Norichika Aoki hails from Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan, and is one of the most-loved players on the Tokyo Swallows roster.
After helping Waseda University win the Tokyo Big6 Championships four semesters in a row, Aoki was drafted fourth by Tokyo in the first round of the 2003 draft. The outfielder didn’t see much first team action in 2004, but he became the starting center fielder in 2005 thanks to his standout 2004 campaign in the minors and right fielder Atsunori Inaba’s free agency departure to colder pastures in Hokkaido. He was MVP of the minor league all-star game in his first year with the Swallows.
Aoki won rookie of the year honors in 2005 thanks to his 202 hits and .344 batting average which were both Central League highs. His 202 hits were a new Central League record at the time, as was his collection of 169 singles in a single season.
While Aoki’s stolen base tally has dwindled over the years, his power has steadily increased. While being a strict contact and opposite-field slice hitter throughout his university and early years as a pro, he is now a legitimate threat to pull the ball and even park it in the stands. With the exception of 2005 and 2011, Aoki hit double digit home runs every season including a career high 20 in 2007.
He has turned into a perennial Central League Golden Glove and Best Nine winner, and he is well-respected across the league. There was no doubt some surprise in Tsubamegun Nation when the Tokyo front office granted Aoki’s wish to post him after the 2011 season even though he wouldn’t be eligible for international free agency until 2013.
Tokyo Career Stats
Aoki struggled for a long stretch of the 2011 season at the plate, and the change in his numbers from 2010 to 2011 are a frightening indication of how far he fell. As he has always done, he changed his batting stance several times as he desperately tried to find a way out of his prolonged slump, but the impatience led to worse decisions at the plate and his hot start in April was followed by a very forgettable May-July.
How much the transition to the new baseball affected him is unclear. Pitchers fared far better this season, and offensive output dropped precipitously compared to years past. It is possible that Aoki was a party to those trends. But he hadn’t looked so confused at the plate since his somewhat patchy performance in 2009.
Whatever the case, Aoki’s slices to left field, his bread-and-butter offensive tactic, were not nearly as abundant in 2011 as in seasons past. Many of them ended up being groundouts to short. He only recorded 27 base hits to left in the season before he was posted to MLB. In 2010, by comparison, he hit 57.
The 2011 campaign notwithstanding, Aoki has been known to hit well against both lefties and righties. In 2011 he had the best average (.337) for a lefty in the Central League versus southpaws and was second in NPB only to Fukuoka’s Hasegawa. Oddly, however, he struggled against righties with a .268 average which played a major part in his relatively weak numbers that season.
In 2010 Aoki led the league with a .358 batting average, hitting .344 against southpaws and .366 against righties. This is perhaps further evidence that 2011’s numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, or that Aoki is going to be in big, big trouble when he hits the majors.
Aoki is always a threat to steal a base although he does so with far less frequency these days. After beating Hanshin’s Akahoshi for the base swiping crown in 2006 (41 stolen bags), a succession of managers started using teammate and fellow Waseda alum, Hiroyasu Tanaka, to bunt him over to second. In 2011, Aoki failed to record double-digit steals for the first time in his pro career. Tanaka also led the lead in sacrifice bunts that year.
That said, his quickness allows him to sneak extra bases every once in a while. He is capable of turning singles into doubles and is generally an aggressive base-runner.
Aoki covers a large amount of real estate in center. He has a quick first step and can unload the ball in a hurry if a runner is threatening to advance. He does not have a canon, but possesses above-average accuracy that helps him to compensate for what he lacks in arm strength.
It was revealed on Saturday December 17th, 2011 that the Milwaukee Brewers had submitted the winning bid and had therefore earned a 30-day exclusive negotiating window with Aoki. The bid was reportedly $2.5 million and was considered to be a bargain by many observers.
Many were surprised that the Brewers had submitted a bid at all since the team had previously said that it wasn’t scouting Japan and therefore wouldn’t attempt to sign a player that it hadn’t seen before. Further confusion was levied by the fact that Milwaukee already had three decent options in the outfield.
Before being posted, Aoki indicated that he would be willing to play any third of the outfield in MLB.
On January 5th, 2012, Aoki flew to the United States where he participated in a “workout” at Milwaukee’s spring training facility in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 8th.
On January 17th, 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they had signed Aoki to a two-year deal with a club option for 2014.
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