Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Barry Bonds. Hank Aaron. Roger Clemens.
These names are omnipresent in the discussion of the greatest baseball player of all time, and this is well deserved. Each of these players are once in a generation type talents, tremendously impactful every time they step onto the field. They left their mark on their individual teams, the MLB, and even baseball itself. The game is forever changed due to their dedication to their craft. That being said, I would like to add another name to the conversation, a name that was inexplicably left off of ESPN’s Hall of 100 top 100 players list, a name like none who came before him and unlike anyone who has come after. This name, is Ichiro.
In the discussion of baseball’s GOAT, I automatically rule out Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for obvious reasons. It is widely agreed that Roger Clemens had the most nerve-racking fastball in the history of the sport, causing opposing batters to tremble in fear. And, it’s no small feat that Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, more than anybody else in MLB history. That being said, it is also widely known that he had some artificial help along the way. Barry Bonds was a godlike figure in his prime. Sometimes it seemed that he wielded Thor’s hammer when he violently swung his bat, obliterating offering after offering from these mere mortal pitchers. Yes, he had 762 big flies. Yes, the D-Backs did intentionally walk him with the bases loaded. No, he did not do any of that while following the rules. Because of this, both Bonds and Clemens are automatically eliminated from GOAT consideration.
When it comes to Babe Ruth, he is the consensus pick for the best player ever. People see his astronomically impressive stats, most notably a .545 OBP in 1923 and 168 RBIs in 1923, hear the stories of him out homering entire franchises, and see his name and face in every MLB history book or movie ever made, so they ride the wave without really stopping to consider the circumstances. As with every sports debate that intertwines decades and eras, it is crucial to understand the details of the time. I view Babe Ruth as being in a very similar spot to Wilt Chamberlain in the parallel debate regarding basketball. Almost every NBA fan agrees that Michael Jordan (or Lebron James if they are wrong) is the best basketball player to ever walk planet earth. That being said, Wilt is the best statistical hooper of all time. He averaged 27 RPG in 1960, 50 PPG in 1961, and scored 100 points in a single match. These are stats that Jordan never even approached, and ones that Lebron never will. But, the knowledgeable basketball fan understands that Wilt played in a much less impressive and competitive era, so his achievements need to be taken with a grain of salt. The same stigma isn’t placed on Babe Ruth’s career, and I don’t understand why. Let me explain. For starters, pitchers were substantially worse a century ago. It was much more common for pitchers to pitch late into games back then, and you would see a reliever maybe once in a blue moon. Because of this, pitchers would pitch more reserved for a longer period of time. What this means is that they would throw slower to save energy, and turn to more strenuous secondary pitches less. So, Babe Ruth was going against what was suspected to be fastballs in the low to mid 80s, with very little guessing involved. Furthermore, look at where Ruth spent most of his playing career. He played in the Polo Grounds as well as Old Yankee Stadium, with right field fences 257 and 285 feet away from home plate respectively, or, in other words, closer than my high school field. As a dead pull lefty, this allowed for inflated power numbers. The third thing to consider is the team around him. Babe Ruth was a member of the Yankees team known as “Murderer’s Row.” This is because spots 1-6 in the lineup all had the ability to destroy opposing pitchers. Essentially, all of the best players in baseball were on his team. It may not seem that this should be held against him, but look at it from the viewpoint of opposing pitchers. You couldn’t pitch around him, because the next guy was just as good. And the next next guy. And the next next next guy. And the next next next next guy. You get the picture. Ruth was sandwiched in the lineup by Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and Lou Gehrig. Not too shabby.
