On the significance of this record
Some quick and dirty comparisons.
Sisler hit .407 in 631 at-bats to get to 257 hits.
As of press time, Ichiro is hitting .373 in 694 AB to get his 259 hits.
In 1920, in the AL, the average hitter put up a .284/.343/.387 line. Today it’s .270/.338/.433.
Using Clay Davenport’s historical translations to compare the two, Sisler’s batting average translates to a .372 and he comes out with 241 hits over the course of his 1920 season. Ichiro’s translated stats so far for the 2004 season have his batting average at .388 (and only 264 hits).
If you want to make an argument that Sisler was the more valuable hitter overall, whatever. To me it’s sort of besides the point, which is that Ichiro is an amazing hitter, even as he might lack the power, say, of Sisler.
Is the record important? Like every record, it depends on the beholder. I could personally care less about who hit the most home runs in a 17-game span, but I’m interested in 162-game spans, as long as they coincide with the start and finish of a season.
Acknowledging Ichiro’s great accomplishment while knocking down the accomplishment itself is the kind of back-handed compliment that makes me crazy. We for better or worse count certain stats in baseball, and we order them to some degree — batting for an average higher than .400, home runs, RBI is frequently mentioned when a good offense seems like it might produce a hitter to challenge Hack Wilson — and we pay attention to those who might challenge them.
Part of Ichiro’s problem is that he came up on Sisler and blackjacked him (no doubt apologizing before hand at some length) when no one was looking. This isn’t a record that anyone’s approached in years. Because baseball hitters have changed and the game itself doesn’t produce the kind of high-average hitters to challenge it, we don’t see the kind of speculation and press coverage of it. There wasn’t the kind of photo-genic Sosa v McGwire race, followed by Bonds a couple of years later. Sisler isn’t known in the way that Ted Williams is (though Sisler’s one of the best first basemen ever), so the season hits record doesn’t have as much modern historical ooomph as hitting .400 does.
But so be it. Ichiro has reached and passed a mark for hitting excellence which no one has approached besides Ichiro has challenged since 2000, when Darin Erstad (no, really) had 240. This record is not cheap, or easily achieved, as some might have you believe. It has proven one of the most expensive and difficult in baseball history, and whether or not you want to nitpick at Ichiro’s game, you have to applaud this achievement.