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May 18, 2001

Doctoring Ichiro

More on the Mariners' Sensation

by Rany Jazayerli

Yesterday, Joe Sheehan wrote about the talents of Ichiro Suzuki. Today, I want to talk about how those talents have translated into some truly historic performances.

Let's start with one of Jayson Stark's favorite facts, that Ichiro has already had a 15-game hitting streak and now has an active 21-game hitting streak, both in the season's first 39 games. Forget, for a moment, that Suzuki is the first player to have a pair of 15-game hitting streaks in his rookie season since...OK, since Juan Pierre did it last year. He's the first AL player to do it since Kent Hrbek in 1982. But that misses the bigger point here: in his first 39 games, Ichiro has had a pair of hitting streaks that, by themselves, add up to 36 games!

Ichiro has actually hit safely in 37 of 39 games this year; the only two games he didn't get a hit were on April 3--the second game of the season --and April 21. To put it more bluntly: if Suzuki had not taken the collar against the Angels on April 21, he would currently have a 37-game hitting streak going, the longest since Paul Molitor's 39-gamer in 1987.

If you think Suzuki is getting a lot of attention now, just imagine how famous he would be if he had a 37-game hitting streak going just 39 games into his major-league career. Mariner highlights would be leading off "Nightline."

And if I may be so bold as to bring up the topic, I think that if any baseball player on the planet can challenge Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak, it is Ichiro. He simply has every conceivable trait needed to get a hit in 56 games in a row.

For starters, Ichiro is tremendous hitter for average, probably the best all-around average hitter in the world today. He's a lifetime .353 hitter in Japan, he hit .387 last season, and he's hitting .365 this season. By comparison, Tony Gwynn leads all active major leaguers with a .338 lifetime batting average, and he's 41 years old.

But it's more than just the average, it's how Ichiro hits for average. He's a left-handed hitter, which means that 1) he gets the platoon advantage most of the time and 2) he's a step closer to first base when he puts the ball in play. Throughout major-league history, these two advantages have helped left-handed hitters win the majority of batting titles. For no apparent reason, right-handed hitters have taken over the list of the best hitters in baseball today. After Gwynn and Todd Helton (.334), the next 8 hitters on the list of highest career average are Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Piazza, Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, Jason Kendall, and Manny Ramirez, right-handed hitters all.

Part of the reason for the dominance of right-handed hitters today may be that home-run power has taken hold of the game, and it doesn't matter what side of the plate you hit from when you hit the ball in the air. But it's hard to imagine Suzuki being as successful as he is were he right-handed, because he hits the ball in the air about as infrequently as anyone in the game. His current G/F ratio of 3.42 is second in baseball behind only Pierre (3.67). No one else has a ratio greater than 2.8. (Luis Castillo, previously the undisputed king of the groundball - the lowest G/F ratio of his career is 4.54 - has a ratio of only 2.38 this season, and all those flyballs may explain why Castillo is hitting just .215.)

So Suzuki is a left-handed hitter who swats groundballs to the left side and beats them out. If speed never slumps, that might explain why he is able to leg out infield hits consistently enough to get at least one hit a game.

There's more.

If you're going to put together a long hitting streak, you need to get a lot of at-bats per game. A .365 hitter, like Suzuki, who gets just three at-bats in a game, will go hitless 25.6% of the time. If he gets four at-bats per game, the probability drops to 16.3%; with five at-bats, it drops to 10.3%.

The key to getting more plate appearances is to bat as high in the lineup as possible for a lineup that bats as often as possible. Suzuki has the first point licked: he's the leadoff hitter. As for the second point, the simplest way to bat more often as a team is to get on base more often. Every team gets 27 outs in a game, and the formula to determine plate appearances per game is simply 27/(1-OBP). A team that has a .400 OBP would bat 45 times in a game; a team with a .325 OBP would only bat 40 times.

Since Suzuki is the leadoff hitter, of course, the magic number for him is 37: if the Mariners can manage to bat 37 times in a ballgame, that will assure him five plate appearances. Fortunately for Suzuki, the Mariners' team OBP of .354 is the fourth-highest in baseball. Working against him, ironically, is the fact that with a 30-9 record, the Mariners are winning so much that they rarely bat in the ninth inning at home. Even with just 24 outs to play with, though, the Mariners should average 37 plate appearances.

Suzuki has had five or more plate appearances in 27 of his 37 starts (and was pulled early in one of those games). All told, Suzuki has 189 plate appearances in 39 games , an average of 4.85 PA/G.

