Compared to other major North American sports, baseball is not known for individual dominance. There is no LeBron James- or Peyton Manning-like figure in the sport who can take over a ballgame single-handedly. Aces can control only one side of a game at most, and they can only do so every fifth day. A hitter can hit four home runs in a night and, although that is likely to be decisive in any given game, it is no guarantee of victory. Just because baseball isn't a sport where individual performances dominate compared to some others, it doesn't mean that there aren't unbelievable individual accomplishments. The four season span between 2001-2004 when Barry Bonds produced 46.6 WAR, a 30.9% walk rate and a 232 wRC+ stands out as one of the most recent examples of breathtaking individual excellence in baseball history. Mike Trout has the potential to do something similar in the years to come, though he isn't even close to the kind of hitter Bonds was.
Although overall supremacy like what Bonds displayed and Trout is beginning to show will always grab the headlines, it is also interesting to examine players who manage to be head and shoulders above the rest in a particular area. For example, in recent years Joey Votto is the undisputed master of the walk while Yu Darvish has been the sultan of the strikeout. At times players will come to distinguish themselves in ways much smaller and less consequential than walkout and strike rates. One instance of such a phenomenon is the fact that Carlos Quentin has been hit by 10 more pitches than any other player over the last five years, despite averaging only over 103.2 games played over that span. Today I mean to highlight another player who has similarly excelled above all others in a part of baseball that is relatively obscure.
Since arriving in the MLB in 2001, Ichiro Suzuki has the most hits of any player as well as the second most stolen bases and the seventh highest WAR among position players. Suzuki began his career by winning 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and making 10 consecutive All-Star games appearances and is likely on the way to Cooperstown when he hangs up the cleats. Given his immense fame and success it would be hard to describe him as an unheralded player, or say that much in his career has been overlooked. However, one thing that often goes unmentioned when discussing his accomplishments is his unmatched ability to get on base with infield hits. Given his speed and tendency to put the ball in play it is common knowledge that Suzuki can hurt opposing teams with his infield hits, but it's rarely talked about as a skill. Veteran third baseman Brandon Inge may have said it best when he told the New York Times, "You can call some guys' infield hits cheap, but not his. He has amazing technique." The numbers very much back up that statement. Unfortunately, we only have data on infield hits back to 2002, Ichiro Suzuki's second season, but the following chart shows that since that time Ichiro has outpaced his competitors with ease. Not only has he amassed more infield hits than anyone else, his infield percentage is the best among the top ten infield hit producers of the last 12 seasons:
|Player||Infield Hits||Infield Hit Percentage|
Derek Jeter isn't particularly close to Ichiro Suzuki here as Suzuki is a man among boys when it comes to the infield hit. If we cut up the 12 years of data we have into two-year segments we can see that Ichiro Suzuki was completely and utterly without equal in this field for the first ten years of his career. Compare Ichiro to the players that were second and third in the league in infield hits during each of those spans :
|Time Period||Infield Hits by Ichiro Suzuki||Infield Hits by 2nd Place Player||Infield Hits by 3rd Place Player|
Two things pop out here: one is the consistency of Suzuki's numbers and the other is the margin by which he tops the league over these time spans. These numbers don't look like the combination of luck, speed and volume of balls in play alone. These numbers show a master at work.
However, every master will someday be bested. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons Ichiro finally saw his run of dominance come to an end. The chart below of the top infield hit producers over the last two years shows that the man who finally stole Ichiro Suzuki's crown is the player who currently draws the most comparisons to the aging legend:
|Player||Infield Hits||Infield Hit Percentage|
Before we dive into this it's probably worth mentioning Mike Trout's ungodly 14% infield hit rate. Trout is definitely at risk of becoming that guy who people start to dislike because he is so good at everything even though he's never done anything to anybody. Beyond that, we see the passing of the baton from one Japanese ballplayer to another. Aoki's infield hit percentage is excellent and he is definitely worth of the title of infield hit king, but these numbers are also a function of Ichiro Suzuki's decline. Ichiro still has good wheels, he had 20 stolen bases in 2013, but no matter how fast he is Father Time is faster and now Norichika Aoki is dominating a discipline that he was the best at for a decade.
The infield hitting crown is one that will never, ever, ever be of interest to most baseball fans but we are seeing a changing of the guard as Ichiro Suzuki enters his 40's. The infield hitting race isn't necessarily a young man's game, after all Ichiro continued to dominate through his thirties and Aoki is no spring chicken at 32, but Suzuki's time has come. Kansas City fans have quite a bit to be excited about in terms of the 2014 season and the acquisition of an infield hitting wizard is probably not at the top of that list. That being said, part of the joy of watching any professional sport is to see people compete who are the best in the world at what they do. When it comes to one infinitesimally small part of baseball Norichika Aoki is currently the best as age has crept up on Ichiro Suzuki. Aoki is now the monarch of a very small domain, but a monarch nonetheless. As noted Western philosopher Duke Nukem always said, "Hail to the king, baby".
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All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
Nick Ashbourne is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.