Friday, February 13, 2009

Historic Hot Stove: Ichiro!

There was quite the stir raised earlier this week when it was learned that superstar Ichiro! was working out as a pitcher for next month's World Baseball Classic. Reports were that Ichiro, who pitched an inning during the 1996 Japanese All-star game, was hitting the low-90s on the radar gun. For those of us who love the unique brand of excitement that Seattle's outfielder provides, this was about as perfect as can be. Sadly, news today seems to say that it's not going to happen. Still, it's great to get a reminder of just how exciting Ichiro! is. (As you can see, I'm with Rob Neyer: Ichiro! definitely deserves the exclamation point, pitcher or not.)

When Ichiro came over to the States in 2001, he was a completely unknown commodity. Up to that point, the only Japanese players to make it to the majors were pitchers. Hideo Nomo had fooled hitters on his way to the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year and Mariners reliever Kaz Sasaki had done the same on his way to the 2000 AL Rookie of the Year. But Ichiro was a position player and thus would have to face major league pitching. No one seemed to know how his Japanese statistics would translate... were they equivalent to a Double-A team? a Triple-A team? Something else? The Mariners seemed to be pretty confident, posting a $13 million fee to the Orix Blue Wave before giving Ichiro a 3 year/$14 million contract, but others weren't quite so sure.

The 2001 Athlon Baseball Annual had this to say about the M's new rightfielder:
"Difference Maker: Much is expected from Ichiro Suzuki, who is a hitting legend in Japan but mostly unknown in North America. A lefty gap hitter with a high on-base percentage, he figures to lead off and is also a stolen base threat. The fact he is a good defender is icing on the cake."
And the 2001 Sporting News Yearbook:
"There is ... a great deal of expectation in Suzuki, the seven-time Japanese batting champion who will open the season in right field.

A spray-hitting lefthanded batter compared with Kenny Lofton and Tony Gwynn, Suzuki has never faced major league pitching during a game with meaning, but there's a good chance he'll be Seattle's opening day leadoff hitter. ... Suzuki will open the season as the man in the spotlight, and if his .352 career average translates well in Seattle, the Mariners offense will have life at the top. Suzuki has never played a season that went beyond 135 games, so he figures to need breaks as the summer winds on."
Clearly, American writers were underestimating Ichiro's ability to adapt to the major league season. Whether that was pure American arrogance, or just a healthy dose of skepticism, it's hard to say. Clearly, though, Ichiro was ready for the bigs - in 2001, he became only the second player in major league history to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season.

What I found most fascinating about Ichiro's journey to the major leagues, though, was an article I found in the 1996 Sporting News Yearbook called "The Next Nomo" written by John De Bellis of the Asahi Evening News.
"So, naturally, Ichiro figures to be the next Japan-to-US phenom, a la Hideo Nomo, correct? Maybe, maybe not. At least Ichiro, only 22, isn't likely to come over soon."
By the beginning of the 1996 season, when Nomo was reigning NL Rookie of the Year, 22-year-old Ichiro had only had two full seasons of professional ball under his belt. His once-in-a-generation talent was easy to spot, though.
"In his rookie year, Ichiro established a Japanese record with 210 hits [in 135 games] and batted .385. He did it using a "flamingo" batting stance reminiscent of home run king Sadaharu Oh. Last season, he hit .342 and increased his home run output from 13 to 25."
And he was highly praised by Americans (Bobby Valentine: "He has to be compared favorably to a young Barry Bonds or a young Ken Griffey Jr.") and Japanese alike (Seibu Lions second baseman Hatsuhiko Tsuji: "I think he is just at a higher level than most. There does not seem to be anything he cannot do well...").

The article goes on to talk about the troubles that Japanese players have in making themselves available to Major League Baseball, and quotes extensively from "Japanese baseball's only player agent" Don Nomura. It also mentions the big league goals of "Japan's top reliever" Kaz Sasaki and an "envious" Yomiuri Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata. But the article was truly about the young Ichiro and how he would take the major leagues by storm. The article ends:
"Remember that name - Ichiro Suzuki. And there's surely more such talent where he comes from."
There may not be too many more talents like Ichiro, but we can't fault the author for that. I'm just glad there's the one Ichiro!.


Jason @ IIATMS said...

I, for one, think Ichiro can pick up pitching once he hits 40 and his vaunted speed slows down. He can pitch from 40 until he's 50.

Yes, I am an Ichiro believer. All hail PITCHIRO!!!!

The Common Man said...

I'm pretty excited over the Pitchiro era too. I'm hoping to see a reverse-Ruth. Great digging as usual, lar.