(Photos by Associated Press)
I realize this has become somewhat of an obsession of mine, but with the jarring news today that Albert Pujols will miss six weeks with a fractured left wrist, I did a new check to see where Pujols and Ichiro stand as far as career batting average.
As I’ve noted before, both players made their major-league debut on the very same day: April 2, 2001. Pujols, a 21-year-old with just one year of minor-league ball under his belt, was so impressive that spring that Tony La Russa had no choice but to give him a job (Pujols split his time almost equally that year among first base, third base, left field and right field). Ichiro, meanwhile, was 27, with seven Japanese batting titles already under his belt, but under intense scrutiny as the first Japanese position player to tackle the major leagues.
Pujols went a quiet 1-for-3 that day at Coors Field in Denver as the Cardinals lost 8-0 to the Rockies. Ichiro went 2-for-5 at Safeco Field as the Mariners edged Oakland 5-4, the first of 116 victories that magical season (magical until Sept. 11, that is).
Ichiro would finish the season as the American League batting champion (and MVP) with a .350 batting average, while Pujols hit .329 with 37 homers and 130 runs batted in.
The race was on. Over the next nine seasons, Pujols would hit .314, .359, .331, .330, .331, .327, .357, .327 and .312. Ichiro would hit .321, .312, .372, .303, .322, .351, .310, .352 and .315. For their careers, that’s a combined 20 seasons, and 20 seasons over .300. Obviously, they were and are very different hitters, and Pujols has put up power and on-base numbers that blow away Ichiro’s. Ichiro is a first-ballot Hall of Famer; Pujols might end up as one of the top five players in history, if he can overcome this injury. (Both players have been remarkably, durable, too; heading into this year, Ichiro had averaged 159 games a year, Pujols 156. This will be Pujols’ third stint on the DL; Ichiro has been on just once, when he began the 2009 season with a bleeding ulcer).
Looking exclusively at batting average, however, the parallels are eerie. Heading into this year, both players had identical lifetime batting averages: .331. And as of today, with both Pujols and Ichiro undergoing sub-par years, their lifetime batting averages are still identical, both having dropped two points to .329.
Pujols’ batting average will be frozen for more than a month at .279 (78-for-280). Ichiro’s average, thanks to his current hot streak (16-for-34 since his rapidly-becoming- legendary day off in Detroit), sits just two points below Pujols at .277 (82-for-296).
If Ichiro should go 2-for-5 on Tuesday against the Washington Nationals in D.C., as he did in the first game of his career — and that’s not unreasonable, considering he’s had multi-hit games in seven of his last eight contests — then Ichiro’s average will rise to .279. Exactly the same as Pujols.