The Ichiro Riddle

My old boss and friend Mark Tomasik put up a fascinating statistic on Tuesday. Mark is one of the biggest Cardinals fans I know, and I realize that he saw the stat from a Cardinals perspective.

Still ...

OK, few baseball stats make my jaw drop anymore. This one did. Yadi Molina has as many doubles as Ichiro? I mean, look, Yadi is clearly the fastest of the Molinas -- which is a bit like being the most effective of the Star Wars stormtroopers -- but you're telling me that he has as many doubles as ICHIRO, the greatest hit machine in the history of baseball?

I mean, look, I could not love Ichiro more.

But with all those hits, he has just 362 doubles? That's a jolt. That's a shock.

So I looked a bit closer, and it turns out that it really is pretty stark. Ichiro has BY FAR the fewest doubles of any player with 3,000 hits:

Fewest doubles with 3,000 hits:

  1. Ichiro, 362

  2. Eddie Collins, 438

  3. Roberto Clemente, 440

  4. Rod Carew, 445

  5. Lou Brock, 486

And I looked at the reverse -- who had the fewest hits with more doubles than Ichiro. Again -- startling. There are some players with basically half as many hits as Ichiro who have more doubles:

  1. Brian Roberts, 367 doubles, 1,527 hits

  2. Evan Longoria, 367 doubles, 1,607 hits

  3. Mike Lowell, 394 doubles, 1,619 hits

  4. Hank Greenberg, 379 doubles, 1,628 hits

  5. Jorge Posada, 379 doubles, 1,664 hits

Among those with more doubles than Ichiro -- Randy Winn, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Rios, Royce Clayton, Jay Bell, Wally Joyner, etc.

Since the end of Deadball, Ichiro ranks seventh in fewest doubles per hit (min. 1,500 hits) behind famously slappy hitters -- Maury Wills, Luis Castillo, Lance Johnson, Lloyd Waner, Juan Pierre and Brett Butler.

This probably should not be shocking ... I mean, Ichiro never HID what kind of player he was. He was a slappy hitter too. But I never wanted to think of him that way, and I imagine many others didn't want to think of him that way either. You remember how Ichiro would put on a home run show during batting practices, and people would always say that he could be a great home run hitter if he just wanted that (people used to say the same thing about Wade Boggs). I think people said that because we wanted to believe that Ichiro was Ichiro BY CHOICE, that whatever limitations he might have had as an offensive player were simply the cost of doing business for being the greatest hit-em-where-they-ain't artist the game has ever known.

But then you see how few doubles he hit.

I retweeted Mark's stat, and heard from quite a few people jumping to Ichiro's defense even though I'm not and was not criticizing him. They point out that, among other things, that he hit quite a few triples, particularly as a young man. They point out that he didn't get to the majors until he was in his late 20s. They point out that for Ichiro, a single was often a double because he stole more than 500 bases in his career.

All of this is true, though, for me, besides the point. I'm not trying to knock Ichiro, I'm trying to understand him. Ichiro was a unique player in the full sense of that word -- there has never been a hitter quite like him.

And he hit singles. That was his game. Only five players in baseball history hit more singles -- and none of them had a career track like Ichiro's.

Most singles:

  1. Pete Rose, 3,215

  2. Ty Cobb, 3.053

  3. Eddie Collins, 2,643

  4. Cap Anson, 2,614

  5. Derek Jeter, 2,595

  6. Ichiro, 2,514

This was the Ichiro way -- hit a baseball and reach first base safely. There is a sweet purity to it. Ichiro rather famously does not do all that well in many advanced metrics because he didn't walk, and he didn't slug. Those are important parts of the game.

But with Ichiro, like with all great players, the important thing isn't what he DID NOT do. It's about what he did better than anybody. He hit singles, and more he ran the bases like a demon, and he played a breathtaking right field, and he threw lightning bolts.

So, yes, the doubles thing is striking. But Ichiro's overall greatness endures. Even if you take away the defense, the baserunning, the arm, the cool ... even if all Ichiro ever did was smack, chop, bunt, bloop and slice all those beautiful singles, well, as they sing at Passover: Dayenu. It would have been enough.