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Norichika Aoki: A Very Pleasant Surprise

Last December, the Brewers won the posting for 30-year-old Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki. The fee going back to his Japanese team was only $2.5 million; the deal he eventually signed in January was for another $2.5 million, but spread over two years (along with a team-friendly $1.5 million option for 2014). Aoki was so lightly thought of that he wasn’t really even in competition for a starting job in a Milwaukee outfield that already featured Ryan Braun, Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez, & Corey Hart. When Eno Sarris posted our initial thoughts about him in January, the most optimistic view was mostly, “well, at least Braun’s suspension is going to open up 50 games worth of playing time.” As we of course later learned, even that didn’t happen, leaving Aoki’s situation uncertain at best.

So when we say that expectations for Aoki were low entering the season, that might even be overstating it. Fantasy players routinely ignored him in drafts, and for good reason. What was the point in bothering with a largely unknown import who was expected to get little playing time, especially after – fairly or (mostly) unfairly – the last Japanese position player, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, had flopped so spectacularly?

As we know now, that modest investment paid off enormously for the Brewers. Aoki ended the season as a top-40 outfielder in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings, narrowly topping much larger names like Andre Ethier, Nick Swisher, & Shane Victorino. His season was so impressive that you could probably win a lot of bar bets by simply knowing that only three players managed to hit at least 10 home runs, steal 30 bases, and have an OBP of .350 or more last year: Braun, Mike Trout… and Aoki. As the Brewers made an improbable run at the playoffs in September, Aoki was a primary reason why, hitting .306/.371/.524 over the final month.

Of course, it didn’t start out quite like that for him. Buried on the bench to begin the season, he made only three starts in the first month, coming to the plate just 23 times, mainly as a pinch-hitter. He began to see additional time in center field as Morgan struggled and Gomez battled a hamstring injury, but his opportunity really came when the Brewers tired of the “often injured & always awful” first base collection of Mat Gamel, Taylor Green, & Travis Ishikawa in May and moved right fielder Hart to cover the mess. After not starting in right field once over the first 41 games, Aoki’s name was in the lineup 99 times over the remaining 121.

Though the ten homers were a surprising touch, there’s no doubt about the game Aoki plays, and it relies heavily on speed. He led all batters in successful infield hits, with 34, and only seven qualified batters hit the ball on the ground more than Aoki’s 55.4%.(Perhaps unsurprisingly, only five hit fewer line drives than his 16.9%.) Though his BABIP was a reasonable .304, it’s the kind of profile that makes you worry there’s a steep cliff for a player on the wrong side of 30. That’s especially true on the bases, where Aoki’s solid total of 30 steals – aided in some part by Ron Roenike, who had his Brewer team running more than just about anyone else in baseball – is downgraded somewhat by 8 times caught stealing, leaving him with a net of 22.

Still, Aoki is only 31 in January, and while he may be at the back end of his prime, his rookie season was nothing but an unqualified success, and it’s too soon to expect his speed to suddenly disappear. Aoki doesn’t stand out in any particular category, but he was solid across the board, contributing some amount of value in batting average, homers, runs scored, and steals.

That kind of player might not exactly be flashy, but when you’re looking for stolen bases, it’s immensely useful – clearly, there’s a bit difference between having speed on your team and having the kind of speed you actually want to hang on to. If you’re not lucky enough to get a Trout or a Michael Bourn, fantasy is filled with the kind of speed-only types who will just kill you everywhere else, like Dee Gordon or Tony Campana. Aoki isn’t likely to hurt you in that way, and should be a very useful buy-low third outfielder in 2013, since he hasn’t seemed to gain the accolades his debut would ordinarily merit.