With regards to Aaron and Mays, I have no “but wait look at this problem” points to make about their careers. That being said, I can make an argument that Ichiro is better. Their power is indisputably substantially superior to Ichiro, and that can’t be overlooked. That being said, Ichiro is just about as good or better essentially everywhere else. He has a better career average than both of them, has more career hits than Mays, and more hits per season than Aaron. Include his time in Japan, and Ichiro has more career hits than Aaron as well. He has more stolen bases than them both, in fact almost more than both of them combined. He has well more Gold Gloves than Hank Aaron and more batting titles than Mays. While there is no clear cut answer as to which of the three is the best, Ichiro, who is never even mentioned in the same breathe as these two Cooperstown Enshrinees should undoubtedly be in the conversation, and has a solid case for being better than the pair.
Now, less about why other people aren’t the best and more on why I think that Ichiro is. Let’s get the accolades out of the way. He came into the league with a bang, leading the league in average, hits, at bats, plate appearances, and steals en route to not only running away with Rookie of the Year voting but also winning MVP in just his first season in the league. He was a rookie, who won MVP. That’s something that has only happened one other time. Ever. He has the single season record for hits, totaling 262 in 2004. But that wasn’t just a one time thing. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. He is probably the most consistent player of all time. He has the longest ever streak of consecutive 200 hit seasons, totaling 10 straight in his first 10 seasons in the league. He was able to consistently get hits like nobody else, setting the AL record for 20 game hit streaks, with seven in his career. He hit above .300 for the first ten seasons in his career, including a mind blowing .372 mark in 2004. That mark has been only approached just two times since then with Joe Mauer hitting .364 in 2009 and Magglio Ordonez hitting .361 in 2007. Guess who was second both years. That’s right, the epitome of consistency, Ichiro.
And it’s not just in the batter’s box. He was just as good or better in the field. According to an article written by Bleacher Report, he was calculated as having the fourth strongest arm in MLB history for an outfielder. Better than Ruth. Better than Mays. Better than Bonds. Better than Aaron. Better than Mantle. Better than Griffey. Better than DiMaggio. You name it. But, it’s not just his arm. You can get lost for hours on YouTube watching him lay out in Superman fashion to rob a liner, or scale outfield walls like Spiderman to rob a home run. His 10 Gold Gloves back that up.
Furthermore, in 2001, Ichiro’s first season in the MLB, the Mariners posted the highest win mark in MLB history at 116. That also happened to be Ichiro’s MVP season, meaning that Ichiro was the best player on the best team ever. The year before, they were a really good team, but not an all time great one. They had 91 wins, which was good for second place in the AL West and a wild card spot. Respectable. Next year, they lost their best player, you may have heard of him, his name is Alex Rodriguez, and gained Ichiro, and went from a wild card contender to the literal best team ever. That’s not a coincidence.
Lastly, there is always one confounding factor with the Ichiro debate. His time in Japan. Obviously, the level of competition there is nowhere near up to par with that of the MLB (although it may be superior to what The Babe was up against). But, including his numbers in Japan, Ichiro shatters even more professional records. He has 17 consecutive selections as both an all star and a Gold Glove winner. In addition to his one MVP here, he had three more across the pond. Combining the two leagues, he won the batting title seven times. In a row. Oh yeah, there’s one more thing. He has the most hits of any player ever.
Of course nobody knows what would have happened if Ichiro started his career in America at 18-20 like most do instead of the age of 27. But, if we could go back two decades and see what would have happened, I don’t think I would. Why mess with one of the greatest careers the sporting world has ever seen? What I haven’t mentioned that makes Ichiro so special is the cultural icon he was, and continues to be. He paved the way for the Japanese stars of the future, and is every young Japanese player’s idol to this day. Watching Japan in the Little League World Series, there is only ever one answer when asked about their favorite player, and these kids weren’t even born yet when Ichiro was at his best. So, baseball fans, you have Ichiro to thank for Yu Darvish’s exciting no hit bids, Masahiro Tanaka’s excellence, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s unorthodox Gyro Ball, Hideki Matsui’s World Series heroics, and the exciting future of the anomaly that is Shohei Ohtani.
Ichiro Suzuki. Cultural icon. Rookie MVP. Professional Hit King. Baseball’s GOAT.