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How Close is Ichiro to Cooperstown?

by Jim Albright

Ichiro's historic 2004 season has spawned discussion of his worthiness for Cooperstown. My aim is to try to assess where I think he should be regarded as of the end of the 2004 season. I do not foresee annually updating this article, as only large deviations from what we reasonably expect from Ichiro at this point will change the conclusion reached below. I believe his Japanese accomplishments should be considered, but with appropriate adjustments for the differences between NPB and the majors. I used my usual adjustments for games, at bats, hits, doubles, triples, homers and walks. I chose to use his actual major league statistics to project his stolen base attempts, stolen base percentage, runs scored, and RBI. However, there was one qualification to using the above use of major league stats: if the actual NPB rates were less favorable, the actual rate was used as the basis for the projection.

The stolen base success rate of Ichiro in the majors 201-2004 was 76.6%. I only deviated from this mark once, 1998, when I used a 75.3% mark, which effectively made no difference. I calculated his RBI from his ratio of RBI to total bases, which was .201 for the period 2001-2004. I only deviated from this once, using .180 for 1994. For stolen base attempts, I calculated steal attempts as a percentage of times he was on first base. The ratio of this in his major league career to 2004 was 22.1%. I deviated from this number fairly often, using 17.8% in 1994, 18.5% in 1996, 8.7% in 1998, 9.6% in 1999, and 12.8% in 2000. For runs scored, I calculated the percentage of times he was on base other than by a home run, adding the home runs in later. The figure for Ichiro's major league career to 2004 was 38.6%. I used 37.4% in both 1998 and 2000. I had to use the average number of major league games per team in the strike-effected years of 1994 and 1995. Strikeouts were deliberately left out of the comparison due to the fact they weren't counted for batters in many early seasons, and Ichiro often winds up compared to those early players because of his batting style. Finally, strikeouts have a relatively small effect on deciding who is most similar to whom, so I felt this was the best approach.

The numbers from the projections yield the following career for Ichiro from 1994:

year   games    AB   runs   hits   2B   3B   HR   RBI   BB   SB   CS
1994 115 483 85 173 36 7 7 44 36 22 6
1995 144 581 105 185 25 7 17 55 61 29 9
1996 162 675 115 224 29 8 12 61 56 33 10
1997 162 643 110 207 36 8 12 59 60 34 11
1998 162 607 97 202 43 6 9 57 42 12 4
1999 124 493 87 158 32 4 15 49 43 11 3
2000 126 474 80 171 25 2 9 46 52 15 5
2001 157 692 127 242 34 8 8 69 30 56 14
2002 157 647 111 208 27 8 8 51 68 31 15
2003 159 679 111 212 29 8 13 62 36 34 8
2004 161 704 101 262 24 5 8 60 49 36 11
Totals   1629 6678 1129 2244 340 71 118 613 533 313 96

I'd say that's a fairly realistic projection. In the three key career rate stats (average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage), the projection gives us .336/.385/.461. Now we can go about trying to answer the question which is the title of this piece. One way to do it is to see what standards have had to be met to get a guy into Cooperstown. We can quickly focus on two key stats for Ichiro: career hits and career batting average. If we look at career hits without looking at average, the mark at which everyone gets in is about 2900. If we consider the number of career hits which a .300 career hitter needs, it probably is about 2800. So by that standard, Ichiro needs to get about 1500-1600 career hits in the majors (another 576-676).

I think he also either has to have 2000 MLB career hits or a .300 career MLB average to make it to Cooperstown. If he has neither, I think he would lose a lot of support among American fans. Since he's over 100 hits over .300 at this point (in the majors), and his value is so tied into his hitting for a high average (if he hit below .270 for a season with his usual 10 or less homers and about 50 walks, even with his defense, he wouldn't be terribly valuable as a starting outfielder), I can't see him dropping below .300 for his MLB career.

There are a couple of ways to look at Ichiro and his Cooperstown prospects from here. One way is to take the above representation of his career and compare it to the final career totals of retired MLB players. Doing so should give us a decent baseline for where Ichiro is at right now.

For this particular comparison, I started with the data in the SimScore98 spreadsheet and did my own spreadsheet to fnd the most similar players to my projection of Ichiro's entire career. Once that was done, I checked the lists of the ten most similar players to each of the ten on my list to make sure I didn't miss anyone, especially those whose careers extended beyond the 1998, which is the last year covered by the SimScore98 spreadsheet. My final list, in descending order of similarity, is: Earle Combs, Bing Miller, Kiki Cuyler, Edd Roush, Minnie Minoso, Ken Griffey, Sr., Jack Tobin, Ben Chapman, Dixie Walker and Gee Walker. Only three of them are in Cooperstown, but they place 1, 3 and 4. I'd say such a scenario doesn't clarify where Ichiro stands right now as well as I'd hoped.

