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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 9, 2011 at 4:12 PM

Jeter reaches 3,000 hits; Can Ichiro get there, too?

jeter3000.jpg

(After his 3,000th hit, a home run, Derek Jeter is hugged by Alex Rodriguez — probably the next member of the 3,000-hit club. Photo by Associated Press).

Congratulations to Derek Jeter, who reached 3,000 hits today in style. Not only was his 3,000th hit a home run, and not only did he go 5-for-5, but he also had the game-winning hit in the eighth — No. 3,003.

Jeter’s road to 3,000 actually began in Seattle, at the Kingdome, on May 30, 1995. Jeter was called up from Triple-A Columbus at age 20 because of an injury to incumbent shortstop Tony Fernandez. In his first game, on May 29, Jeter batted ninth and went 0-for-5 as the Mariners beat the Yankees 8-7 in 12 innings on a Rich Amaral walkoff homer.

The next night, a Tuesday, in front of 10,709 at the Kingdome, Jeter started again and hit ninth. Tim Belcher was on the mound for Seattle. Also in the Yankee lineup that night was Wade Boggs — until Jeter, the only player to hit a home run for his 3,000 hit. Batting in the second inning with runners on first and third, Jeter struck out looking. But leading off the fifth, he grounded a single between shortstop and third base into left field off Belcher for his first major-league hit. Jeter would add another single off Belcher leading off the seventh, but the Mariners pulled out the game, 7-3. As I recall, they would go on to have some success against the Yankees at the Kingdome in October.

Naturally, a lot of people are wondering who’s next in line to reach 3,000 hits, an exclusive club with just 28 members (just 14 of whom have, like Jeter, done it all with one team).

Here are the 10 leaders in active hits after Jeter:

1, Ivan Rodriguez, Nationals, age 39, 2,842

2, Omar Vizquel, White Sox, age 44, 2,831

3, Alex Rodriguez, Yankees, age 35, 2,762

4, Johnny Damon, Rays, age 37, 2,662

5, Chipper Jones, Braves, age 39, 2,565

6, Vlad Guerrero, Orioles, age 36, 2,513

7, Miguel Tejada, Giants, age 37, 2,353

8, Bobby Abreu, Angels, age 37, 2,343

9, Ichiro, Mariners, age 37, 2,343

10, Todd Helton, Rockies, age 37, 2,319

(Note that Abreu and Ichiro are in a dead heat, and just happen to be facing each other tonight. To steal a Mariners’ marketing slogan from 1999, ain’t baseball great?)

An article on ESPN.com today (I won’t link to it because it’s behind the pay wall) by Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory uses the ZiPS projection system (of which Szymborski is the mastermind) to estimate the chances of various players reaching 3,000. A-Rod, not surprisingly, is the leader at 98 percent, with Damon at 78 percent, and Vlad at 38 percent. Among younger players who are farther away, Albert Pujols has a great shot, Miguel Cabrera has a good shot, and Carl Crawford, Jose Reyes and Robinson Cano all have decent shots, according to ZiPS, if they stay healthy.

I used to think Ichiro was a lock, despite not getting his major-league start until he was 27 (by which time he had already banged out 1,278 hits in Japan; Ichiro reached the 3,000 combined career hits mark on July 30, 2008). No one has ever racked them up at a greater clip — not Pete Rose, not Ty Cobb, not Honus Wagner. Entering this season, he had 2,244 in 10 years, which my Cal-Berkeley math tells me is an average of 224.4 a year. If he kept that pace up — and it was beginning to look like he could do so forever — Ichiro would have needed three-plus years to get the necessary 756 hits for 3,000. At the rate of 224 a year, he would have gotten there in the middle of the 2014 season, at the age of 40. (As long as we’re talking about Ichiro and his career, here’s a cold-blooded takedown from today’s New York Times, of all places).

I still think Ichiro will get to 3,000. I believe it’s a major goal of his, and he’ll persevere and find a way to get it done. (And if he does so, he’ll also surpass Pete Rose’s career mark of 4,256 if you combine Ichiro’s hits in Japan and MLB. Ichiro’s 2,979th hit would send him past Rose in that formula. And once you’ve reached 2,979, you might as well stick around and get 21 more).

But the notion that Ichiro can keep up the pace of 220 or so hits a year into his late 30s isn’t looking nearly as realistic as it once did. The ZiPS formula gives him a 36 percent chance of getting to 3,000, which means he has a 64 percent chance of not getting there.

Ichiro’s obviously slowing down, in more ways than just his footspeed. It’s the natural way of things as you get older, and in retrospect it was naive to think that he could defy Mother Nature. But as his skills decline, Ichiro still is accumulating base hits at a very high rate — not his usual extraordinary rate, but higher than fellow 37-year-olds Damon, Abreu, Helton and Tejada. As the New York Times article points out, Ichiro is not a guy who draws walks, which may not be good for a leadoff man, but it’s good for the process of hit accumulation.

Ichiro has 99 hits through the Mariners’ first 89 games (Damon has 91, Abreu 86, Helton 83, Tejada 68. That projects to 180 over a 162-game season for Ichiro — and that’s with as bad a 35-game stretch (.189, 27-for-143) as we’ve ever seen from Ichiro. If I had to bet now, I’d put my money on Ichiro getting to 200 hits this year. He’s hitting a more Ichiro-like .320 over his last 25 games, and I’ve still got to think that at some point he’s going to put together one of those red-hot streaks he produces each year. Or maybe those are a thing of the past.

I wrote earlier this year about how important infield hits are to Ichiro’s success, and pondered whether he needs to re-invent himself as a hitter. I think we’ll have a good idea by September if he’s done so, and if he’s still firmly on the path to 3,000.

Of course, you have to also wonder if he’s going to do it in a Mariner uniform. Ichiro’s contract runs out after the 2012 season. But that’s a meaty question for another day.

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