Ichiro. I think that says more about me than him. I'm not trying to be a counter-cultural blog here, but I am trying to give fresh thoughts and perspectives. Ichiro is rather robustly covered, and so he doesn't cross my mind very often as a writing topic.
Ichiro just knocked off my favorite player ever, Edgar Martinez, from the top of the M's career hit list. Even as a die-hard Edgar fan, I'm anything but bitter. Ichiro is known for his hit totals much, much more than Edgar ever was. There is no doubt that Ichiro deserves the honor he reached tonight, and I hope nobody catches him anytime soon.
Well, nobody with the exception of Dustin Ackley. It's okay with me if he gets 3,000 career hits.
Back to Ichiro though. Another reason I don't write much about him is because I don't know what to say. He is magnificent, but it is hard to describe exactly what makes him him.
To start with, it is odd to compare Ichiro and Edgar. Ichiro is a fleet-footed, wiry, left-handed batter that will swing at just about anything - and hit it pretty much wherever he wants. Edgar was a plodding, stalky, right-handed batter, with legendary plate discipline. It is hard to find anything similar between the two hitters and their styles, but here they are, next to each other on a list.
As a brief aside, this is why I still love the traditional counting stats, even in the sabermetric age. Using rate statistics and things like WAR are great for analysis, but there is something magical about modern players going after their place in history among the pillars of previous generations. Counting stats give us a wonderful lens to watch players make journeys toward greatness. Players physically chase traditional records, usually with clean-cut, finite events on the diamond. Counting stats are great for capturing defining moments in a player's career. Advanced metrics just aren't built for that.
Last night, Ichiro had a defining moment. It was a grounder to first base that Daric Barton unsuccessfully tried to throw home for an out on, but in some ways it was the perfect way for Ichiro to break the franchise hits record. It was such an Ichiro hit, which isn't to say it's the most common type of hit Ichiro has got - but, how many times have we seen Ichiro turn an unassuming ground ball into a hit? And how many other players in baseball get you on the edge of your seat when they hit a grounder?
That's the magic of Ichiro. He makes grounders interesting. He makes slapping at the ball mesmerizing. He takes pedestrian things in a baseball game and makes them can't-miss action.
I can't say exactly when I realized how magical Ichiro was, but it definitely was when I stopped caring about his walk totals. Early on, I was like many, hoping Ichiro would take some more pitches. He seemed to have the eye to do it. He definitely is good enough to hit with two strikes. Heck, stories popped up about batting practice displays of power. What if Ichiro took more pitches, and golfed bad ones out of the park? Wouldn't that make Ichiro a more productive player?
Maybe Ichiro would be better if he played a bit more traditional game, but I'm not sure. It would come at the cost of his identity. Would you prefer a version of Ichiro that hit 15 home runs every season with an .800 OPS? Would he be as appealing to watch? Would he intimidate opponents more if he had more power and patience?
Ichiro is without a doubt intimidating, by the way. He has 155 intentional walks in his career thus far, good for 38th all-time already. That's one more than Sammy Sosa, for instance. In fact, here are the career home run totals for the 10 players that sandwich Ichiro on the all-time intentional walk list: 573, 398, 255, 449, 284, 379, 609, 354, 583, and 379. Ichiro has 90. As a matter of fact, nobody ahead of Ichiro on this list has fewer home runs than him.
Maybe that's the best analysis I can come up with to explain what makes Ichiro so great. He fits in by not fitting in. He is the M's all-time hits leader in part because he chops so many pitches into the ground, and bloops a few others over infielder's heads. He has taken what is supposed to be a defensive tactic, and turned it into a weapon that makes pitchers think twice about pitching to him.
Here's another fun fact: Ichiro only has 458 walks in his career. That means a little over a third of his walks (34%) are intentional. Even Barry Bonds, with his 688 intentional passes (better than #2 and #3 all-time COMBINED by 133 - a total which, by itself, would be 60th all-time on the list), only drew 27% of his walks intentionally.
Perhaps the best way to put it in one sentence is that Ichiro walks as much as he does because he is always swinging.
This isn't about Ichiro's walks though, it's about his hits. Nobody else has ever got more in a Mariners uniform, and when it is all said and done, nobody else will even be close.
I still don't know how to describe Ichiro, but now I can call him the M's all-time hits leader. I guess that is about the best description anyone could give of him now.