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July 23, 2012

Painting the Black

The Surprise From Japan

by R.J. Anderson

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The Brewers had one of the league’s best-hitting outfields last season. Any group led by National League MVP Ryan Braun ought to rank well, and the Brewers did—only the Cardinals had a higher aggregate OPS. However, advertising Milwaukee’s outfield as a one-man show is being untruthful. Right fielder Corey Hart improved on his breakout 2010 season, and center fielders Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan provided speed and, in Morgan’s case, on-base percentage.

Whenever multiple players achieve banner years in a single season, it’s typically safe to bet on the under in the subsequent season. Milwaukee’s outfield is proving no different. They entered the weekend ranked seventh in outfield OPS. Despite Braun’s best efforts to outdo his MVP-winning season, both Hart and Morgan have taken a step back—and in Hart’s case, many steps away.  Prince Fielder’s departure and Mat Gamel’s ACL injury left the Brewers in need of a first baseman. Hart, initially reluctant but ultimately cooperative, has become the answer at the cold corner. It helps that Milwaukee is receiving good production in the outfield from an offseason addition.

Norichika Aoki’s in-progress rise from unknown to happening rookie is surprising. Not just to us clueless outsiders, but to the Brewers as well. After winning the negotiating rights to Aoki over the winter, the club had him work out for them before agreeing to terms. We tend to think that teams acquire players after researching them and forming an opinion of their worth. Doug Melvin’s words obscured the idea of a careful plan when he said:

"[agent Nez Balelo] told us before the winter meetings that he represented this player and expected him to be posted," said Melvin. "He said he might be a guy we'd be interested in so we put in a bid on him to see what would happen. You never know what the winning bid might be."

Be it by luck or design, Aoki’s addition is paying off. Aoki is not Ichiro, but his rookie season is the closest any Japanese player has come since.

Aoki’s Rookie True Average Compared to Other Notable Japanese Position Players

Player

Season

TAv

Ichiro Suzuki

2001

.303

Norichika Aoki

2012 (YTD)

.288

Kenji Johjima

2006

.281

Hideki Matsui

2003

.271

Akinori Iwamura

2007

.266

Kosuke Fukudome

2008

.257

Kazuo Matsui

2004

.255

 

How is it possible that everyone slept on a three-time Nippon League batting champ with a .329/.408/.467 line from 2007-10? It has a lot to do with Aoki’s timing. In his final season in Japan, the league introduced a ball that resembles the one used stateside. Aoki saw his numbers collapse. His line dropped to .292/.358/.360 and he hit four home runs after averaging more than 15 per season. To make it in the big leagues, Aoki would have to rely upon his speed, contact, and on-base skills. No small task when faced with superior pitching in a new environment.

But Aoki has taken the cultural and competitive shifts in stride. His overall line resembles a projection, not a translation from recent years. He’s already exceeded his previous season’s home run total with more than two months left in the season. It appears that he is the first Japanese-born player to have his home run total increase in his first season stateside.

Aoki’s Home Run Totals Compared to Other Notable Japanese Position Players

Player

Final NPB Year HR

First MLB Year HR

Net

Norichika Aoki

4

5 (YTD)

1

Kosuke Fukudome

13

10

-3

Ichiro Suzuki

12

8

-4

Kenji Johjima

36

18

-18

Akinori Iwamura

32

7

-25

Kazuo Matsui

33

7

-26

Hideki Matsui

50

16

-34

Aoki has a higher True Average than Bryce Harper, Alexi Amarista, and Will Middlebrooks, as well as every other rookie besides Mike Trout, Yoenis Cespedes, and Todd Frazier. He might not get Rookie of the Year consideration, but it won’t matter. To Milwaukee, he’s more than a rookie; he’s an enabler. Aoki helped fuel Hart’s transition by proving a suitable replacement. Then, with Rickie Weeks slumping, Aoki became the Brewers’ leadoff man.

Unless Hart develops feelings for first base, the Brewers will face a tough decision. They could shift Aoki to the bench, trade Hart, or try Aoki in center. Or they could test Aoki’s value on the trade market. He’s owed $1.25 million in 2013 with a club option worth $1.5 million for the 2014 season. Any acquiring team is paying $1.75 million (buyout included) for a potentially above-average right fielder. Try beating that on the free-agent market.

On the other hand, buyers might express skepticism. They can cite Aoki’s thick lower portion or his unconventional batting mechanics—which involves a kick over the plate—as concerns; or that he has fewer than 300 big-league plate appearances under his name. But if the Brewers are left to figure out how to deploy Aoki in a crowded outfield, they probably won’t mind, given how it worked out the first time around.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Norichika Aoki

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