July 23, 2012
Painting the Black
The Surprise From Japan
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
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