Nori Aoki: Man of Laughter and Tears

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zimbio.com

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.

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zimbio.com

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.

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zimbio.com

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.

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zimbio.com

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.

 

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mlblogs.com

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.

kansasfirstnews.com
kansasfirstnews.com

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.

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zimbio.com

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.

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The 2013 Kansas City Royals: Like Mike Ness said, “I Was Wrong”

My mother once told me I was both stubborn and bull-headed. I remember asking her how I could be both, and she said that there was a difference. The difference was if you were bull-headed, you would purposely do things just to spite others. Or not admit you made a mistake. Well, I can freely say that some things have changed since my childhood(some), and I can say like that Social Distortion song, I was wrong about this Kansas City Royals season. I initially thought this was a 78-80 win team and thought there were problems within the team that were being ignored. Okay, I wasn’t completely wrong. So let’s do a fun exercise today, folks. I will go through my predictions for the Royals before the season, and we’ll find out what I guessed correctly and what I was badly incorrect about. Nothing like pointing out all your mistakes…although to be fair, baseball can do that to you!

What I was right about: 

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals

1) The starting rotation was better

I know, this isn’t really going out on a limb. The 2012 Royals rotation was awful. Putrid. Atrocious. Deplorable. Offensive. Pretty much any negative synonym you can think of would describe how bad they were. Improving the rotation was Dayton Moore’s main goal last winter and improve it he did. James Shields came in and was the ace the Royals needed every fifth day. Jeremy Guthrie was above what most predicted for a large portion of the season, but the real surprise was Ervin Santana. We will cover him in things I got wrong, although I wasn’t alone when it comes to “Magic”. I was also right that Wade Davis would struggle, and it took most of the season before he was sent to the bullpen. But don’t fret, children; put money on Davis starting next year in the rotation. Or as I now call him, Hiram Davies III. The rotation being better made a lot of the Royals flaws less noticeable. It just goes to show that once again, if you have pitching and defense they can mask a team’s ills.

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2)The bullpen was an elite bullpen   

This, once again, wasn’t a shock. The year before the pen had been fabulous and had pitched waaaaaay more innings than they should have. This year they got some relief of their own from the rotation, but it almost didn’t matter who came in; this unit was the best in baseball. They were led by All-Star closer Greg Holland, who has an argument for being the best closer in baseball this year–not for him breaking the team’s saves record(maybe the most worthless stat in the sport) but for striking out 103 batters in 67 innings thrown. Insane. After a rough first week #DirtySouth held things down and rolled successfully most of the year. After Holland, it was literally a who’s who of solid relievers; Hochevar, Collins, Coleman, Smith, Crow, and Davis(once he was shipped out there). Really the only one who slumped was Kelvin Herrera, and it’s not like he is a lost cause. Bullpens normally don’t have a long shelf life, so next year they could implode, but at least for 2013 they can say they were the best.

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3) The offense struggled 

During Spring Training, I felt like a kid in a car, yelling while the windows are rolled up. No one would hear me as I kept saying that the offense struggled in 2012 and the Royals did nothing to remedy it. By May, I was not only correct, I was ridiculously right–and I hated it. The offense struggled so much that even players that you thought would be fine had their issues. Billy Butler caught a lot of scorn this year, as his numbers were down from the year before. But by the end of the season, he was the team leader in RBI’s and outside of some of the power numbers, he had a close to normal season for Billy. Alex F. Gordon played Gold Glove defense, and was a team leader that they needed. But Alex struggled off and on all year and he just didn’t have the typical Gordon season. Alcides Escobar fell way off of his 2012 numbers. Likewise for Mike Moustakas. Right field and second base were black holes until David Lough and Emilio Bonifacio started getting regular playing time. The only real shining light was the return to glory of Eric Hosmer, but even that took bringing in a Hall of Famer to fix his swing. Hosmer went from purely a singles hitter in May to looking like the rookie who was going to be an MVP some day. All in just a few short weeks. The good news for Kansas City is hopefully Dayton will target a right fielder in the offseason with some pop…and the only direction to go for most of these guys is up next year. Let’s hope.

