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Slap-hitter extraordinaire Ichiro sells himself short by not driving ball

Posted: Thursday August 19, 2004 2:15PM; Updated: Thursday August 19, 2004 2:15PM
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Single-Season Hits Leaders
Rk Player Hits Year
1. George Sisler 257 1920
T2. Lefty O'Doul 254 1929
T2. Bill Terry 254 1930
4. Al Simmons 253 1925
T5. Rogers Hornsby 250 1922
T5. Chuck Klein 250 1930
7. Ty Cobb 248 1911
8. George Sisler 246 1922
9. Ichiro Suzuki 242 2001
T10. Babe Herman 241 1930
T10. Heinie Manush 241 1928
Note: With 189 hits in the Mariners' first 119 games, Ichiro is on pace to tie Sisler's record.
Source: baseball-reference.com

Blindfolded, with Randy Johnson dealing sliders from 50 feet away, a dozen fielders behind him armed with fishing nets and cowhide-sniffing canines, Ichiro Suzuki still could rap out a 3-for-4 game. He might go 4-for-4.

Ichiro is a unique talent, a virtual hitting automaton. Left field, right field, up the middle, on the ground, popped over the infielders' head ... it doesn't matter. He hits all ways, every way, all the time.

The man hasn't had back-to-back hitless games since late April. He's had two 50-hit months already this season -- the first player to do that in 68 years -- and he's on his way to a third. He's hitting .366, best in the majors. He's hitting .516 this month.

Nobody in baseball history has had more base knocks in the first four years of a career than Ichiro -- and he still has six weeks of games remaining to add to his record. Nobody in baseball this year has more infield hits. Jack doesn't get out of the box that quickly.

So, the question stands, why do we want more? How in the world could we want more?

Let's get this out of the way: Ichiro, the Mariners' amazing right fielder, is a wonder to watch, one of the most exciting players in the game. He has supersonic speed, a superhero arm, style, a cult following and, more than anything, he hits. Short of nailing him in the head with a pitch -- which is what Royals rookie Jimmy Serrano did to him Wednesday night -- he, almost literally, cannot be stopped with a bat in his hand.

But with almost four full years in the major leagues as proof, it's pretty clear by now that knocking out singles is the limit of Ichiro's offensive game. He's never been interested in talking walks and, to be fair, with the way he makes contact and runs, he doesn't have to walk to get on base. Getting on first with a hit is his thing. Extra bags just aren't his bag. He is a spray hitter of historic proportions, more likely to bang a pitch into the dirt and beat it out than drive it into the gaps and go for second.

And, really, that's all right. It's perfectly fine. It's great, in fact ...

At least, it would be if it weren't for that nagging feeling that a guy with his talents could do so much more.

"He might just be very comfortable doing what he's doing," said eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn. "If he is, he's at the top of the list, then. He's a master of his craft."

Gwynn was Ichiro-like when he first started playing, content to pile up the base knocks at the expense of driving the ball consistently. But then, in 1992, a talk with Ted Williams convinced Gwynn to try to reach the power alleys more. And if his average suffered -- it didn't, by the way -- Gwynn figured it'd be worth it. He had already shown he could hit for average. From 1994-1999, Gwynn posted four of his five double-digit home run seasons and surpassed the 40-doubles mark for the first two times in his career.

Ichiro may be at that point now. We know he can get on base. Everybody knows it. He's going to become the first player to have 200 hits in each of his first four seasons. Providing he doesn't miss too much time from the concussion he suffered in Wednesday's beaning, he has an outside shot of breaking the single-season record for hits. That magic number is 257, set in 1920 by George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns.

And if Ichiro doesn't quite reach that record, he could reach another, though it's not quite as sexy: the 206 singles of Wee Willie Keeler of the Baltimore Orioles in 1898. Ichiro has 189 hits now, 159 of them singles.

"I want to be the kind of player," Ichiro told reporters the other day, "where the fans can look to me and think it's just another day, another performance."

Anyone who has seen Ichiro swing knows that he's capable of hitting with more power. He's that talented. His batting practice shows are awesome. He led off back-to-back games with home runs in the past week, including a 424-foot blast against the Yankees on Sunday. He can do it.

So it's mind-boggling, when you think about it, that a player with his latent power and his obvious speed has only 20 doubles and four triples this year. (He also has six homers.) Of the 38 players with at least 500 at-bats, only one has fewer extra-base hits than Ichiro (that's another speedster with little power, Florida's Juan Pierre).

"Isolated power" is calculated by subtracting a player's batting average from his slugging percentage. Ichiro's isolated power number is .089, 150th of 160 qualifiers.

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He is a poke-hitter who is content, for now, with simply getting to first base, and that he does like few others. His gaudy average has boosted his on-base percentage -- one of the key measurements in determining the worth of a leadoff man -- to .409, 10th in baseball. Ichiro does exactly what a leadoff man should do, create run-scoring opportunities. He'd score a lot more, too, if it weren't for the lame years many of his Mariners' teammates are having.

But wouldn't a few more doubles from their leadoff man help the Mariners once in a while? Wouldn't driving the ball into the gap help just about everyone?

Would it hurt to be just a little bit more like Seattle's longtime designated hitter Edgar Martinez was in his prime?

They're different players for sure, in vastly different positions, but Martinez honed a power stroke as he moved from a position player to a full-time DH. No one expects Ichiro to be the type of power hitter Martinez was in his prime. Ichiro has a position to play, where he's an All-Star. Ichiro is a leadoff man who needs to get on.

But a little more oomph? A few more doubles?

"It's tough, because you're messing with how you make a living," said Gwynn, who now manages the San Diego State baseball team and serves as an analyst for ESPN. "But I needed that upgrade. Just to show I could do it."

Seeing Ichiro bang out hit after hit is one of the few reasons to watch the Mariners play this season. It may be the only reason. His whole routine -- from the dead-calm pre-swing ritual to his silky bolt out of the box -- is a thing of beauty. His career could turn out to be truly historic.

But next year, after he's proven again that no one in baseball can do what he does, it may be time to show everyone something else.

When Gwynn met with Williams to talk hitting back in '92, Gwynn says it changed his career. It changed his life. And, if Gwynn had a chance to talk to Ichiro, the message would be the same.

Go for it.

"Sure, I always thought that, in this game, the objective is to be the best player you can be. He knows he can get singles. See if you can do that and be like Edgar," Gwynn said. "If you're worth your salt as a player, that's what you want -- to be the best you can be."

It's a difficult proposition, for sure, tinkering with something so close to perfection.

If anyone can do it, though, Ichiro can.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

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