Racking up more hits than can be believed

Ty Cobb didn't need too many games to rack up 4,191 hits.

Ty Cobb didn’t need too many games to rack up 4,191 hits.

I haven’t been at 100 percent for most of this week, sidelined by a strong summer cold or a really weak version of the flu that’s been accompanied by an occasional fever and lots of tea and more than a couple of boxes of tissues.

So I’ve been on the couch, or in bed, mostly watching TV. With all that, this seemed like as good a time as any to re-watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball. I’ve seen it enough that I wouldn’t feel bad about lapsing in and out of consciousness while it was on, and while I was with it, hey, there’s Cy Young and the Huntington Avenue Grounds.

This morning, again, half paying attention, the 1920s were coming to a close and Ty Cobb’s career was summed up. Cobb, as the documentary is sure to note, was a miserable human being and an amazing hitter and competitor, the likes of which just didn’t exist in his time.

But when they were running through his career statistics, one jumped out at me: in 3,034 games played, he tallied 4,191 hits.

I knew about the hits, obviously; only Pete Rose had more and he had to hang on a lot longer to get past him. But the number of games struck me as amazing. He only needed a handful more than 3,000 games to get more than 4,000 hits?

It seemed to make sense that most of the guys who have had at least 3,000 hits would have more hits than games. So, in a relatively unscientific study, I checked the leaderboard to see how the top 15 players had done in terms of hits vs. games played.

Pete Rose 4,256 3,562 +694
Ty Cobb 4,191 3,034 +1,157
Hank Aaron 3,771 3,298 +473
Stan Musial 3,630 3,026 +604
Tris Speaker 3,514 2,789 +725
Cap Anson 3,435 2,524 +911
Honus Wagner 3,420 2,794 +626
Carl Yastrzemski 3,419 3,308 +111
Paul Molitor 3,319 2,683 +636
Eddie Collins 3,315 2,826 +489
Derek Jeter 3,311 2,594 +717
Willie Mays 3,283 2,992 +291
Eddie Murray 3,255 3,026 +229
Nap Lajoie 3,243 2,480 +763
Cal Ripken 3,184 3,001 +183

The list more or less confirms what I had initially thought, that Cobb’s differential seemed remarkable even considering some of the best hitters who ever played. It sheds a little light on some players; for example, Ripken and Yastrzemski’s greatest accomplishments came in their sheer resistance to effects of aging, rarely great but always good. Derek Jeter’s career is still in motion and his differential could tail down before he’s done, but he’s in rare company here, behind just Cobb, Anson and Lajoie.

Anson is the closest to Cobb, with 246 few games in the difference column. Cobb, through his first 10 full seasons in the majors (discounting his part-time role as an 18 and 19-year-old his first two years), averaged 199 hits a season and hit more than 200 six times in that stretch. In the 11th season, he had 225. Anson didn’t have the benefit of the long season for most of his career, but if you again cancel out his first two seasons as a bit player and count his first 10, he averaged 103 hits over 66 games, which averages out to 253 in a 162 game schedule. Clearly, these guys are in a class of their own. Almost.

There’s one player who has come closer than Anson to Cobb’s hitting regularity, and he’s also a player who has specialized in small ball, putting it in play and rarely striking out while running the bases with skill and speed to maximize his at-bats.

Ichiro, you see, has 2,728 hits in 2,037 games played in the major leagues. Through his first 10 seasons in the majors, he topped 200 hits each year, the only player to do so consecutively for that long, and averaged 224 per season in that stretch.

But he also had a tremendous career in Japan before he was posted by the Orix Blue Wave and purchased by the Seattle Mariners, and in 951 games there, he had 1,278 hits. Add it all up, and Ichiro has 4,006 hits in 2,988 games played, as of this afternoon. His differential sits at +1,018.

It’s all a nice reminder of the force of nature that Ichiro has been, and he’s still capable of the amazing now and again. He’s a lot nicer than Cobb, too.

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