Say you have a guy who clouted more than 50 extra-base hits as a rookie and stole 30 bases. Among batters with 450 or more at-bats leading off, this guy finished fifth in the majors in OBP, getting aboard at a .355 clip.
You see a guy do all of that as a rookie and you might expect that he’s going to take home some hardware. Guys have gotten trophies from the BBWAA for less. But not last year. A funny thing happened to Norichika Aoki of the Brewers on the way to history’s podium: Bryce Harper, specifically, in a talent-packed field that led the electorate to rank Aoki fifth on the ballot for 2012’s NL Rookie of the Year.
None of which changes the fact that Aoki was exactly what the Brewers needed when they signed him away from the Japanese leagues. He’s providing them with some security in a lineup trying to get by with three potential power sources on the DL: Aramis Ramirez for a stretch, Corey Hart for the time being and Mat Gamel for the season.
From the moment he was named the Central League Rookie of the Year in Japan (2005), Aoki inspired comparisons to Ichiro Suzuki while enjoying immense popularity in his home country. He was a seven-time All-Star, a six-time Gold Glover. But what did that get him? A two-year, $2.25 million deal with a cheap $1.5 million club option or $250,000 buyout for 2014. For a star player who stated as early as 2006 that he expected to go to MLB someday, it had to be a little humbling; a decade ago, a third-rate import like Tsuyoshi Shinjo was getting that kind of money from the Mets. So much for being the next Ichiro.
Aoki wasn’t even initially guaranteed an everyday job when he came stateside, or even the same opportunity that Shinjo got. General manager Doug Melvin seemed genuinely surprised that he had the winning bid after the Yakult Swallows posted him. Expectations were initially modest -- maybe Aoki would be a good fourth outfielder? He got only four starts in all of April last year, and it was almost June before the Brewers finally opened up the right field job for him by moving Hart to first base to replace the reliably injured Gamel.
The Brewers should be glad they finally gave Aoki a shot, because as a result they found the leadoff man perfectly suited to manager Ron Roenicke’s aggressive in-game tactics, not to mention one who cost them far less than his value on the open market.
It’s even more surprising when you consider that he posted a weak .718 OPS for Yakult in his last season there, and then a .787 OPS as a MLB rookie. Generally, numbers for players coming to the states are supposed to go down, not up, but Aoki’s walk rate stayed close to flat, going from 7.8 percent to 7.3 in the U.S., while he doubled his Isolated Power between 2011 to 2012. Given the small size of most Japanese parks, you can’t put all of that on Miller Park’s hitter-happy dimensions. Of course, his 2011 season in Japan was uncharacteristically poor -- he’d posted OPS marks in the .940s in three of the previous four years -- setting himself up for bargain-basement pricing once he came to the U.S.
After this year’s initial hot start, Aoki wasn’t getting too worked up when asked about it as the Brewers swung through Chicago to play the Cubs. “I feel good that I’ve been on a hot streak, but I also know that the season is going to be a long season,” Aoki said. “I’m going to have my ups and downs, the same as anyone else.”
He was equally at ease with the possibilities of a slump to come. “It’s just a matter of maintaining what I’m capable of doing and being consistent.”
That might sound like Aoki has simply mastered his clichés in just a single stateside season -- even through a translator, no less. But for a Japanese player, MLB’s longer season forces even a Japanese league veteran to re-think his day-to-day approach to his craft.
“Basically, in terms of preparation, I started doing fewer workouts -- the season here is a lot longer. I had to change that up just to adjust for the fatigue that comes with that. That was so I could maintain my conditioning during the full season,” Aoki said.
Aoki might be the ideal incarnation of what Roenicke wants to do in all phases of the game: Not a bopper, but a ballplayer who adds runs and wins on the margins, in the field and on the bases, when he isn’t creating scoring opportunities for the heart of the order. Last year, Aoki was third among NL right-fielders in runs saved with plus-8 per Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus-Minus despite starting only 99 games. He netted another six runs on the bases -- most of those on steals -- costing the Brewers some benefit of his speed by running into four outs -- but that’s a risk that comes with Roenicke's willingness to run.
Earlier this season, during the first series between the Cubs and Brewers, fellow Japanese league vet Kyuji Fujikawa of the Cubs noted that Aoki isn’t the same hitter that he used to face when both starred in the Central League. Aoki was a Yakult Swallow while Fujikawa closed for the Hanshin Tigers.
“He’s taken it up a notch to another level of hitting. He’s improved,” Fujikawa observed. This is probably the last thing any pitcher wants to hear, because stateside Aoki is in a lineup with Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Ramirez and eventually Hart.
Mulling that challenge, Fujikawa said, “It’s kind of different, looking at it from the lineup standpoint. [Aoki] was one of the best hitters in Japan, so it was more about just trying to get him out, but here, you’ve got a lot of good hitters behind him. Now you can’t just focus on that one guy.”
That sort of baseball intelligence can play out in other ways, naturally. Should Fujikawa resume the responsibilities of closing for the Cubs, he doesn’t expect to have any advantage facing the Brewers. “As much as I know him, he knows what kind of pitcher that I am and gives that information to his teammates," Fujikawa said. "I think I have to show him a new version of myself."
Grinning after getting the translation that Fujikawa had been asked about whether Aoki had changed as a hitter since their days as rivals in the NPB, Aoki was diplomatic about his once and future rival, here as he was on the home islands.
“I’m really excited about facing him again now that he’s on one of our division rivals,” said the happy Brewer, looking forward to the future. Can you blame him?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.