There is a very good argument to be made that Norhichika Aoki’s performance this season has been the Milwaukee Brewers’ life preserver. The 30-year-old import owns an excellent .300/.364/.477 line on the season and his success has allowed Corey Hart to move to first base without a hitch.
The prevailing assumption with Aoki was that if he were to succeed in America, it would be as a slap hitter, thriving on infield hits and opposite field doubles. Although the former has certainly been true — Aoki has 12 infield hits this season — the latter could not be further from what has actually happened. Check the stats:
Aoki to pull: 12-30 (.400), 3 2B, 2 2B, 2 HR (.833 SLG)
Aoki to oppo: 9-41 (.220), 0 2B, 0 3B, 1 HR (.293 SLG)
Aoki just hasn’t been able to get any sort of drive on the ball this season, hitting just four line drives to the opposite field (including his inside-the-park home run). The rest have either been listless pop flies or grounders — occasionally allowing for the infield single, but more often than not harmless outs.
Even Aoki’s outs seem to be hit harder to right field. He has managed to turn on pitches with great results of late, including two triples down the line to the corner and of course the two home runs in his signature game against the Cubs last Thursday.
Pitchers are well aware. Observe their insistence on pounding the outside corner against Aoki:
Aoki, however, is an adaptable hitter. The Japanese leagues are what they are, but it still takes loads of talent to own a .329 career average, three batting titles and seven All-Star Game appearances in eight seasons. Aoki has made his own adjustment to the adjustments of the pitchers:
Aoki is focusing his swings on the most hittable pitches he sees: those up and in that he can turn on and drive into right field. The result may be a few extra called strikes on the outer half, but Aoki is forcing pitchers to locate precisely in the areas where he struggles to hit. Should they miss inside, he can drive the ball to the pull field. Should they miss away, it’s a ball and their hands are forced in hitters’ counts.
It seems a bit unlikely that Aoki will continue to hit for quite as much power as he has to start the season, but between his ability to beat out the infield hit and his success pulling the ball, Aoki has been one of the most unexpected bright spots on the Brewers this season. Without him, there’s no chance they would sit just 4.5 games out despite a grueling first 60 games, and with him they maintain a shot at turning the season around.