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DESPITE CRITICISM, STATS SAY STICK WITH SUZUKI

When you write a fantasy sports column, criticism comes with the territory.

Rarely do I feel the need to defend my position in this space, but I'm making an exception for a couple of e-mails I received concerning Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in the days after my draft preview appeared on March 27.

"Normally your ratings are pretty decent but you must have flipped your lid to rank Ichiro so high. He's nothing but a Punch-and-Judy slap hitter. They're a dime a dozen."

"You're a joke to advise taking Ichiro ahead of "Godzilla" (New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui) and (teammate Gary) Sheffield. How do you feel about that advice after (Cincinnati outfielder Adam) Dunn had two homers and five RBIs in the opener after you had Ichiro ranked twice as high?"

For the record, I ranked Suzuki sixth among outfielders, behind (in this order) the New York Mets' Carlos Beltran, the Los Angeles Angels' Vladimir Guerrero, Boston's Manny Ramirez, Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu and Florida's Miguel Cabrera. Matsui was a spot behind at No. 7, Sheffield No. 10, Dunn No. 11.

Granted, most national publications slotted Suzuki a bit lower. Street & Smith's had him 14th, CBS Sportsline.com's Fantasy Baseball put him ninth and Fantasy Baseball Index slotted him eighth.

But If I had it to do over, I'd boost Suzuki to fourth or fifth. I make it a point not to overemphasize spring training statistics, but Suzuki's were hard to ignore last month: 31 of 71 for a .437 batting average and six stolen bases.

The only legitimate knock on Suzuki is that he's been a bit of a slower starter, at least for the last two years.

He combined to bat just .249 in the Aprils of 2003 and 2004, but has started this season ablaze, going 19 for his first 44 (.432). Combine that with spring training and he's at 50 of 115 (.435) in game situations. I'm not saying fans of Ted Williams, baseball's last .400 hitter (.406 in 1941), have anything to worry about. However, I look at a fast start as an unexpected bonus for Suzuki.

En route to breaking George Sisler's 84-year-old record for hits in one season last year with 262, Suzuki hit just .255 (on 26 of 102) during April on the way to a .372 batting average.

Had he gone 0 for 102 he'd still have finished with a .355 batting average and led the majors in hits by 15.

Of the six other players who have had 250 or more hits in a season since 1900, none of them started slower than Suzuki. Sisler (257 hits with the 1920 St. Louis Browns) batted .333 in April that year, Rogers Hornsby (250, 1922 St. Louis Cardinals) hit .404 in the first month, Al Simmons (253, 1925 Philadelphia A's) hit .255 but had 55 fewer at-bats than Suzuki, Lefty O'Doul (254, 1929 Philadelphia Phillies) hit .425, Bill Terry (254, 1930 New York Giants) hit .410 and Chuck Klein (250, 1930 Phillies) batted .381.

Suzuki has 924 hits in his first four seasons, 84 more than the player who is second-best, Hall of Famer Paul "Big Poison" Waner with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1926-29.

In fact, no player in history can match Suzuki for total hits in any four consecutive seasons. Terry had 918 from 1929-32 and Sisler cracked 913 from 1920-24 (he missed 1923 with an eye injury.)

Last season, Suzuki had more singles (225) than any other major leaguer had total hits (Florida's Juan Pierre was next with 221).

No one in history has ever hit as many singles. Suzuki obliterated the old record of 206, set by Hall of Famer "Wee" Willie Keeler of the 1898 Baltimore Orioles.

That's some kind of knockout punch for a "Punch-and-Judy hitter."

And consider that Suzuki's record-setting season came as the leadoff hitter for a team that finished 63-99 with American League low totals of 698 runs scored and 136 home runs at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

The additions of third baseman Adrian Beltre, who matched Mike Schmidt's all-time record at the position with 48 home runs last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and first baseman Richie Sexson, who had 119 home runs and 351 RBIs with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2001 to '03, can only help Suzuki's numbers this season.

Other than the fact that they both debuted in 2001, Suzuki and Dunn are like comparing apples and oranges in the world of fantasy baseball.

Unlike Dunn, who struck out a major league-record 195 times last season, Suzuki maximizes his plate opportunities.

In his four seasons, Suzuki has never fanned more than 69 times in one year. He entered this season with 247 career whiffs and 183 walks. Dunn walked 108 times last season and entered this year with 348 career bases on balls.

While walks are plenty valuable in the real world, normally they're a source of frustration for fantasy owners, who can only cash in if the player proceeds to score a run.

In 2004, Suzuki led the majors in at-bats (704, coming within one of Willie Wilson's all-time record with the 1980 Kansas City Royals) and plate appearances (762). He has deceptive power with the potential to hit 25 homers.

The Sporting News' Ultimate Baseball Scouting Guide for 2005 writes that Suzuki, "has the best eye/hand coordination of any player in history."

While Suzuki isn't likely to give you the huge single day a slugger like Dunn can produce, he's the most consistent day-to-day fantasy player in the game.

Suzuki had hitting streaks of 21, 16 and 14 (twice) games last year, 80 multi-hit games, 24 games with three or more safeties, six four-hit games and four five-hit days.

The most consecutive games he went without a hit was two, on three different occasions, including two in April. He went from April 30 to Sept. 10 without being held hitless in back-to-back games.

At 5-foot-9, 172 pounds, the 31-year-old Suzuki forges a mighty figure in the world of fantasy baseball -- a game where bigger is definitely not always better.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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