Where does that rank historically? The top five plate appearances per game since 1900 (min: 75 G):

Name              Year     G    PA   PA/G
Dom DiMaggio      1951   146   718   4.92
Frankie Crosetti  1936   151   740   4.90
Frankie Crosetti  1939   152   743   4.89
Taylor Douthit    1928   154   752   4.88
Charlie Jamieson  1923   152   742   4.88

All five players were leadoff hitters for a team that either won the pennant or led its league in scoring. The 1936-39 Yankees were arguably the greatest dynasty of all time, and while the 1951 Red Sox scored just 804 runs, they were a year removed from scoring 1027 runs, the last time a team scored 1000 runs until the 1999 Indians did so.

By comparison, Suzuki's rate of plate appearances per game would rank 14th on the list, and if he had just three more plate appearances (he pinch-hit in one game and batted only twice), he would rank first.

There's still more. Suzuki doesn't just rack up plate appearances; with an uncanny ability to put the ball in play (just eight missed swings all year), he has drawn a mere five walks in 39 games. While we don't advocate you try this at home, Suzuki's free-swinging ways assure him a tremendous number of at-bats. You can help your team by taking a walk, but you can't extend your hitting streak that way.

Here's an amazing stat: in Suzuki's 37 starts this season, he has had fewer than four official at-bats just once. He has a total of 181 at-bats in 39 games, an average of 4.64 AB/G.

The highest rate of at-bats per game since 1900?

Name              Year     G    AB   AB/G
Joe DiMaggio      1936   138   637   4.62
Woody Jensen      1936   153   696   4.55
Ralph Garr        1973   148   668   4.51
Rip Radcliff      1936   138   618   4.48
Jack Tobin        1921   150   671   4.47

I love it when the numbers come together like that. The record for most at-bats per game played--a record that Suzuki is threatening to break--is held by Mr. Fifty-Six himself.

So, let's put it all together. Ichiro Suzuki

  • bats left-handed, thereby obtaining the platoon advantage most of the time (particularly in the AL, where the dearth of left-handed starters means that 72% of Suzuki's at-bats have come against right-handed pitchers), and is a step closer to first base;

  • is the most groundball-oriented hitter in the AL, and has the speed to turn those ground balls into leg hits;

  • by virtue of leading off for a good offensive team, and by the sin of rarely drawing a walk, gets more at-bats per game than any player in major-league history;

  • is hitting .365.

Suddenly, getting hits in 37 of 39 games doesn't seem so implausible. Suzuki is probably not going to continue to get hits in 95% of his games, but what if he does? What are his chances of getting a hit in 57 straight games?

Astonishingly high, actually. On any given day, the chance that Suzuki could start a 57-game hitting streak are 5.2%, which means that over the course of a 162-game season, the chance that Suzuki would not fashion a streak that long is only 0.3%! The chance that Suzuki could get a hit in 36 more games (on top of the 21 he already has) is 15.0%, or better than one chance in seven.

But there's no way Suzuki can really continue to get a hit in 95% of his games, can he? Well, if we eliminate his current hitting streak entirely and focus just on the 17 games before that, he had a hit in 88.2% (15 of 17) of those games. A player who gets a hit in 88.2% of his games would only have a 57-game hitting streak once every 1107 games, or about every seven seasons.

Because Suzuki already has a 21-game hitting streak going, he only needs to get a hit in 36 consecutive games to break Joe D's "unbreakable" streak. The probability of that is 1.1%--small, but not so small that it can simply be disregarded.

But wait, there's still more...whether or not Ichiro breaks one of the most hallowed, albeit fluky, records in American sport, he has an excellent shot at two other all-time records. As pointed out above, Suzuki is currently averaging more at-bats per game than any player in history. He has also played in every one of the Mariners' games, and as an outfielder, it's unlikely that (barring injury) he'll need to miss more than one or two games all year to rest.

And when a guy has 1) a record number of at-bats per game and 2) plays in every game, it's pretty obvious that he had a good chance to break the all-time record for at-bats in a season. Willie Wilson holds the record with 705 at-bats for the 1980 Royals, and only one other player (Juan Samuel, 1984) has ever had 700 at-bats in a season. Suzuki is currently on pace for 752.

Couple that with his .365 batting average, and he's also on pace for 274 hits. George Sisler, who had 257 hits for the 1920 Browns, is the current record-holder.

And he's not even the best rookie in baseball this year. But more on that guy some other time.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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