Building blocks are a great mental exercise tool. Using these tools to figure out what is a good fit and what isn’t helps you for later in life on a number of different levels. One of the most obvious things you learn is that some shapes don’t fit into other shaped holes. So the idiomatic expression goes, “a square peg in a round hole”. At first glance you think the square will go into the hole made for a circle; but alas they just don’t go together. What looked like a good idea originally can end up being a major misstep. So is the acquisition of Nori Aoki by the Kansas City Royals.
When the Royals originally acquired Aoki it looked like a genius move by Dayton Moore(no, seriously). Moore had traded from an overflowing bullpen by dealing Will Smith to Milwaukee for Aoki. It was almost hard to fathom that Moore had traded from an area the team was overloaded in and helped fill a hole the Royals had. Right field had been a problem area for Kansas City for the last few years, as Jeff Francoeur had become a black hole of suck after one turnaround year in 2011. By the end of last year David Lough was splitting time with Justin Maxwell in right, with Jarrod Dyson also occasionally starting in center and shifting Lorenzo Cain over to right. Aoki was supposed to not only fill the spot defensively but fill the leadoff spot as well. The Royals had been on the lookout for a “true” leadoff hitter for awhile; Alex Gordon had been filling the spot for the most part the last few years and while he had success there, the team really wanted to use his bat lower in the order(despite the fact that his biggest success to date was batting first). Aoki seemed to be a good fit: a slightly above average defender that would not hit for much power but would get on base.
But the player Aoki was in Milwaukee the last few years has only shown up in slight glimpses for Kansas City. We already knew he wouldn’t walk much; his highest walk rate was last year at 8.2%. This year he is sitting in line with that, at 6.9%. But his strikeout rate is way up, 5.9% to 11.1%. He has already almost reached his strikeout total from last year(29 to last years 40) in not even half the amount of games played. Sure, you can chalk some of that up to changing leagues; it takes most players a little bit of time to adjust to the differences in the other league and the style of baseball played in each. Most of it is Aoki swinging at more pitches than ever before in his career. He is swinging at about 45% of the pitches he has seen and is only seeing on average about 3.81 pitches per plate appearance. For a guy who’s main responsibility is to go deep in the count to allow himself a better opportunity to get on base, he just isn’t doing his job.
The thing is, his numbers really aren’t much different than they were before this year. Most of his numbers show that he should be on pace offensively for close to his 2013 numbers, taking out his home run totals. Aoki had hit eight bombs last year, but you all know how Kauffman Stadium is a cavernous canyon where home runs go to die, so don’t expect much there this year(insert sarcasm here). The strikeouts seem to be dragging Aoki down, despite the fact he is still putting the ball in play quite frequently. His total bases also seem to be a tad bit down, .541 to .660. This factors in things like hit by pitch(HBP), which happens to Aoki quite often. Looking at the numbers, it really appears the issue is more that Aoki just isn’t a typical leadoff hitter. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t hit a ton of extra bases, and his value early on in his career was his ability to get on base, whether it be by hit, error or free pass.
There is another issue: regression. Aoki is currently 32, which is about the average age that a major league ballplayer starts to slide downward when it comes to his production. Aoki had a slight progression downward last year, and it seems to be continuing into 2014. Offensively it means his bat speed slows down a tick and he can expect a gradual decrease in speed. This would explain why his ground ball rate is up and explain a portion of the strikeouts. He also has regressed on defense and the Royals have noticed. The Royals have gotten to the point where late in games Aoki is taken out defensively and Dyson comes in to play center field while Cain slides over to right. It’s been obvious by watching Aoki that he has lost a noticeable step or two and takes odd routes to the ball from time to time. Apparently he has been working with Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz and maybe that means an increase in playing time late in the game as the season wears. Either way, it seems apparent that Aoki has not been the player the Royals expected to get when they traded for him and it leaves a few questions for later in the season.
The question has already been asked on whether or not Aoki will lose playing time and outside of being replaced defensively, manager Ned Yost has said no. That would mean at this point Aoki is the right fielder and leadoff hitter unless something changes. Could the team go out and acquire someone to play right field? Possibly, and there seems to be a good candidate in San Diego. Chris Denorfia is a very possible trade candidate and I’ve mentioned him this past offseason as a candidate for the position. As always the Padres are in sell mode and it probably wouldn’t take much to acquire a player like Denorfia, who isn’t an All-Star but is about as reliable a player as there is out there on the market. There is also the possiblity that Yost could play Dyson more, although it always seems that his flaws are on display more when he gets increased playing time. The amount Dyson is used now might be the best thing for him and his numbers.
Nori Aoki hasn’t been the player Dayton Moore thought he was acquiring this winter but it’s hard to really feel like it was a wasted trade. The Royals traded from a position of depth and took a chance on a guy who they thought could help them. Unfortunately, they seemed to have caught him at the beginning of the downturn of his career. There is still a few months for Aoki to salvage his season and elevate his numbers to more respectable levels and prove that there shouldn’t be questions about his playing time. Until that happens though, there is always the outside chance the Royals will look for more production from the right field and leadoff spots. If that isn’t enough to warm your soul, I recommend a laugh at Aoki’s expense. Thanks to the genius of one Grant Brisbee, numerous pictures of Nori jumping, ducking or flying out of the way of pitches were compiled for our sick pleasure. Yes, Aoki is a superhero and a damned treasure. Not always in that order. My tears might come from his on field play, but my laughter is the photographic proof.