Ichiro And The 4 Greatest 'What If' Careers In MLB History

Last Thursday, Ichiro Suzuki topped a career total of 4,000 professional hits. It sparked a breadth of reaction, ranging from awe to skepticism. Both probably have a place in regards to the accomplishment, as of his now 4,003 career hits, 1,278 of them came in the Japanese professional league with the Orix Wave from 1992 through 2000. Yet, there’s a bit of a problem with that as well, because for a guy who did not have his first Major League at-bat until he was 27 years old, now just 13 years later he’s pulling up close to 3,000 anyway (278 away, or just about a year and a half away from his current per-year pace). Time was not on his side for outright MLB immortality, but 4,000 hits is 4,000 hits; only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb can say they have done any better by official count.

But Ichiro is far from the only “what if” candidate in the distinguished MLB history scrolls. Between injury, segregation and war, there are dozens upon dozens of stories about careers that, while great, never hit the record books to the extent that they had the chance to. So what did we miss out on? What could have been? Some players like Rose, Nolan Ryan or Hank Aaron get a full run to show their greatness. Others, however, have intervening issues that keep them from that full potential. Here are a few victims of circumstance that could potentially have the MLB record book looking much different than it actually does — if they had the chance.

Ted Williams

Maybe the biggest void came from what Williams left on the field while in the skies over two wars that happened in the middle of his prime. Williams was just as good of a fighter pilot, and left the Red Sox not only between the ages of 24-26 for combat in World War II, but then again for two more years at ages 33-34 to fight in the Korean War. Now for a hitter the caliber of Williams, his entire career was basically “in-prime,” but this took away one of the greatest primes that ever wasn’t. At an average estimate, he lost 185 home runs, 1,005 hits, 210 doubles and another 720 RBI. These would be career totals that would have been at 706 homers, 3,659 hits, 735 doubles and a ridiculous 2,559 RBI, which would still be the most all time by over 260 to this day.

All of this makes the already standing greatest hitter that ever was, frighteningly, even more so.

Sandy Koufax

When you’re the youngest player ever elected to the Hall of Fame, and you are on hand to receive the honor, something has definitely gone off schedule. Koufax, who had arguably the greatest run of pitching ever seen from 1961-66, had his career end at age 30 due to unbearable pain that barely let him lift his arm over his shoulder by his final season. In his final season, he won 27 games and ran up 317 strikeouts with a 1.73 ERA, all after doctors told him to not pitch that season. If that was adjusted even a bit and projected out over another five years, his impact on the record books could have rewritten the way pitching standards are viewed still.

Satchel Paige

And when it comes to arms that have lost a chance at an impact, how about one that never got a chance to make one in the MLB until he was well past his 40th birthday. Considering he made the All-Star Game at ages 45 and 46, it’s scary to think about what he would have been in his 20s and 30s if all things (and people) were created equal. Satch said he won over 2,000 games barnstorming year-round in his career in the Negro Leagues, and while that win total may have been a bit outlandish in the confines of an MLB season, not many people who ever saw him pitch would say they saw any better. It seems very possible that a push into the Warren Spahn range of wins could have happened with his mix of durability, talent and craft.

Ken Griffey, Jr.

He hit 630 home runs across his career and still leaves a hunger for more. That’s a telling story of just how devastating The Kid was at his best. Maybe the most natural ballplayer of all time, on a level that Mays, Mantle and Musial would have to tip a cap to, yet in hindsight what failed to happen has created almost as much legend as what did, and he’s only been retired for three years. After a career that saw him hit 438 home runs by the time he was 30 years old, it seemed like Hank Aaron’s 755 was his to fly by well before he even hit 40 years old himself.

Alas, it was not to be. When his legs began to go, he never could quite get them back again. He never played more than 144 games again in a single season (including three straight years of 70, 53 and 83) and “only” hit another 192 in the next 10 years. The game’s probably never lost more thrill, and potential, any quicker than it did when Griffey gave out.

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