averages. Here’s the strangest thing: It’s still working.
Ichiro started this season extremely slow, sporting an anemic .525 OPS at the end of June. But after Monday’s 2-for-4 with a walk, he’s hit .338/.436/.425 since the start of July, good for the 42nd-best offensive performance of the 347 hitters with at least 90 PA over the same span. No wonder Don Mattingly keeps calling on him to pinch hit: He’s hot. History — and Vander Wal — awaits.
Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.