Can a player be underrated, even if he already is enshrined as a legend?
Sporting fans come together when a great player concludes an illustrious career. Not too long ago, MLB fans said goodbye to untainted Yankees’ greats Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, both five-time World Series winners.
Now, the MLB bids farewell to the future first ballot Hall of Famer, Ichiro Suzuki. Even though he is Cooperstown bound, is it possible to be underrated, even if a player will be or already is enshrined as a legend?
Absolutely. In his first year, the Mariners’ right fielder took the MLB by storm in 2001, winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, an accomplishment only done twice before (Fred Lynn, 1975, and Fernando Valenzuela, ROY and Cy Young 1981). Including his rookie year, here are Ichiro’s stats for the first ten years of his career:
- 1,588 games played (2,651 total)
- 1,047 runs scored (1,420 total)
- 2,244 hits (3,089 total)
- 383 stolen bases (509 total)
- .331 average (.311 lifetime)
Yet, with those incredible stats, Ichiro never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting after his rookie year. Not to mention, in 2004 when he finished seventh in MVP voting, he batted .372 (which led the majors), had a 9.2 WAR (led the American League), and broke the single season hit record with 262 hits. That record, previously held by George Sisler since 1920 with 257 hits. Despite breaking an 84-year record, seventh is as high as MVP voters allowed him to reach.
2004 was a year of incredible offensive stats, with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero winning the American League MVP on the Anaheim Angels, clobbering .337, 206 hits, 39 dingers, and 126 RBI’s. Nevertheless, lead-off hitters rarely receive credit because of their lack of RBI’s and home run totals. That year specifically, Ichiro’s accomplishment was shrugged off and given a nice “pat on the back” when really, he should have had his second MVP.
Ichiro’s 2,244 hits over a ten-year span is the most in MLB history by 159 hits, passing by HoF’er Roger Hornsby with 2,085 hits between 1920-1929. One argument against this accomplishment is his MLB career beginning at age 27, including a prior nine year career with the Orix Blue Wave of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan, and winning three consecutive Pacific League MVP Awards.
However, the ten-year span to start his career, also setting an a MLB record for most consecutive seasons over 200 hits, incorporates all players and their prime years. Hitting legends Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, in a peak ten-year span, were still 100 or 200 hits away from Ichiro’s mark. Using the “Oh, he began his MLB career in his prime” is preposterous, especially if the MLB views their league as the world’s premiere baseball talent.
Did I mention Ichiro’s most overlooked talent is his fielding?
Combining his play in the NPB and MLB, Ichiro has a combined 17 Gold Gloves: seven in NPB and ten in MLB. 17 Gold Gloves would put him second most ever by a player, only trailing Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, who earned 18 over his 23-year career. For an MLB outfielder, his ten Gold Gloves places him in a four-way tie for third place, trailing legends Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente who both have 12.
Aside from power, Ichiro was a four-tool player who had incredible range, speed, and a cannon in the outfield. More importantly, it was as rare as a blue moon for Ichiro to commit an error, only botching 28 errors during the ten-year span. As fundamentally sound as an outfielder can be, with a little flair, Ichiro is an all-time great defensive outfielder.
My top five greatest hitters, cannot emphasize enough the difference between greatest hitter and player, of all time: Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb, and a tie between Tony Gwynn and Ichiro. But how many other baseball fans and analysts are willing to put Ichiro in the top five?
It’s a no brainer after evaluating his lifetime accomplishments, specifically his historic ten-year dominance as the MLB’s best hitter and a top defensive asset. Ichiro is first ballot Hall of Fame worthy, and even once he is enshrined in Cooperstown, the star’s legacy in the MLB should be compared to the greatest of the greats.
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