However, the presence of the three HOFers on the list gave me an idea. I decided to use my FanPark Encyclopedia with a double check from the most recent Lahman database to come up with a list of 16 retired outfielders with between 2100 and 2800 hits, a career average over .300, and a slugging percentage under .480. The hits criteria needs 2100 hits because I found three more with between 2000 and 2100 hits who aren't in the Hall. The upper limit applies because after that, everyone who also has a career .300 average is in. The .300 average is certainly applicable to a high average hitter like Ichiro, and, as I said above, I can't see his career average dipping below .300. The cap on slugging percentage is meant to weed out sluggers, who are not good comparisons for Ichiro. Twelve of the sixteen are in the Hall: Fred Clarke, Richie Ashburn, Heinie Manush, Lloyd Waner, Enos Slaughter, Edd Roush, Kirby Puckett, Jim O'Rourke, Kiki Cuyler, Hugh Duffy, Joe Kelley, and Billy Hamilton. The four who aren't are Al Oliver, Jimmy Ryan, George Van Haltren, and Patsy Donovan. It seems clear that Ichiro is either in or very near Hall of Fame territory already.

The final way we'll use this projected career for Ichiro is to compare it to other MLB players at age 31. The two sources I have using age are the Fan Park (previously Bill James) Baseball Encyclopedia and I know BR uses the age as of July 1 convention, and though I'm having trouble finding confirmation of it, I'm confident FPE does as well. If we applied this convention to Ichiro, he was only 30 in 2004, as his birthday is in October. First, I'm not sure I agree with the convention. Further, using 31 has other advantages for this evaluation: 1) it tilts things a little against Ichiro, which neutralizes accusations I stacked the deck in his favor, 2) it gives me a sizeable margin of error on the projection data, and 3) it recognizes the popular reluctance to give Ichiro what I regard as appropriate credit for his Japanese baseball accomplishments. I started by getting a list of the top 100 in career hits at age 31. The list ended at about 1700 hits, and a fellow SABR-L mailing list recipient named Theron Skyles provided me with a list of all players who reached 1700 career hits after the last season in FPE, which was 1997. This ensured I didn't miss anybody. I put the data from all the qualifying players at age 31 into a spreadsheet which calculated their similarity to my career projection for Ichiro. Once I got an initial top ten most similar list, I looked at the ten most similar players to each guy on the list at age 31 as given by to try and make sure I got the best candidates. The resulting list has seven Hall of Famers plus Pete Rose. As most everyone interested in major league baseball knows, Pete's exclusion from the Hall has absolutely nothing to do with his accomplishments as a player. The remaining two on the list are Ben Chapman and Mike Tiernan. The entire list, in descending order of similarity is: Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, Tris Speaker, Heinie Manush, Ben Chapman, Hugh Duffy, Sam Crawford, Frankie Frisch, Kirby Puckett, and Mike Tiernan.

Why should we consider Ichiro's accomplishments in Japanese baseball?

If you give Ichiro what I contend is appropriate credit for his accomplishments in Japanese baseball, there's little doubt he's at least very near HOF territory, if not already in it. The question I pose above this paragraph does not place the burden of proof properly, in my opinion. The question really should be why shouldn't we give him credit for that performance? Certainly, one can't justify refusing to give that credit for reasons such as racism or even a simple dislike of Ichiro. The real reasons revolve around smugness about the superiority of the major leagues, an intuitive overestimation of the degree of the superiority of the majors, ignorance of the very high quality of Japanese baseball, misunderstanding the issues involved in a Japanese player leaving his homeland for the majors, especially before Ichiro, and finally, the laziness inherent in reaching conclusions without a solid understanding of the above laundry list of issues.

Yes, the major leagues are better than the Japanese leagues. However, Japanese baseball is only a small step down in quality, even less than the step to AAA ball stateside. My own work as well as the work of other researchers who have investigated the evidence all agree on this point. I've been able to produce major league equivalents of Japanese performance which is actually quite good for batters. It defies logic to contend I do not know what I am talking about in this regard when the projections work as well as they do. I couldn't be that accurate without having a good assessment of the differences between the leagues. I've defined those differences for those who care to take notice, and they're out there on this very site for public inspection. The bottom line is that the issues of the differences between the leagues has been dealt with properly here, so those issues amount in reality to simple excuses or ignorance, neither of which justify denying Japanese players their due. Similarly, the issue of laziness does not justify that denial of credit. That leaves the issue of misunderstanding the issues involved for a Japanese player of Ichiro's time leaving his homeland for the majors.

At this juncture, I want to clarify this last point, at least insofar as it applies to Ichiro. Doing so requires a fairly detailed examination of the circumstances of Japanese players at the time as well as Ichiro's personal circumstances.

