Ty Cobb didn't do it.
Pete Rose didn't do it.
This isn't something remarkable because Ichiro came over from Japan and did it. I repeat, no baseball player has ever collected nine straight 200-hit seasons. Rattle off any of Ken Griffey Jr.'s, Randy Johnson's, or any M's player's career accomplishments, and they don't include something the game has never seen before. That is, until tonight, with a little dribbler that Ichiro beat out.
Ichiro's 200th hit of 2009 was the 453rd infield hit of his MLB career. Let that sink in for a second. Ichiro debuted in the majors at 27 years old. Considering how great his rookie season was, we can only imagine what could have been if Ichiro had signed with the Mariners as an up-and-coming 18-year-old prospect. He could be on pace for over 1,000 infield hits in his career.
What we are witnessing right now is more than special enough though. Just this year, Ichiro surpassed 3,000 career hits, 2,000 MLB hits, and now notched 200-hit season number 9 - in a row, because 9 all by itself just isn't impressive enough.
It is difficult to put Ichiro into any sort of historical perspective. He is, essentially, a slap-hitter extraordinaire. His approach to hitting was the preferred method until about 1920 or so, when Babe Ruth started bludgeoning baseballs new lengths, and accumulating unfathomable home run totals. Since Ruth, anyone with the power to hit the ball out of the ballpark on a consistent basis has been encouraged to tune their game towards power.
Slap-hitting didn't leave the major leagues with Babe Ruth. It left the spotlight though. Ty Cobb was universally considered the best player ever to play the game before Ruth. Debate ensued for decades after both players retired, largely fueled by their drastically different hitting styles. Now, the debate includes legends like Ted Williams and Willie Mays, both players with over 500 career home runs.
Baseball isn't devoid of great slap-hitters since Ty Cobb. Pete Rose and Rod Carew come to mind. Still, take a look at the hitters most comparable to Ichiro according to Baseball Reference. It is a hodgepodge of players that mostly played before World War II. There are some notable contemporary ballplayers in the mix, such as Kenny Lofton and Ken Griffey Sr., but Ichiro plays a throw-back style of game as good as any of the old-timers.
Yet, at the same time, Ichiro is as new-age as they come. He is the first position player from Japan to ever play in the major leagues. He has his first name stitched on the back of his uniform. He's not exactly the type of guy that rubs a little dirt in his bare hands, spits a wad of tobacco juice out of his cheek, and digs in at the plate. He has his own clothing line back in Japan, after all. Ichiro maintains an unquestionably modern persona, so much so it masks his old-style game. It only adds to Ichiro's mystique and complexity.
Ichiro is a hall-of-famer. Just how great is he though? 3,000 MLB hits would be highly impressive. He basically would have to average 200 hits a season until he is 40 to reach that. It seems unlikely, but this is a man that has put together nine straight 200-hit seasons, and is putting together a season comparable to his rookie one at 35 years old. There is Ichiro's defense too, which I haven't even touched on at all. That's certainly part of what makes him so great.
There is the pressure Ichiro plays under too. When asked how he feels when he breaks a record, he said, "When I break a record I never feel satisfaction and I feel that is from the expectation from Japan, I strongly feel the expectation from Japan. It kind of, (pause) my records are things I feel that I feel the Japanese in Japan feel I must have. I always want to feel satisfaction but whenever I accomplish a record I only feel relief. It is not allowed for me to not accomplish this."
Ichiro is one of a kind. Purely from a cold, hard, statistical standpoint, I think his offensive impact is overrated. His OPS is always good, but not great. His batting average is consistently great, but his on-base percentage is only good because he is so aggressive. I thought re-signing Ichiro to the big deal he got was a bad decision, especially with his age.
However, at this point, there is no denying Ichiro's greatness. The more I watch him, the more I'm convinced he is the closest thing to Ty Cobb that baseball has seen in the past century. However, Cobb never had to deal with the culture shock that Ichiro did, the stigma that Japanese position players are not MLB caliber, or the pressure from an entire nation that comes with breaking a stigma. All of that's old news now because of how well Ichiro has done, but it is still worth mentioning. The fact that it is old news says plenty about Ichiro.
Comparisons are hard with Ichiro because there simply is no comparison. He has carried the high expectations of a nation with remarkable ease and acumen. He has brought a host of old players to life, and forced us to blow the dust off of long-standing records. He has been the one and only Ichiro.