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4) Bringing back Getz and Francoeur was pointless 

Most anyone with a pulse was smart enough to realize another season of Frenchy and Getzie would lead to failure. Most anyone isn’t Dayton Moore and Ned Yost. I’ll be honest when I say a lot of my predictions were based on these two still being around. Luckily, Moore didn’t completely want to tank the season so Getz was sent down to Omaha in June, while Francoeur was cut just a few weeks later. Neither had even close to an average season, let alone a passable one. Getz would get recalled before the start of the second half of the season, but he didn’t see as much playing time and by September was riding the pine except for the occasional start or pinch running assignment. Francoeur was picked up by the Giants, but that didn’t last long. Just thinking of what the season could have been if the Royals had just cut ties with these two might have garnered them a few more wins…and maybe the chance of a wild card spot. I can only hope ‘the coaches son’ will be gone next year, so I don’t have to mention how Moore and Yost hold onto guys who no longer carry any value.

Ned Yost

5) Ned Yost will screw something up when it counts

Nothing new here. Been calling it for close to two years now. He does not deal well with pressure. Or allows his starter to stay in despite him getting very lucky. Oh, and keep him in for a chance at a ‘W’. Bunting in the early innings. Weird choices late in a pennant race game. More bunting. I’m to the point that I am tired of talking about it. Let’s move on.

Okay, now onto what I got wrong:

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1) The Royals finish above .500

This should probably count for like 3-4 things I got right. But…I’ve never been so happy to be wrong about something! Nothing really compares to playing meaningful games in September. Nothing made me happier than to see a packed house at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals didn’t seem to me like an above .500 team most of the year, if for nothing else than the fact that this was the streakiest of streaky teams that I have ever seen. It would have been nice for our sanity if the Royals had been a bit more consistent this year. At the end of the day, I was way wrong about this and fully admit it. But I’m glad I was wrong. As a diehard Royals fan, I just want to see my team compete and win. They did that this year, even if it might have been at the cost of another year of Dayton Moore and Ned Yost, or mortgaging the future thanks to the Wil Myers trade. Step 2 is now to actually reach the playoffs. That window is closing, so it’s time to jump through.

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2) Ervin Santana was ‘Magic’

There was no way I thought Santana would be as good as he was for the Royals this past season. Honestly, I’d like to know who actually DID think he would be this good. Santana was coming off of what was quite possibly his worst season in the majors, a season that saw him lead the league in home runs allowed despite the fact he spent 2012 pitching in one of the bigger ballparks in the big leagues(the Angels’ Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Geez, even their stadium has a giant name!). In what will go down as one of Dayton Moore’s better trades, Santana was a legitimate number two starter in the Royals rotation. His numbers do not lie. I was of the thinking that he would spend most of the year injured…yep, shows you what I know. Santana is a free agent this winter, and odds are the Royals aren’t going to be able to afford his lofty cost(both years and dollars). Santana was the most unexpected surprise Kansas City had this year, and a surprise most of us didn’t see coming. It’s too bad ‘Magic’ probably won’t be back in Royal blue, since he would be a welcome return, even if he would end up being overpaid for too many years.

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So in all fairness, I wasn’t really too far off. Sure, I thought this was an under .500 bunch, but that was with the thought that Getz and Francoeur would see the majority amount of time most of the year and with the offense never really figuring it out. Instead, Kansas City wised up, and Getzie and Frenchy were either exiled to AAA or sent packing when they didn’t produce. History showed that Dayton Moore didn’t have an endless leash on these guys, and their replacements, for the most part, improved on their positions. The bats were still streaky, but had enough glimpses of what everyone THOUGHT  they could do and got great starting pitching to keep them in way more games than in years past. I am willing to be wrong more often if it means the Royals win and keep themselves in a pennant race. I probably had more fun in September than I have had in a long time as a Royals fan. Hopefully they will continue to prove me wrong in 2014 and we can have a discussion about how I never thought they would reach the playoffs. I’m willing to look the buffoon if it means playoffs. A little bit more optimism wouldn’t hurt me, even if the realist in me finds it hard sometimes. I just have to remember the little kid growing up that loved his Kansas City Royals. He is still around; he always makes an appearance every time I walk into Kauffman Stadium.

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