Former Japanese superstar gives Royals prototypical leadoff hitter
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Tough assignment for Nori Aoki in his first formal appearance for the Royals. All he had to do was face his countryman from Japan and one of the best pitchers in the Major Leagues, Yu Darvish.
So excuse Aoki when, after stroking a long foul ball to right field, he struck out on a 1-2 pitch in Thursday's Cactus League opener against the Rangers. That, Aoki's track record will tell you, won't happen very often as his season as the Royals' leadoff batter and right fielder unfolds.
His second at-bat, against Tommy Hanson, went better. On a 3-2 pitch, Aoki hit a hard grounder to shortstop, sped down the line and, when Josh Wilson's throw was high, he was safe on the error. Then Aoki stole second base -- that's more like it.
"I wasn't nervous, I felt pretty good actually for playing my first game in a while so I thought I did pretty well," Aoki said.
Aoki got a third at-bat and worked a 3-2 count before bouncing out to second. So he went 0-for-3 in his Kansas City debut.
"It's still the first game of Spring Training, so I was just trying to get a handle on the strike zone," Aoki said. "As I get more at-bats, I'll get a better feel for it."
One thing he is getting better feel for is the camaraderie of the Royals' clubhouse.
"It's a great bunch of guys and everyone is very nice to me and I feel like I'm becoming part of the team," he said.
Aoki's new baseball home is a long way from his permanent home in Tokyo. He was born in Hyuga City, a bay city of about 63,000 facing the sea of Hyuga. His parents -- his father is in the insurance business -- still live there, about an hour-and-half flight from Tokyo.
Young Aoki was primarily a pitcher in high school, but at Waseda University in Tokyo, he switched to the outfield and was a .332 hitter in his collegiate career. His baseball hero, though, was a shortstop: Derek Jeter. In 2003, Aoki was drafted by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and he'd spend his entire Japanese career, 2004-11, with the Central League team.
His breakout year was 2005, when he was the league's top rookie with a .344 average with what was described as an "Ichiro-like" 202 hits. The comparisons to the legendary Ichiro Suzuki continued.
Aaron Guiel, a former Royals outfielder, was Aoki's teammate with the Swallows from 2007-11.
"When Aoki was really young, they thought he was going to be the next Ichiro, but they found out Ichiro is just a once-in-a-lifetime talent, so that was a lot of pressure on Aoki," Guiel said. "But fortunately Aoki just became his own type of player."
Quite a player. He was the league batting champion three times and hit over .300 in six of his seven full seasons. He was a Central League All-Star seven times. He won six Gold Gloves. He played for Japan's World Baseball Classic team in 2006 and '09 and its Olympic team in '08.
"He played with a lot of heart, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of imagination and was a really dynamic player over there," Guiel said.
"I don't want to say he was like Ichiro, but he had some of the same characteristics that Ichiro has. He has a lot of forward movement in his swing, and he's very contact-oriented. So he has the ability to put, regardless of location, a lot of balls in play. He doesn't strike out a lot and combine that with being left-handed and having good speed, he wreaked havoc on a lot of Japanese teams."
Aoki came to the United States in 2012 and played two seasons with Milwaukee, with a .287 average and a .377 on-base percentage. He showed some power, too, with 18 homers over the two years.
On Dec. 5, even with the Royals negotiating with free agent Carlos Beltran, they took the precaution of trading for Aoki, sending pitcher Will Smith to the Brewers. It proved to be a prudent move when Beltran later signed with the Yankees.
Now Aoki is the Royals' right fielder and leadoff batter. He's something of a bargain, earning $1.95 million this year, but because of a special contract provision, he can become a free agent after the season. So the Royals' front office undoubtedly will be weighing his performance with a possible eye toward a contract extension. For his part, a big season would make Aoki a coveted player on the open market.
"He's going to be the type of player that Kansas City has not seen in a long, long time," Guiel said. "Aoki will just continuously be on first base and set the table; he's just a real nice traditional leadoff hitter."
Aoki, 32, is a very disciplined batter. Last year he struck out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances -- best ratio in the Major Leagues.
"I just try to see the ball as deep as possible in the zone and try to make contact, and I just want to be able to hit any ball that's thrown to me," Aoki said through his translator, Kosuke Inaji.
Royals manager Ned Yost marvels at Aoki's consistent mechanics during batting practice.
"He repeats them every swing; it's amazing to watch. It's the same swing every time," Yost said. "And if it's middle-away, bam, he smokes it that way. Bam, or he smokes it off the screen. Or you throw him a pitch in, boom, he smokes it down the right-field line. When you're that consistent with your mechanics, you're going to be a consistent performer."
There's a simple reason for that consistency.
"I just swung the bat a lot in Japan, upwards of a thousand times a day, so I'd say it has something to do with that," Aoki said.
Once in a while he'll change his batting stance a bit.
"Slightly," he said. "I don't feel exactly the same every day, so maybe I'll change slightly day-to-day. I don't change things up too much. I think all players do similar things, depending on the day and how they feel."
Left-handed pitchers cause him no grief. Last year his .339 average was the Majors' best by a left-handed batter against lefty pitchers.
Aoki also piled up 40 infield hits, part of his bag of 140 singles. In Japan, teams sometimes used an "Aoki shift," bringing the third baseman in and shading the shortstop into the hole to guard against slap hits or bunts. He's even seen that a few times in the States.
Aoki stole between 37 and 80 bases a season in Japan, although that scaled down to 30 and 20 in his two years with the Brewers. He was thrown out 12 times last year, a figure he'd like to reduce.
"It's something I'm working on, and I also know some of the reasons why I was thrown out some of those times last year," Aoki said.
Aoki won his Gold Gloves as a center fielder in Japan, but he's won praise for his defense in right field with good reads, range and speed. His arm?
"I feel it's decent and pretty accurate, and I also feel like I release the ball pretty quickly after I catch it," Aoki said.
He's heard all about the Royals' excellent defensive reputation.
"Oh, yeah, of course and I feel like I can learn a lot from the players around me as well," he said. "I'd like to become part of the great defense that we have."
If you're trying to remember how many Japanese-born players the Royals have had previously, there were three, all pitchers in Mac Suzuki (1999-2002), Yasuhiko Yabuta (2008-09) and Hideo Nomo (2008). Aoki is wearing uniform No. 23, his original number in Japan.
Guiel said that while some "old guard" Japanese players are sometimes aloof, Aoki is accessible and easy-going.
"He's got a sense of humor that's going to surprise them a little bit. He's going to jell quickly. He won't go and sit in a corner because he's in a different country," Guiel said. "He'll make an effort at lunch, he'll make an effort in batting practice and he's going to fit in really quick."
Aoki is a family man -- he met wife Sachi when she was a TV sports anchor in Tokyo -- and they have two children, daughter Emily, two-and-half, and son Takuta, nine months.
"They're not here now, but once the season starts they'll be coming into Kansas City," he said. "My family is really excited to come to Kansas City."
His last name, Aoki, is Japanese for "blue tree," and he now smilingly agrees to an amended translation, "royal blue tree."
And, obviously, he knows the right things to say.
How's this Royals team going to do this year?
"I feel like we've got a team that can make the playoffs and make a run for the World Series," he replied.