Norichika Aoki is described by friends in Tokyo as the ‘Hits Manufacturing Machine’ (安打製造機). When he first came up in 2005, he began slowly with the Yakult Swallows until he was made the lead off hitter in June. By season’s end, he had become only the second person ever to amass 200 hits in a single season. The first to do so was none other than Ichiro.
After that initial season, hitting became his specialty. A seven time All-Star (2005-2011), he won the batting title three times and six Golden Glove awards (2006-2011) for defense in Center Field. he has played in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics and was a member of the 2008 Beijing Olympic team.
When you see him, he is of slight build and raises his front right leg (he bats left handed) like the legendary Sadaharu Oh and former major league Hall of Famer, Mel Ott. In his initial at bats with the Brewers in Spring Training, he did not look like the same player that tore up the Japanese pro league. His right leg was bent severely and the right knee nearly touched the ground. He slapped at the ball, taking it where it would naturally go, not pulling it in the least. His first two at bats were both infield ground outs.
Then in his third at bat, he slapped a pitch nearly out of the reach of the San Francisco Giant’s second baseman, who made a diving attempt to his left to stop the ball, which he did. But with his speed, Aoki’s first hit as a Major League batter was assured.
He speaks through an interpreter. He is small. He’ll probably hit home runs as much as Craig Counsel used to. Yet, he is going to make it mighty interesting for the Brewers as they are loaded in the outfield. He’s played left field and right field so far in Spring Training 2012. And with his real position as a center fielder, he will probably end up there if Go Go fails to hit. Morgan is scheduled to be in right field until Hart comes back from knee surgery sometime in April. Then there is Logan Schafer. He flat out flies. On Tuesday night he made a mad dash to deep left center field and made a great catch to stop the Giants.
The point is if Aoki can get off to a fast start and Gomez fails to hit (as he has never lived up to his expectation as a good hitter in the major leagues), Aoki could become the center fielder for the Brewers. If that happens, it poses a very interesting challenge of where he is placed in the batting order. Will he bat lead off, his customary position in Japan? Probably not with the legendary Weeks a powerful force there. How about second? Morgan has shown he is an excellent #2 player at bat. What about 7th, ahead of Lucroy? Sounds like a very interesting move. If that’s the case, Lucroy could be a good selection for a fantasy team.
What Aoki brings is promise. If he can get off to a good start, it will make for an interesting year for the Milwaukee Brewers. Imagine the pressure he is under to perform. The eyes of his countrymen are on him constantly as he is followed by a hoard of reporters and cameramen. That’s a heavy load to be placed upon the shoulders of a 30 year old in a foreign land amidst a culture that is so different and a language that is absolutely foreign.
Can he become the second Japanese player to have 200 hits in the major leagues? You know who was the first.