When the Mariners signed Nori Aoki to a one-year, $5.5 million contract, I remember feeling relieved. If you have followed the Mariners for even a small amount of time, you know that one of the flagship failures of the Jack Zduriencik Era was the inability to assemble anything resembling a major league outfield. While last offseason featured a loaded class of outfielders, the vast majority commanded salaries that ownership deemed excessive. Aoki was cheap, and while his stats weren't exciting, he was an average player, at a position where the Mariners craved competence.
Nori Aoki's skillset is one built around "just enoughs." His speed, power, and defense are all at a level that's barely acceptable for a major leaguer, and they only play when in concert with each other and his better attributes. Aoki's only elite skill, making contact, has modest value in modern baseball. His other plus skill, command of the strike zone, is currently being eroded. We'll talk about that later.
As you can probably guess from the headline, the entire package reminds me a lot of former Mariner Chone Figgins. It's not a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, of course. For a time, Figgins played good defense, and his baserunning and stolen base skills far outweighed Aoki's. At the plate though, they share a general skillset: high contact, good batting eye, and just enough power to keep a pitcher honest. Crucially, the first two skills can't work without the third.
When a player's value hinges on a skillset with an extremely narrow margin for error, the unavoidable early-to-mid-30's skill-erosion can quickly spiral into a complete collapse. For Aoki, as it was for Figgins, a drop in power could be catastrophic.
Both Aoki and Figgins made their hay slugging within spitting distance of .400 throughout their career. Doubles and triples keep pitchers honest. However, you can see here that in their first season in Seattle, both players suffered from a sharp drop in power:
This decline has a cascading effect on a player's offensive skills. If a big league pitcher knows that even a hanger won't be punished, he will pitch aggressively. Oftentimes, this leads to a rising strike out rate and a sagging walk rate, particularly if the drop in power is the byproduct of diminished bat speed, which it often is. Sure enough, Aoki's 12.8 SO% is double what it was last year, and 50% higher than his career rate.
Beyond the stats, the predominant similarity between Aoki and Figgins in a Mariner uniform has been the daily experience of watching them hit. Both seemingly go weeks without finding the barrel or making any kind of solid contact. We don't have exit velocity for Figgins' time in Seattle, but we do for Aoki, and it absolutely backs up the eye test:
The result has been one of the worst stretches of Aoki's career. He has a 76 wRC+, a .315 OPB, and a -0.4 fWAR. Add the smattering of baserunning gaffes, and Aoki is battling with Adam Lind for the honor of Worst 2016 Seattle Mariner.
Pinning down the exact nature of Aoki's sluggish start is impossible to do from watching on television or looking at Fangraphs. It could be natural 30's decline. It could be lingering effects from the concussion he suffered last year. It could really just be a prolonged season opening slump. Whatever it is though, left field is now my single biggest roster concern.
Signed as a table-setting leadoff man, and the only player who could conceivably deputize for Leonys Martin in center field, Aoki's struggles may very well force Jerry Dipoto to acquire an outfielder this summer.
The good news is, in the short term, the team appears to have acknowledged Aoki's struggles, dropping him in the order, and benching him twice in three games against the Reds. While a permanent spot on the pine is an overreaction at this point, the situation also presents an opportunity to work Franklin Gutierrez into the lineup more frequently. Gutierrez has also struggled early, but in extremely limited playing time. If the player we saw in 2015 is still in there,the team will get by fine in the short term.
Nori Aoki is not Chone Figgins. He is not under contract for four years, he does not appear to be sulking his way through his slump, and it's too early to label his signing a mistake. But, in the context of a team that has flung open the window of contention for the first time in over a decade, the M's have to vigilant. The Mariners have seen enough seasons like the one Aoki is having, and in a year when so much feels different, he is running out of time to prove he is the player Dipoto needs. They need more from the position —from Aoki, or someone else.