Aoki's value to Giants transcends statistics
Left fielder's bases-loaded walk Sunday highlights extra spark he brings
SAN FRANCISCO -- Whether Giants left fielder Nori Aoki will play impressively is not an issue. It's a matter of what he'll do, and when.
Maybe Aoki will slap a leadoff base hit to generate a rally. Or he'll run himself into scoring position by stealing a base. Aoki also has proven more than capable of diving or sliding to make a breathtaking catch that robs the opponent of a hit.
Or Aoki might do nothing at all. Just don't judge him solely on one unproductive game. Aoki entered Sunday in a 3-for-24 skid, which he ended with a 2-for-4 afternoon against Miami. That figure excluded a bases-loaded ninth-inning walk that not only forced in the tying run, but also gave on-deck batter Matt Duffy a tutorial on the tendencies of Steve Cishek, because Aoki coaxed six pitches from the Marlins reliever. Given this visual aid, Duffy proceeded to stroke a game-winning single.
"He's a guy you have to see on a daily basis to appreciate all the things he does for a club," manager Bruce Bochy said.
As the Giants spent Monday's scheduled off-day traveling to begin a two-city, six-game trip Tuesday in Houston, Aoki was batting .282, essentially matching the .287 average he compiled in three previous big league seasons with Milwaukee (2012-13) and Kansas City (2014). He owned a .361 on-base percentage, which will establish a personal Major League best if he can sustain it, and he had nine stolen bases, which put him on pace to total 46. No Giant has amassed that many thefts since Darren Lewis finished with 46 in 1993.
But Aoki's value transcends statistics. The stability he has provided at the leadoff spot has enabled Angel Pagan, San Francisco's erstwhile No. 1 hitter, to maintain productivity in the batting order's No. 3 spot. That has been essential while middle-of-the-order presence Hunter Pence recovers from his fractured left forearm.
At this rate, picking up Aoki's $5.5 million club option for next year will be a mere formality for the Giants, with whom he already has established a comfort zone since signing with the team as a free agent in January.
"It's everyone who creates the comfortable environment for me -- the players, the manager, the coaching staff," Aoki said recently through his interpreter, Kosuke Inaji.
Meanwhile, Aoki's taking nothing for granted, virtually guaranteeing that he'll continue to thrive due to his attention to detail.
Aoki, 33, has proven that he possesses four of baseball's five time-honored tools. He can run, field, throw and hit for average. As Aoki's 20 home runs in 470 big league games reflect, power is the lone tool he lacks.
"I feel they're all difficult," Aoki said of baseball's basic skills. "Nothing's really easy. I always want to try to improve as much as I can."
That diligence helped Aoki earn seven All-Star team selections in eight years (2004-11) with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League.
San Francisco hitting coach Hensley Meulens observed that Aoki's offensive proficiency also stems from technique.
"He's fundamentally sound," Meulens said. "He has a flat swing, which you want everybody to have, and his [bat] barrel stays in the zone for a long time, which you want everybody to have."
Aoki cuts an assured figure while gripping a bat or wearing a glove. Succeeding in two countries will do that to a person. Yet when asked to identify the source of his sustained confidence, Aoki did something that he avoids doing on the field: He hesitated.
"That's a deep question," he said.
Aoki's ultimate response was all ballplayer, echoing the sport's one-game-at-a-time mantra.
"One thing I try to always do is try to turn the page," Aoki said. "Next day's a new day, and I try to approach it like that."