Ichiro Suzuki recorded his 4,000th career hit Wednesday night, becoming one of only three players ever to reach that plateau.
That tally — which includes the 1,278 hits Ichiro accumulated while playing in Japan at the beginning of his career — leaves the prolific outfielder just 256 hits shy of tying all-time hit leader Pete Rose. Ichiro's production is well down from his peak years, but with some life left in his bat, it's at least conceivable he could end his career as the new hit king.
One person who adamantly says that will never happen: Rose himself.
"He's still 600 hits away from catching Derek Jeter, so how can he catch me?'' Rose tells USA Today. Translation: Ichiro's hits from Japan's top league don't count toward the all-time mark.
"Hey, if we're counting professional hits, then add on my 427 career hits in the minors," he adds. "I was a professional then, too."
Rose's point is an oft-cited contention with Ichiro's career statistics. While no one would dispute he's one of this generation's greatest hitters, there is a disagreement over whether it's fair to count his accomplishments in Japan, against arguably lesser competition. Furthermore, it's a slightly different game over there — the size of the ball is different, for one.
Even if you consider Japan a "minor league," only six players in history, counting Ichiro, have reached the 4,000 hit mark between the majors and minors.
But as a fun thought experiment, let's leave aside that debate for now. How feasible is it for Ichiro to catch Rose?
Since coming to the States, Ichiro has been a career .320 hitter. He collected an unprecedented 262 hits in 2004 — one of seven times he's crossed the 200-hit mark in a single season — breaking a record that had stood for eight decades.
Even now, in decline, he's still hitting the ball better than most players in baseball. His .274 batting average this year is well above the league average of .254.
In terms of raw numbers, Ichiro has 116 hits this year, with another month and change on the season. He totaled 178 hits last season, but given his continued regression, he's on pace to finish south of that this year.
Durability, something Ichiro is known for, will be key in determining if he catches Rose. Even last year, as a 38-year-old, he played every single game.
Assuming Ichiro stays healthy for the remainder of this year and next — his contract with the Yankees runs through 2014 — and assuming he doesn't completely fall off a cliff, he could be safely expected to notch around 200 more hits by the time his contract expires, winding up just shy of Rose's mark.
What happens after that is up in the air.
Would a team offer a then-41-year-old Ichiro a one-year deal? He's been just the 15th most valuable right fielder in baseball this season, per wins above replacement (WAR), and he hasn't hit better than .283 since 2010.
Yet that's still far better production than some other teams have seen from their right fielders. The Mariners, for example, have given significant playing time to three different right fielders this year who have each been worth a negative number of wins, per WAR.
If his production doesn't taper off too sharply, it seems safe to say that some team will at least extend him an offer for 2015.
Should that happen, Ichiro would have a great shot of passing Rose — at which point we can once again go in circles over his "true" hit total.
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