Friday, July 3, 2009

Forget Mauer and Pujols, keep your eye on Ichiro this summer

I've got a feeling Ichiro has .400 in his sights. Photo from this site.

With his first pitch to Ichiro Suzuki tonight, Tim Wakefield will become the Red Sox’ all-time leader in games started, as Joel Sherman noted in this interesting piece he penned earlier this week for As remarkable a feat as that is for someone the Sox rescued off the scrap heap 14 years ago, I was tempted to write how it pales in comparison to the history that could be set this season as Suzuki pursues the magical .400 mark.

Then I did the math, and my first thought was to no longer wonder why most people are more focused on Joe Mauer’s pursuit of .400 or Albert Pujols’ flirtation with the Triple Crown.

Then I pondered it some more, and I decided to say screw it, that Suzuki is going to make a more serious run at .400 than Mauer will at .400 and Pujols will at the Triple Crown, even if Suzuki’s path to history appears more treacherous.

Mauer, who entered Friday hitting .392, missed the first month of the season, which both lessens and boosts his chances of reaching .400. He can’t afford another stint on the disabled list nor an extended slump. And as a catcher, the chances are he’s going to incur the types of bumps and bruises that put a drain on his bat.

That said, the math doesn’t lie: A player’s chances of hitting .400 decrease with every plate appearance. George Brett believes missing a month of the 1980 season was one of the biggest reasons he made such a serious run at .400 before he finished at .390.

Pujols is once again lapping the field in the NL MVP race and leads the circuit in homers (30, six more than the Padres’ Adrian Gonzalez) and RBI (77, two more than the Brewers’ Prince Fielder) while ranking fourth in batting average (.335, .013 behind the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez). But will the rest of the mediocre Cardinals—Pujols is the only St. Louis player with an average above .300, an on-base percentage above .355 and a slugging percentage above .455—eventually make it impossible for Pujols to fend off Fielder in RBI?

Suzuki, meanwhile, is in the midst of one of his patented red-hot midseason runs. The career .349 hitter from May through July is hitting .386 since May 1 of this season and hit a robust .407 in June. He’s batting .370 overall, easily the best in baseball (at least until Mauer qualifies for the batting crown).

The problem would seem to be that maintaining a .407 average the rest of this season would leave Suzuki “only” at .389. Assuming Suzuki gets as many at-bats (108) per month the rest of the season as he did in June, he’d have to hit an eye-popping .432 (140-for-324) to finish at .401. Actually, he could go a mere 139-for-324 and finish at .3996, which rounds up to .400, but if Ted Williams—the last .400 hitter—wasn’t willing to sit on .3995 with two games left to play, damnit, we’re not accepting it from anyone else.

Anyway, hitting .432 for more than half a season sounds impossible. Except Suzuki has already basically done it once. He hit an insane .429 after the All-Star Break in 2005, the season in which he racked up a record 262 hits.

And he’s pretty good at doing the impossible more than once. In a column today,’s Jayson Stark noted that, through Tuesday, Suzuki had at least one hit in 53 of his last 56 games. Only three players (including Johnny Damon in 2005, when he fashioned a 29-game hitting streak) have had such a streak since Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak in 1941, and Suzuki is the only one who has done it twice. TWICE.

The only other player to ever accomplish that? That’s right: DiMaggio.

So why can’t Suzuki hit .432 the rest of the season and produce another streak similar to (or better than) his 53-in-56 run? The guy is as pure a hitter as the game has ever seen. He legs out plenty of infield singles. He’s racing towards his record ninth straight 200-hit season in as many big league seasons, will surge past 2,000 hits this summer and has to be taken as a legitimate candidate to reach 3,000 hits even though he turns 36 in October.

Also aiding Suzuki’s quest is the Mariners’ surprising competitiveness as well as…hmm, how shall we put this…his intense interest in his numbers. Even if he’s not as selfish as he has been portrayed, he seems to like his stats. That’s a human reaction shared by about 98 percent of his peers, but not a politically correct one. And I bet it makes things really interesting come the middle of September, when the guess here is Suzuki is answering a whole lot more questions about an individual pursuit than either Mauer or Pujols.

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