Ichiro Suzuki enters his 16th and possibly final MLB season in 2016, and will attempt to join an elite club in doing so. The 10-time All-Star, former Rookie of the Year and MVP is 65 hits shy of reaching 3000 for his major league career, and in reaching the milestone would become the 30th player to do so; he’d also be the second player in as many seasons to do so, as Alex Rodriguez reached the mark last June. There haven’t been two players to reach the club in back-to-back seasons since Cal Ripken, Jr. and Rickey Henderson in 2000 and 2001.
With potentially little else to draw fans to Marlins games (with the exception of a hopefully-healthy Giancarlo Stanton), the question that now needs solving is when Ichiro will accomplish the feat. Let’s get scientific.
The most difficult aspect of such a projection is trying to nail down Ichiro’s playing time. He’s played at least 143 games each of the last three seasons, racking up at least 385 plate appearances in each. But with a now-healthy Stanton, Christian Yelich, and still-not-traded Marcell Ozuna, it’s hard to see Ichiro – now 42 – playing that regularly.
ZiPS projections agree; they have Ichiro down for 374 plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus is even lower on his playing time, projecting 234 appearances. Baseball-reference, which uses a slightly less sophisticated projection system, has him reaching nearly double that number, with 458 appearances. The easiest thing to do will be to average that out, giving Ichiro about 355 plate appearances in 2016, or just about 100 fewer than last season (438). That sounds about right.
The next thing we need to figure out is, when Ichiro does play, how effective will he be? He’s coming off his worst season, at least from a batting average standpoint, ever, hitting just .229 last season. The year before, however, he hit .284 – still well below his .314 career mark, but serviceable to say the least. So, what do the projections think he’ll do at the plate?
ZiPS sees Ichiro improving a bit from his 2015 numbers, hitting .249. Baseball Prospectus is in agreement here, putting him down for a .248 mark. Baseball-reference has him at .245, so it seems no matter who you ask, Ichiro is going to hit somewhere between .245-.250. Let’s call it .247 and split the difference.
Before we look into the “when,” let’s look back at the “if.” If Ichiro steps to the plate 355 times, and hits .247, will he get the 65 hits he needs? Probably. With 355 at bats, a .247 average easily gets Ichiro there, with about 87 hits. If we reverse engineer this bad boy, a .247 average would require 263 at bats to reach 65 hits. Over his last three seasons, Ichiro’s at bat total has been 92.7 percent of his plate appearance total. If he does that in 2016, he’s got 329 or so at bats; plenty to reach the 3000-mark. Now, back to the “when.”
The super simple way to do this is to assume Ichiro gets his playing time evenly throughout the season; obviously, an injury to or trade of one of the starting outfielders will mean more playing time bunched together. This is nearly impossible to predict, but something to keep in mind nonetheless.
It would also be simplest to assume he keeps his production uniform throughout the season, but that’s where I’m choosing to get, well, less simple.
(Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)
For his career, Ichiro has been a relatively poor hitter in April (.299 average compared to .314 lifetime), with a noticeable uptick in May (.335) and June (.323). He typically evens out around July, with averages of .300, .314, and .308 in July, August, and September/October.
But what have you done for me lately, amiright? Last season, Ichiro was better in April (.263) than his overall numbers, before really picking up in June (.310). From there, he began to struggle immensely, hitting .200 in June and .195 in July. He rebounded in August (.270) before struggling again, hitting .139 from September 1 to the end of the season.
In 2014, Ichiro actually had his best month in April, with fresh legs. His average dropped each subsequent month though, from .357 in April to .286 in May, then .257 in June and .224 in July before rising again in August and September.
So it seems, at least lately, that Ichiro will be at his near-best in April (even hitting .263 last April was a 30-point improvement from his final line), then will drop off in the middle of the season before picking up after the All-Star Break. Certainly makes enough sense for an older player.
So where does that leave us in 2016, and when will he record his 3000th hit? Let’s play it out.
[CAUTION: MATH AHEAD]
We have Ichiro down for a .247 average, and for the sake of simplicity, regularly-spaced playing time. Using the 329-at-bat number we calculated earlier, that’s roughly 55 at bats each month (counting September/October together). In 2015, his April batting average was 115 percent his overall average; in 2014, it was 130 percent. Let’s say he hits 20 percent better in April than the rest of the season – that’s a .296 average in 55 at bats, or 16 hits; 49 to go.
Ichiro’s May 2014 average was basically the same as his overall mark, but last season he was 35 percent better in May than he was on the season as a whole. Assuming he continues he strong relative start and is even 15 percent better in May than he is overall, that’s a .284 average in May. That’s another 15 hits; 34 to go.
Moving to June, this is when Ichiro is going to struggle. In June of 2014, Ichiro hit just 90 percent his overall average; in 2015, it was 87 percent. An older player now, he will likely continue to see decline as the season wears on; let’s peg him for 85 percent his overall average, so he hits .210 in June. That’s another 11-12 hits. I’ve been ignoring decimals for the hits up to this point, so let’s leap-year this thing and call it 12 June hits. Now we need 24 hits over the season’s final three months.
(Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
July has been a struggle for Ichiro lately, as the dog days of summer are none too kind to players on the wrong side of 40. In 2014, Ichiro’s .224 July average was just 79 percent his overall average. In 2015, his .195 average in July was 85 percent of his overall average. Let’s split that difference and say July, 2016 Ichiro is 82 percent overall Ichiro. That’s a .202 average in July, which with another 55 at bats is 11 hits. Just 13 to go.
Ichiro has used the All-Star Break well, seeing a huge upswing in August production the last two seasons. In 2014, he hit 24 percent better than his overall numbers; in 2015, he was 18 percent better. Rather than split, let’s assume the break is less helpful for 42-year-old Ichiro than the 41-year-old version. Still, it will help, so let’s make Ichiro 15 percent better in August. That’s a .284 average, good for another 15 hits.
In my best Price is Right impression – that’s too much. So we now have our month – August, 2016. But which game?
The Marlins play 28 games in August. We already have Ichiro playing about half of his team’s games, so let’s say – again, for simplicity – that he plays every other August game, or 14 total. If we make it really simple, that’s one hit per August game; we need 13 hits, so what is the Marlins 26th game of August? It’s in New York, against the Mets.
That won’t do. Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins will never let Ichiro do this on the road if they can help it. Luckily for them, they have a six-game home stand right before that Mets series. We know Ichiro will be close by then, so the Marlins will likely let him play every game that home stand, rather than risk needing to sit him for a seven-game road trip.
Stay with me; we’re getting so close.
If Ichiro plays every other game in August leading up to that home stand, and records an average of one hit in each, he will begin that August 23 string of home games needing three or four hits. He’ll play each home game until he gets it.
The third home game of that trip is August 25 against the defending-champion Royals. That’s a big draw, probably, if the Royals are still a competitive team. The next game, though is against the likely-lowly Padres. The Marlins will want to sell tickets to that game. It only makes sense to do whatever they can to make sure it happens.
Wrap it all up and what do you have? Ichiro will joint the 3000-hit club on August 26, in Miami, against the San Diego Padres. Write it in stone; numbers never lie.