Ichiro was drafted out of high school in 1991 as the thirty-sixth pick in the Japanese draft. The team that drafted him, the Orix Blue Wave, only had to pay him a $43,000 signing bonus. It's safe to say the majors weren't in the picture, or he would have commanded more than that. At the time Ichiro signed his contract, Japanese baseball did not have free agency. In addition, the majors had agreed to respect the contract rights of Japanese teams. Since the Japanese teams enforced the reserve clause in the manner the majors had before 1975, that meant once a Japanese player signed a contract with the Japanese leagues, he was the property of the team that held his last contract.

Free agency finally came to the Japanese leagues in 1993, but only for players with ten or more years' service with the top level club. This has been reduced to nine years now. A much more important event occurred in 1995, when Hideo Nomo found a loophole which freed him to go to the majors by "retiring" in Japan. Nomo made the move despite strong public pressure in Japan opposing the move. A few pitchers followed suit, but then Japanese baseball amended the rules in an effort most felt eliminated the Nomo loophole.

Ichiro had begun to consider making a move to the majors after a strong performance against visiting Major League stars in 1996. Ichiro felt very loyal to his manager, Akira Ogi, who gave him his chance in Japan despite his unorthodox batting style. This is more important than we might think from our Western viewpoint, as orthodoxy is highly prized in Japan. In fact, despite the fact Ichiro had great success in Japan's minor league with his style, his first manager had insisted on making Ichiro's style more orthodox, with poor results. Ichiro also knew that if he pushed the issue, he would likely face strong public pressure against him in the conformist Japanese society. If that weren't enough, when Japanese baseball moved to close the Nomo loophole, there seemed to be no clear path to the majors.

In 1997, Alfonso Soriano was able to use the Nomo loophole despite the attempt by Japanese baseball to close it because the league had not notified the majors of the change as required by the agreement between the Japanese leagues and the majors. At that point, the posting system was created. Ichiro had been preparing for free agency and a move to the majors all along, but now there was a clear path open for him. He was willing to wait out of loyalty to Ogi, but Ogi and the team knew what was on his mind. When the 2000 season ended, the Blue Wave knew that if they held on to him for his last year before he became a free agent, they would lose him for nothing to the majors. This induced them to post him and netted them $13 million for doing so.

The main source for the above history of Ichiro's path from high school to the majors is The Meaning of Ichiro by Robert Whiting, pages 12 through 23.

So what does Ichiro's history show us? He had no obvious alternative to staying in Japan until Nomo found his loophole. For the next couple of years, the status of the loophole was often uncertain, and Ichiro had other significant considerations against trying it. First off, he was a well paid player in Japan and had much to lose by trying to use the loophole as Soriano did. If he failed either in the courts or in the majors, he would certainly have paid the price when he tried to come back. Soriano, by contrast, was poorly paid and had little to lose. Additionally, Soriano was not seeking to leave the leagues of his homeland. Ichiro would have been, and would have almost certainly faced significant public pressure against him had he forced the issue. Then there was the issue of Ichiro's loyalty to Ogi, which I would not dismiss lightly. I get the sense that such loyalty is prized even more highly in Japan than in the States, but even here many people are exceptionally loyal to their mentors.

The final stage of Ichiro's path to posting has many of the same issues after the Soriano matter was resolved as before, except there were no longer any legal uncertainties. However, Ichiro did not have the power to force the team to post him. Yes, he could have become a disruptive element on the team to try to persuade them to do so, but he would have faced a public backlash for it, and it wouldn't have helped make him any more attractive to major league clubs. Since there were questions about the ability of Japanese hitters to make the switch before Ichiro came over, I'd suggest that any teams with those doubts who heard reports of disruptive behavior would have been more inclined to avoid acquiring him.

If you discount Ichiro's Japanese performance, then, it seems to me you can only reasonably do so by while incurring significant adverse public pressure in his homeland, while possibly burning his bridges with people he had good reason to be loyal to, and possibly also by taking significant risks to his livelihood (depending on the time frame). I do not feel such a position is a reasonable one. In fact, I think Ichiro's loyalty is commendable, though some may label him a sucker for it.

Finally, can anyone besides Ichiro really pinpoint the exact moment(s) before he was actually posted which would have been better advised to go to the majors? Ichiro surely felt he made the best decisions for himself, and I don't think the evidence that he was incorrect is strong enough for us to substitute our 20/20 hindsight for his judgment at the time.

To me, Ichiro wasn't acting in a manner to avoid going to the majors. That being the case, I don't believe he should be penalized for playing in Japan. Yes, his accomplishments there should be appropriately adjusted to account for the differences in quality of play, ballparks, and season length. I submit the above is a reasonable effort to do just that.

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