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THE HOT CORNER: In defense of baseball's hit king

by Jim Allen (Oct 7, 2010)

The discussion sparked by Pete Rose's dismissal of Ichiro Suzuki's hit credentials just won't go away.

ESPN.com's Rick Reilly opened Pandora's Box when he asked Rose to comment on whether Suzuki was a suitable heir to his title as major league baseball's all-time hit leader.

Reilly's comments were tagged to the 25th anniversary of Rose's breaking Ty Cobb's old record.

Recently, Ichiro matched another Rose record by reaching 200 hits in 10 seasons. The hoopla in Japan and Seattle was understandable. It is a monumental achievement in anyone's book.

The Hot Corner of Sept. 16 published an study of the two players' ability to rack up base hits in the majors, an analysis that suggested that Ichiro was superior to Rose in that one area: amassing base hits. The chances are good that if Ichiro and Rose played their careers in the same era in the same context, Ichiro would now be closing on Rose's record of 4,256 hits.

Mind you, not everyone is happy with comparisons of these two great players. A man who occasionally spouts off in a rival paper on various subjects, usually figure skating, recently subjected readers to a diatribe on the subject of Rose and Ichiro. Rose, he said was a winner, Ichiro a selfish stat hound.

"Those of us who grew up when Rose was in his heyday...bristle when people try to compare Ichiro to him," he wrote last Saturday, apparently as the self-appointed spokesman for an entire generation of fans.

While some members of his generation may share this disdain for research, not all of us are old farts.

"It's impossible to to compare Ichiro and Rose's stats in any realistic way, because they played in different eras and different countries," he wrote.

It is hard to understand what he means by "realistic." He might mean "meaningful," but even that is hyperbole. A cornerstone of the sabermetric revolution among major league teams is that minor league performance predicts major league performance. Saying an analysis of performance between Japanese and American leagues is impossible is an assertion of ignorance. Given enough energy to sift through the existing data, an excellent comparison could be done.

Our local defender of Rose's reputation adds that their numbers in the majors should not be compared.

"That doesn't work..." he wrote, "because when Ichiro saw his first pitch in the big leagues, he was in his 10th season as a pro.

"Imagine the switch-hitting Rose, with 10 years experience at a senior level under his belt, stepping up to the plate in the show for the first time. Think his numbers might have been even better?"

OK. Let's skip major league performances before the age of 27, Ichiro's age when he took his first major league swing. From the age of 27 to 35, Rose trailed Ichiro in hits 2,030 to 1,886. If we adjust for their parks and eras, Ichiro's edge would shrink from 144 hits to 89.

An analysis of Ichiro's play in Japan would likely show he was superior in this area before the age of 27, as well.

Of course, baseball is not about compiling a statistical record--where this discussion started--but about contributing to championships. Rose hit for a high average but with many more walks and doubles than Ichiro, but without Ichiro's superb defense or base running.

Rose's defender wrote "Rose was consumed by winning," while "Ichiro plays for stats."

Both are oversimplifications.

Rose was consumed by winning, until the twilight of his career. At that stage, he became consumed by his hit record.

Ichiro, too, is consumed, but not by stats. His obsession is with an ideal about the way the game should be played. He could draw more walks and hit for more power, but to the detriment of his team, that's not his style.

He is a unique talent but not a force in the clubhouse like "Charlie Hustle," a nickname given Rose by New York Yankees ace Whitey Ford, and not the media as the Rose fan club chairman asserted.

While correct about some of the differences between Rose and Ichiro, when it comes to analysis, the writer in questionmight be better off sticking to the ice.


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