The Ageless Ichiro Suzuki Methodically Chases Pinch-Hits Record
Ichiro Suzuki is nearly 44 years old and it is already over a year since he recorded his 3,000th hit in the major leagues. And yet he may not be done making his mark on American baseball.
A part-time player these days with the Miami Marlins, Suzuki now finds himself with 26 pinch-hits on the season, just two short of the record of 28 set by John Vander Wal when he played for the Colorado Rockies in 1995.
Should Suzuki make it to 29, or beyond, by season’s end it would be an appropriate footnote to a more emphatic record he set back in 2004, when he was a superstar with the Seattle Mariners and set the record for base hits in a season, with 262.
All of which is making an impression on Frank Menechino, the Marlins’ batting coach.
“What other great hitter who was used to playing every day in the big leagues has done what Ichi’s doing?” he asked. “I remember guys that I played with, when they had to go to a bench role, all they did was complain because they couldn’t do it. Here he comes and he does it with amazing discipline.”
The challenges of coming off the bench are both mental and physical. Starters have the peace of mind that they will get multiple chances to bat in a game and the possibility to make necessary adjustments at the plate as the innings progress. Pinch-hitters get one shot, often with a lot riding on the outcome of the at-bat. That can be taxing, especially when you happen to be the oldest position player in baseball.
“The only thing I’ve gotten use to,” Suzuki told reporters recently when asked about pinch-hitting, “is that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
Even so, Suzuki has dedicated himself to creating a routine that gives him the best chance to excel. Menechino noted that many pinch-hitters start warming up later in the game, but Suzuki has adopted a different habit.
“He hits in the indoor cage in the first and third innings,” Menechino said. “No one else does that. Early on, I had to write it on my hand, ‘bottom of the third,’ because I would get caught up in something else and before I knew it, I’d forgotten to meet him in the cage. By starting early, he knows he’ll never get caught with his pants down.”
Suzuki is not the hitter he once was — he was hitting .265 on the season going into Tuesday night’s game in Miami against the Mets — and his large number of pinch-hits this season are, in part, a reflection of the fact he has been put in that role so often by Marlins Manager Don Mattingly.
“He’s easy to use,” Mattingly said before Tuesday’s game. “You always feel he’s going to give you a quality at-bat.’’
Going into Tuesday’s game, Suzuki had 100 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter this season, and 91 actual at-bats. Both are major league records, with two former Mets (Rusty Staub, 94 plate appearances in 1983, and Lenny Harris, 83 at-bats in 2001) holding those marks until now.
The 26 hits Suzuki has in those 91 at-bats translates into a solid .286 average and includes three doubles and a home run. Back in 1995, Van der Wal got his 28 hits in 72 at-bats, for a dazzling .389 average. Van der Wal was 29 when he pulled off his feat, 14 years younger than Suzuki.
The pinch hits that Suzuki has compiled this season are not his only statistical achievement.
On Sept. 8 in Atlanta, a Suzuki single was the 2,500th of his major league career. Afterward, one of his teammates, Dee Gordon expressed his amazement when told what Suzuki had done.
“Are you kidding me?” Gordon exclaimed. “I can’t believe that. Ichi’s amazing. To me, as a similar leadoff-type hitter, 2,500 singles is incredible because I understand how difficult that is to do. 2,500 singles? That’s crazy. Most guys can’t even dream of getting that many hits of any kind in a whole career.”
Indeed, just 100 players in history have recorded at least 2,500 total hits and Suzuki is now just the sixth player to hit that many singles. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter was the last player to do it, in 2014. He finished his career with 2,595, joining Pete Rose (3,215), Ty Cobb (3,053), Eddie Collins (2,643), and Willie Keeler (2,513) in that group.
With home runs on the rise in baseball and sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge capturing huge amounts of attention, the fact that Suzuki has reached the 2,500 mark for singles is not exactly a major headline.
Still, there are plenty of baseball people who appreciate the art of the single and one of them, Don Sutton, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Atlanta Braves radio broadcaster, extolled Suzuki.
“We’re in an era of the home run and there is no shame in falling down on your butt swinging away trying to get one,” Sutton said. “If Ichiro had a big ego, do you think he’d be happy having 2,500 singles? No, he’d want 500 homers. That’s why I say it’s not just fantastic hand-eye coordination, but it’s also the ability to be content with a less sexy, but tremendously important, result.”
If things go Suzuki’s way in the final two weeks of the season, perhaps a couple of singles off his bat will come as pinch-hits, giving him one more record.