A colleague recently commented that the major leagues might end up with just one 200-hit man this season, while Japan could have four.
Things have since changed a little. Only three players here will reach the magic number, while two major leaguers still have a shot at joining the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki on Major League Baseball's 200-hit podium.
Three 200-hit seasons in one year is business as usual in the States, but for Japan, three is an outrageous figure. It's not because of the quality of pitching or any of that nonsense, but simply because Japanese teams play so few games--or they used to.
For Ichiro to get 210 hits in 130 games, as he did in 1994 when he set Japan's single-season hit record, is an accomplishment that almost defies comparison.
While no one knows exactly how big the competition gap is between Nippon Professional and MLB, it's definitely not 20 percent easier here. If it were, a player like Ichiro, who turns out 200-hit seasons like clockwork in the majors, would certainly have had more than one in Japan while playing 20 percent fewer games.
To understand how far beyond the norm Ichiro's Japan record is, look at NPB's Web site. Look at the list of the 25 highest season hit totals. The player on the list in a 130-game season is Ichiro. And he's there twice.
That's why it's no surprise that Japan didn't see another 200-hit season until the Central League schedule expanded to 146 games in 2005.
That year, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows' Norichika Aoki had 202. Two years later in the 144-game schedule that is now standard, the Swallows' Alex Ramirez had 204.
Given 14 more games, even guys who aren't Ichiro can join the 200-hit club.
When Aoki broke the CL hit record, he had 183 hits after 130 games. When Ramirez did it, he had 185 after 130 games.
Three 200-hit men in this season is a clear indicator that conditions in 2010 have been extremely favorable for hitters.
On Tuesday, Aoki matched his 2005 total in Yokohama and has seven games left to try and break Ichiro's record. Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton broke Ramirez's CL record on Tuesday. As of Tuesday, he had 205 hits with eight games remaining.
Chiba Lotte Marines shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the first Pacific Leaguer since Ichiro to reach 200 and the first infielder, entered play on Wednesday with 205 hits and two games left.
It's not just individuals; it's the context.
The PL league batting average as of Tuesday's games was .2705, the CL's .2676. In Japanese pro ball's 137 league seasons (15 Japan League and 61 each for the CL and PL), those rank 11th and 21st, respectively.
Why this year? There are several likely reasons.
The first is the introduction of the livelier Mizuno ball at three CL parks. The Tigers and Hiroshima Carp switched completely, and the Swallows opted for Mizuno in a sixth of their home games. The balls come off the bat with more energy, meaning a few more hits.
Another likely cause is the increase in the number of day games in outdoor parks, which helps batters see the ball and make more consistent contact. This year's 119 outdoor day games are the most in recent years.
Outdoor parks are also more vulnerable to the weather, perhaps the biggest factor favoring hitters this year. A 2006 study by Chris Constancio on hardballtimes.com concluded that as temperatures rise, balls in play are increasingly likely to result in hits. And this season has been hot.
A web site that reports daily high temperatures in Osaka, www.canacana.net, shows this summer was consistently hotter than normal.
According to that site, 28 days this August were at or above the average high temperatures from 1971 to 2000. August's aggregate monthly batting average was .281, the highest for any month since 2006.
Impressive records are a result of great performers having great seasons within an optimal context. This year we've been blessed with both.
Better batting conditions will doom Ichiro's hit record, but the enormity of his original accomplishment is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.