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Player Profile: Norichika Aoki

» 30 January 2009 » In npb » 4 Comments

From 1994-2000, Ichiro was the undisputed best hitter in Japan. After he left for Seattle, Hideki Matsui took over as Japan’s consensus batting king. After Matsui’s reign, you’d have to go with Nobuhiko Matsunaka, until 2005 when Norichika Aoki emerged. It’s hard to argue who was better in ’05, but in 2006 Aoki took over the title and has held it ever since.

I mainly focus on pitching with this site, just because I think pitching is the more interesting part of the game (baseball is the only game where the defense controls the ball). So this will be my first of comparatively few articles devoted to hitting, and why not start at the top?

Looking Back
Not too long ago, I was thumbing through Shukan Baseball’s 2003 draft guide, and I happened across Aoki’s profile toward the back of the section for college players. Shukan Baseball graded him an ‘A’ overall, noting that he had hit .400 in two consecutive seasons, but compared him to Tatsuya Ozeki
, a servicable contact-hitting outfielder with zero power. Aoki’s Waseda University teammate Takashi Toritani really viewed as the prize of the draft, and got a cover spot on that issue. Back then, the top college and industrial league players could choose which team to sign with, and Toritani chose to sign with Hanshin, while Aoki was selected in the fourth round of the draft by Yakult. By the end of 2005, it was obvious which team had the better draft. I didn’t see Aoki in college so I can’t explain why he was so underrated, but it does speak to the difficulty of drafing top amateurs. Perhaps teams were scared off by his small frame (5’8 or so).

While we’re here, other notables available in the 2003 draft included SoftBank closer Takahiro Mahara,  former-almost Red Sox farmhand Hayato Doue, Yomiuri starter Tetsuya Utsumi, Dodgers farmhand Robert Boothe, and Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse. Aoki’s “comparable” Ozeki is currently out of NPB work and looking to catch on with a US minor league team. 

The lefty-hitting, center-fielding Aoki is the closest thing Japan has to another Ichiro
, and WBC viewers will probably get to hear the compared quite a bit. The comparisons aren’t really off-base, as the two have pretty similar games. Comparing Aoki to a Japan-era Ichiro, both players have a long stride in their swings, but Aoki gets into more of a crouch and appears to have a more stable lower body. But judge for yourself with some obligatory YouTube footage: here’s a clip chronicling the evolution of Aoki’s swing from 2005-2007, and a homerun Ichiro hit off of a rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999. Both clips are in Japanese, but the video should speak for itself.

Aoki is a bit of a free-swinger, but he’s reduced his strikeouts and increased his slugging percentage in each year of his career. He’s also improved on his batting eye, walking about as much as he strikes out (his walk total actually surpassed his strikeouts in 2007). Another telling stat is that in 2008, 31.2% of his hits went for extra bases, up from 16.4% in his historic rookie year. Note also this improvement came while Yakult moved the fences back in their home, Jingu Stadium.

Let’s take a look at how he got his job done in 2008, courtesy of some analysis borrowed from the outstanding Data League site:

PA GB / FB Ratio GB Rate FB Rate Line Drive Rate GB BA FB BA Line Drive BA Hits to Left Hits to Center Hits to Right Hits on GB %
500 1.4 52.40% 37.50% 10.10% 0.288 0.423 0.775 28.50% 35.40% 36.10% 13.60%

So it’s pretty clear that Aoki uses the whole field, and does well when he gets the ball into the air. I’d suggest that he can improve further as his batting eye continues to develop and he can get pitches to drive. 

And More…
Aoki was a bright spot for Japan’s disappointing 2008 Olympic team, and will take to the international stage again in this year’s WBC, where he’ll start in center alongside Ichiro. Along with Yu Darvish, he’ll probably attract the most attention of any non-MLB player on Japan’s team.

Aoki just signed for 2009 with Yakult for 260m yen ($2.86m) after four rounds of negotiations. There had been some rumblings of Yakult wanting to sign him to a 10-year deal, but so far nothing’s come of it. I wish they’d make more than a nominal attempt to do it. Aoki asked to be posted a couple years ago, and Yakult of course said “no way”, so it would be nice to see them back that up with a little commitment. Yakult basically knows they have a guy that they’ll eventually lose to MLB, but they have a nine-year headstart on his services. Let’s see how creative they can be in retaining him and building a competitive team around him.

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Not Exactly a New Phenomenon…

» 04 November 2008 » In mlb prospects » 2 Comments

Though Junichi Tazawa might be the first consensus NPB first round draft pick-caliber player to jump directly to MLB, he’s not the first to have considered it. And even when he signs, he won’t be the first amateur out of Japan to sign with an MLB organization.

The guys listed below have all either negotiated or signed with MLB teams before playing pro ball in Japan. None of the players listed elicited the kind of reaction Tazawa got, but none of them pursued an MLB deal with the same level of fanfare that Tazawa has now. 

Koji Uehara: came close to signing with the Angels out of college, but backed off because of language challenges and having to start in the minors. Went on to have immediate success in NPB, and subsequently make numerous requests to be posted. Finally coming to MLB this off-season. 

Hayato Terahara: taken directly from Gary Garland’s excellent site:

Dodgers V.P. Tommy Lasorda personally tried to sign the 18 year old high school phenom with a 98mph fastball, Hayato Terehara, laying on the blather very thick as only Lasorda can. Terahara ultimately decided to remain in Japan and was drafted by the Daiei Hawks after a lottery drawing between the Hawks and three other Japanese teams.

I was in Japan when this happened and while it was reported in the media,  Terahara didn’t really seem interested in signing with the Dodgers. Terahara spent several ineffective years with the Hawks, then got traded to Yokohama where he immediately blossomed into a frontline pitcher.

GG Sato: signed with the Phillies after college and played a couple of years in their system. Drafted by Seibu afterward with a late round pick and eventually became a pretty good player. Kind of a late bloomer.

Kazuhito Tadano: went undrafted in NPB because of his appearance in an adult film while he was in college, but the Indians were willing to give him a contract. Tadano pitched briefly in the show but never really did well enough in AAA to get an extended shot in the majors. Nippon Ham drafted him with their first pick in 2007, and he’s back in Japan now. 

Sho Nakata: drew interest from the Twins, and the Mariners reportedly had a $3M offer ready for him (can’t find the link now). Chose to enter into the NPB draft and was selected by Nippon Ham. Just wrapped up his first year with the Fighters’ farm team.

Robert Boothe: Grew up in Japan with an American father and Japanese mother. Boothe pitched in college but didn’t have must statistical success. Still, the five NPB teams that were said to be interested in drafting him backed off when he decided to sign with the Dodgers.

There’s a number of other lesser-known Japanese-born players playing affiliated ball in the US. JapaneseBallPlayers.com has a pretty comprehensive list of guys that are currenlty on US minor league rosters, as well as some notable former players.

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