The first Hank Aaron home run I ever saw was his record breaking 715th. This is likely a common experience among fans within my age cohort, born after that historic swing in 1973. Thinking back to the time I watched and re-watched the home run on an old VHS tape titled something like 50 Most Memorable Home Runs, I didn’t think for a second about anything beyond that home run. I didn’t know it was Aaron’s age 40 season. I didn’t care to ask whether or not he even finished in the top 10 in home runs in the National League that year (he didn’t). I neither knew nor thought about the fact that the home run kicked off his last good season as a ballplayer, after which his stats yelled "inevitable decline." None of that mattered. Only the home run mattered.
Ichiro Suzuki is well past his prime, that much is obvious. He hasn’t had an above average season at the plate, according to wRC+, since 2010. In only two of the last five seasons has Ichiro posted an fWAR above 1.0. But for his Major League Baseball career, Ichiro has a chance to do something memorable in 2016, which is his age 42 season. He has 2,935 hits in the States and is just 65 away from reaching 3,000 for his career.
There’s no guarantee he’ll make it. Ichiro’s single season hit totals have steadily fallen off in recent years. From 2012 to 2015, he’s put up totals of 178, 136, 102, and 91 hits. Those decreasing hit totals correlate to reduced plate appearances. He had 91 hits in 438 plate appearances in 2015, and he’ll need roughly as many chances to accrue 65 hits in 2016.
Not a lot of ballplayers have played at 42, period. Even fewer have received substantial playing time. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, there have only been 29 age 42 or older position player seasons since 1947 where the batter received 200 or more plate appearances. There have been just 17 such seasons if the threshold is raised to 300—10 seasons with a cut-off of 400 plate appearances.
Examining the ten seasons in which relative old timers received at least 400 chances at the plate, productivity sticks out. There are outliers at the top and bottom of the list, Barry Bonds’s 169 OPS+ season and Pete Rose’s 69. Most of the seasons, however, range from about average, Rickey Henderson’s 95 OPS+, to very good, Carleton Fisk’s 134. In 2015, Ichiro posted an OPS+ of just 56. So he might not get enough opportunities to crack 3,000.
The arguments in favor of him getting the requisite 400 plate appearances and being able to reach 3,000 are twofold: the Marlins don’t have a lot to lose by playing Ichiro, and the historic 3,000 might be a substantial enough carrot to offer him playing time. In Ichiro’s case, 3,000 hits shouldn’t matter. Combined with his nine seasons in Japan, he has 4,213 hits for his career. Still, there’s something special about 3,000 MLB hits and the historic and commercial value is clear.
Ichiro deserves ample opportunity to get there. Fans deserve it, too. It will be an occasion for us all. He’d be the first Japanese player to reach 3,000, and he was 27 during his "rookie" season in 2001. And, indeed, fans of the future deserve it. They’ll see Ichiro’s hit number 3,000 and default to assuming that he was at the top of his game when it took place—a Hall of Famer in the midst of another year hitting .300.
Reality evinces something else. The nice thing about reality, however, is that you can suspend it if you want. If you can’t quite imagine hit number 3,000 (if and when he gets there) as the very first Ichiro hit you’ve ever seen, picture baseball fans of the future for whom it will be. It might be the first thing that pops into their heads when they think about Ichiro.
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