A four-run seventh inning catapulted the Brewers to yet another victory on Monday night. It marked their sixteenth win in the past twenty games, and they moved to within five games of the final Wild Card berth after the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the San Diego Padres later in the evening.
One of the big stories coming from Monday’s game was the continued emergence of outfielder Norichika Aoki. He went 2-for-4 with two doubles, including a huge go-ahead, two-run double to deep left center field in the seventh inning. It gave the Brewers a lead they would never relinquish, and it continued Aoki’s recent power binge at the plate.
Since the beginning of August, Aoki is hitting .301/.359/.441 with 11 doubles, one triple, and two home runs. He has walked ten times and only struck out in eight plate appearances. Obviously, those are tremendous numbers, and if he keeps this up for the remainder of the season, the 30-year-old rookie could be making an outside run at the National League Rookie of the Year award.
What has changed for Aoki, though?
The biggest development for Aoki over the past month has been his ability to remain selective at the plate, as well has his impressive plate coverage. He has seen 3.89 pitches per plate appearances this season, which ranks as the 24th-best in all of the National League. This allows Aoki to sort through the garbage — whether that be through laying off pitches or fouling them off — and capitalizing on pitches that he can handle.
Aside from seeing an above-average number of pitches per plate appearance, though, he also covers the entire plate, giving opposing pitchers relatively few places to pitch him consistently. For example, take a look at his batting average heat map since the beginning of August:
Aoki adroitly covers the outer part of the plate. Brewers fans have consistently seen that throughout the season, simply shooting the baseball to the opposite field for a single. He doesn’t try to overpower pitches on the outer half (or even beyond the outer half, as the heat map illustrates). Instead, he barrels the baseball to left or center field for consistent base hits.
Of course, the above hit chart is why opposing pitchers have begun to pitch him inside. Don’t allow him to extend his arms and simply slap the baseball to left field.
The problem with that, however, lies in the fact that Aoki can also turn around a fastball on the inner portion. If we adjust the parameters of the heat map to not focus on his batting average but rather on his isolated power, we clearly see that his power largely comes against pitches on the inner half:
That is why Aoki is beginning to find his power stroke in recent months. He has consistently shown throughout the season that he can find success on outside pitches, which has caused opposing pitchers to challenge him inside (and up, at times). That has resulted in greater power production from Brewers’ right fielder.
After all, there’s a reason all eight of Aoki’s home runs have come to the pull side. Every single one of those home runs have been middle-in — with most of them also being up in the zone.
It seems opposing pitchers currently have two options: (1) pitch him away and allow him to wear out the left-center field gap, or (2) challenge him on the inside corner and risk him turning on a pitch with power down the right field line. Neither of those appear to be attractive options, which is why Aoki has enjoyed such significant success over the past month and a half.
Perhaps the real answer for opposing hitters is to pitch him down-and-in with a breaking ball. It’s obviously easier said than done, but Aoki does not appear to have much power in the lower half of the zone, and he hits for a higher average on pitches away from him. Not only that, but Aoki has feasted on fastballs this season:
Aoki is not necessarily unique in the fact that he finds more success against fastballs rather than offspeed pitches. It does, however, appear to be a weakness that opposing pitchers can attempt to exploit.
Just don’t miss up in the zone or on the outer edge of the plate. If the past month and a half serves as any reliable indication, that miss just may result in Norichika Aoki standing on first or second base and the heart of the Brewers’ batting order stepping to the plate.