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Suzuki Is Nearing Milestones at an Unprecedented Pace

Check out this awesome article on Ichiro from New York Times.

The Japanese-born Suzuki, in his eighth season in the major leagues, is on the verge of several significant achievements. He entered the season 130 hits short of 3,000 for his two-country career and could become the youngest player in history to reach that professional milestone, although it would not be an official major league record. He is also approaching the most career hits for a Japanese player, needing 216.



Suzuki Is Nearing Milestones at an Unprecedented Pace

By BOB SHERWIN
Published: April 6, 2008

With baseball players from the famous to the fringe coming under a performance-enhancing cloud, Ichiro Suzuki is the antidrug.

Suzuki, the sinewy Seattle Mariners center fielder, would contend that his strength is generated primarily from the curry rice balls that his wife, Yumiko, makes for him before every game. Suzuki is a natural, not just a result of what he consumes but of the way he plays.

The Japanese-born Suzuki, in his eighth season in the major leagues, is on the verge of several significant achievements. He entered the season 130 hits short of 3,000 for his two-country career and could become the youngest player in history to reach that professional milestone, although it would not be an official major league record. He is also approaching the most career hits for a Japanese player, needing 216.

In addition, he is seeking 200 hits for a record eighth consecutive season, which would tie him with the turn-of-the-19th-century star Wee Willie Keeler, who did it from 1894 to 1901.

Though separated by an ocean and a century, Suzuki and Keeler are remarkably similar. From the Baltimore chop to the Seattle slap, they have a common resolve: hit ’em where they ain’t. Keeler finished his 19-year career (1892-1910) with a .3412 batting average. Suzuki, including his time in Japan, entered the season with a 16-year average of .3419.

“Both players felt like they were the catalysts,” said Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “Their job was to get on base.”

The two began their professional careers 100 years apart, Keeler in 1892 and Suzuki in 1992. They are considered small for their eras, Keeler was 5 feet 4 inches and 140 pounds; Suzuki is 5-11 and 172. They started as right fielders, they throw and bat from the left side and, most significant, they rely on exquisite bat control and fleet feet for success.

Both were enormously satisfied with the simple single. Keeler set the major league standard for singles in a season with 206 in 1898. That record lasted until Suzuki rapped out 225 in 2004.

Keeler finished his career with 2,513 singles, 86 percent of his hits. Suzuki entered the season with 1,291 singles in the United States, 81 percent of his hits.

Each player led the majors in singles seven times. Suzuki occupies four spots among baseball’s top 10 for singles in a season. Keeler has three top 10s.

Interestingly, the top 27 spots for singles in a season ― and 35 of the first 36 ― are held by a left-handed batter or a switch-hitter. Left-handed hitters have a natural edge with their proximity to first base, but Suzuki’s hitting style appears to give him an extra head start.

“When he shifts his weight toward first like he does, it seems like he gets a couple extra steps on guys who are left-handed,” Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said last season. “That’s where the shortstop has to play a little more in and the third baseman has to honor the bunt more. It impacts defenses tremendously.”

In an interview last season, Suzuki said that when he scanned the field before entering the batter’s box, he enjoyed the uncertainty and anxiety around the infield.

“For me, that’s something that’s actually comforting,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “If I see them all in the same position every time I come to bat, that would not be something I would like to see. When I see that, I can tell they are thinking about me and putting me into the equation. When I sense that they dislike the situation, it’s easier for me to play.”

Keeler also took a cunning approach to hitting. According to Peter Morris, the author of “A Game of Inches,” an exhaustive historical reference book on baseball, Keeler used a very heavy bat “and choked up significantly more than anyone else during the 1890s.”

Like Suzuki, he looked for seams in the defense to direct the ball.

And like Suzuki, Keeler used his speed. He and his Baltimore Orioles teammates in the early 1890s used the technique of bouncing the ball high in front of the plate and reaching first base before the fielder could retrieve it. It became known as the Baltimore chop.

“Keeler hardly struck out at all,” Morris said by telephone from his home in Lansing, Mich. “In the 1890s, we do not have much in the way of strikeout statistics, but it’s clear he had fabulous hand-eye coordination.”

Keeler’s power was muted by playing his career in the Dead Ball era. Suzuki has more home runs, and he shows his unique right-field power stroke daily during batting practice. But as Shieber said: “He’s a totally different batter in the game. He’s smart. He knows what works best for him.”

These two slap hitters each spent his first nine pro seasons ― and compiled a copious portion of his statistical portfolio ― playing against somewhat tainted competition.

Keeler’s most productive seasons were from 1894 to 1901. All but one of those years were in the premodern era, when rules were inconsistent and statistics unreliable. In 1893, Keeler’s second season, the pitching rubber was established at 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. It wasn’t until 1903, Keeler’s 12th season, that a 15-inch mound height was mandated, though not strictly enforced. Also, a foul ball was ruled a strike in 1901 (1903 in the American League) and a foul tip, if caught, was ruled a strike in 1895.

Shieber said the hall “does not delineate between one era or another.”

Suzuki had similar issues during his years in Japan (1992-2000). There, the ball is slightly smaller, the parks’ dimensions are tighter and the pitching is considered inferior. His numbers in Japan ― which include seven batting titles ― are viewed in the same way minor league statistics are, which means not officially recognized. But in many offensive categories, Suzuki’s numbers are better in the United States.

This is a pivotal season for Suzuki in terms of comparisons to Keeler. He is 34 and begins a five-year, $90 million contract extension. When Keeler was 34 in 1906, he was on the decline.

That was his last of 13 straight .300 seasons and his last with at least 180 hits. He retired in 1910 at 38 with 2,932 hits and entered the Hall of Fame in 1939.

Suzuki, who has not been on the disabled list, had played in 1,118 of a possible 1,134 Mariners games entering the season. His legs are fundamental to his future. He had 346 infield hits from 2001 to 2007, more than any other player in those seven seasons.

He does not walk much ― averaging 48 a season. So if his infield hits decrease even 20 a season, his average could fall below .300. That would bring him much closer to ordinary.

Suzuki is determined to maintain his edge by using a rigorous year-round workout regimen.

“He’s not going to get old fast,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said. “That guy is in tremendous shape. He has a routine that’s impeccable.”

Money is not Suzuki’s motivation. Numbers and achievements drive him, almost fanatically. A recent Japanese television documentary revealed that inner drive. In the 161st game last season, Suzuki knew he had to collect three hits for a remote chance of catching Detroit’s Magglio Ordóñez for the batting title. After grounding out in his third at-bat, he knew it was over. During the next half inning, the cameras caught Suzuki wiping away tears.

Suzuki should reach a combined 3,000 hits by the All-Star break. He will be 34 years 116 days at the All-Star Game on July 15. Ty Cobb was 34 years 231 days when he reached 3,000 hits in 1921. No other major leaguer has reached 3,000 hits before age 36. The Japanese record for hits is 3,085, set by Isao Harimoto, a survivor of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, who played from 1959 to 1981.

“I want 3,000 hits before the All-Star break, then I want to go where no Japanese ever reached,” Suzuki said this spring.

Suzuki would need to play at least until 2014 ― and into his 40s ― to move pass Keeler’s 2,932 hits and achieve 3,000 hits in the United States. Unless his body fails, he would probably set a record by reaching that milestone in the fewest big-league games.

“That would be amazing, wouldn’t it?” Morris said. “It’s hard to find a parallel. Guys who comes to mind are Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs, but they had different styles. He’s so incomparable. I wouldn’t put anything past him if he stays healthy and his eyesight stays good.”

Source; New York Times
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