Thursday, September 29, 2016

The baseball Hall of Fame awaits the king of the singles scene

Eddie Collins, who played second base for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox in the early 20th century, is regarded as one of the top-25 baseball players of all-time. Like many players of the so-called “dead-ball” era, homeruns were few and far between. A rubber-centered ball, deeper park dimensions, and pitchers permitted to throw practically any kind of pitch they wanted with a single baseball in play in any condition (any ball that landed in the stands had to be thrown back by fans), contributed to “small-ball,” the strategy of getting on base by whatever means necessary, employing the hit-and-run play, and steals.  Triples were more common than homeruns in the dead-ball era, and Collins hit 187 triples to only 47 homeruns among his 3315 career hits. Although today’s cork-centered baseball was instituted in 1911, “cheating” by pitchers continued to make “small-ball” play the norm. 

Things would change after the tragic death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, whose skull was crushed by a dirty baseball he apparently could not see (in an unlit park during the twilight hours) thrown by the New Yankees Carl Mays. The sound of the impact was so loud that Mays thought the ball had hit the tip of Chapman’s bat, causing him to field the ball and throw it to first base. But Chapman remained in the batter’s box, slowly collapsing with blood flowing from one ear. According to a New York Times story on August 17, 1920,

“Chapman died at 4:40 o'clock this morning, following an operation performed by Dr. T.M. Merrigan, surgical director of the institution. Chapman was unconscious after he arrived at the hospital. The operation began at 12:29 o'clock and was completed at 1:44. The blow had caused a depressed fracture in Chapman's head three and a half inches long. Dr. Merrigan removed a piece of skull about an inch and a half square and found the brain had been so severely jarred that blod clots had formed. The shock of the blow had lacerated the brain not only on the left side of the head where the ball struck but also on the right side where the shock of the blow had forced the brain against the skull, Dr. Merrigan said.”

Following Chapman’s death, MLB rules were changed in regard to the use of dirty balls (especially when done so by the pitcher), and they had to be replaced if discolored or damaged. Some pitches like the spitball were banned from the pitchers’ arsenal, and all this in part contributed to the “live-ball” era, although it may have already been underway that season, with Babe Ruth hitting 54 homeruns, not just breaking but obliterating the previous record high.

But back the subject of this post. As great as he supposedly was, Collins holds a somewhat less than inspiring record that was perhaps not surprising for someone whose best years were during the dead-ball period: the lowest percentage of extra-base hits for any hitter with at least 3,000 career hits. His 438 doubles added up to 672 extra-base hits, only 20.2 percent of his total hits. His .429 slugging percentage on a .333 career batting average might have tagged him as a “pure” hitter in this day and age, but he wouldn’t be the “sexy” hitter that most baseball fans today would have on their rotisserie league line-ups. 

Well, there is probably one person who considers Collins’ stat-line “sexy,” and that would be the player who has “bested” him for worst all-time extra-base hits to total hits over 3,000 percentage. This player told the New York Times in 2010 that “I think there's sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength.”

The player we are talking about, perhaps to the surprise of many, is the usually taciturn Ichiro Suzuki. Seattle Mariner fans might remember him; I suspect that they are not aware of the fact that he did, in fact, pass the 3,000 MLB hits mark this season with the Miami Marlins. This is the guy who set a Major League record hitting 262 hits in a single season; of those only 37 were extra-base hits, only 14.1 percent of his total hits. As of today, Ichiro has 3,029 career base hits, of which only 566 went for extra-bases (18.7 percent), contributing to a weakling .405 slugging percentage. His 356 career doubles is also by a significant margin the fewest by any player with at least 3,000 hits. His 760 RBIs are also by far the fewest of any player with at least 3,000 hits. Even notorious “small-ball” hitters like Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs knocked in over 1,000 runners during their careers.

Did Ichiro make-up for his lack of power by stealing bases? After stealing 56 bases his first MLB season, he didn’t do much of that. In his record-setting hits season, he only stole 36 bases to add to his 225 singles and 49 walks, scoring only 101 runs. This kind of play contributed to his increasingly diminishing ability to at least do what a lead hitter is supposed to do: score runs. Ichiro was a dubious quality even as a "small-ball" hitter.

But Ichiro remains a fashion statement, if sometimes only for amusement’s sake. He is the first player outside the usual sphere of baseball talent to make a career out of his time in the big leagues. Some will say he did it the “easy” way, not caring about “strategy” or for the benefit of the team, but just about the best way to “pad” his basic mode of keeping himself in the line-up for 16 years. Although his contribution to his teams’ success may have been more “aesthetic” than real, he was kept in their line-ups as a gesture to curious fans. That doesn’t mean we should disparage him more than he deserves. What he chose to do he did “well”—and likely well enough to get elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

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