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Ichiro: The Blue Wave

For seven seasons before he came to Seattle, Ichiro Suzuki was the best hitter in the Japanese baseball. But what ended in a $13 million posting fee began with considerably less fanfare.

This is what Ichiro looked like when he played in the Japanese Pacific League, only younger.
This is what Ichiro looked like when he played in the Japanese Pacific League, only younger.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Before he was a Miami Marlin, a New York Yankee, or a Seattle Mariner, Ichiro Suzuki was an Orix Blue Wave. He was drafted by the club in the fourth round due to concerns over his slender frame. Ichiro weighs just 170 pounds now, but he's gained 50 (!) in the 25 years since that draft. He made his Japanese Pacific League debut in 1992 as an 18 year old but appeared sparingly his first two seasons, logging just 166 plate appearances over 83 games.

Ichiro languished amidst the limited action with the Blue Wave, but when playing full-time for the club, hit for averages that would, in retrospect, seem very Wizard-like. If un-cited Wikipedia entries are to be trusted, Ichiro's swing was disliked by manager Shozo Doi and caused him to spend most of his first two professional seasons with the farm club in the Western League. It incorporated leg kick that Nori Aoki compared to a metronome, and saw him finish with weight on his front foot.

In 1994, Doi was replaced by Akira Ogi, who transitioned Ichiro transitioned to a full time role with Orix. He was promptly crowned league MVP that season. He played every game and lead the league in hits (210), a league record and 56 more than second place on the list. His batting average (.385) was also a league record (minimum 135 AB) beating the previous record set in 1970. He also led the league in doubles (41), was tied for second in triples (5) and stolen bases (29), and managed 13 home runs, which tied him for the team lead.

The next season, Ichiro provided support to the longstanding belief that he could sacrifice hits for power when he nearly doubled his home run output from the previous season (25). It came at the expense of 43 points of batting average, but he still managed his second consecutive batting title and MVP crown. He also got the green light a lot on the base paths, and stole 49 bags that season. In the end, he fell just short of the NBP triple crown, trailing the league home run leader by just three bombs.

Ichiro went on to win a third consecutive MVP title, and batting titles in each of his seven full seasons. Over his nine year career in Japan, Ichiro hit 118 home runs, five more than he's hit so far in his 15 year major league career. His greatest power season was his penultimate, when he hit 21 homers in only 80% of the plate appearances of the season during which he hit 25. His final season, however, ended in the most Ichiro of ways, with him setting a new Pacific League record for batting average, besting his batting average from his breakout season by two points.

Than, in the midst of reaction to chaotic U.S Presidential election results in the fall of 2000, he was gone. Ichiro traveled across the Pacific Ocean for Seattle, who bid $13 million for the right to sign him. The Blue Wave had posted him under the blind auction posting system that was spearheaded by his own general manager just two years earlier. Ichiro was the generational talent that the Blue Wave knew they couldn't keep once he hit free agency and he could walk (figuratively) to a major league club. This quandary birthed the system that has earned Nippon Professional Baseball teams a collective $251,115,108.44 over the past eighteen years. The Seibu Lions, in particular, are truly grateful.

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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a staff writer for Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.