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Nori Aoki for leadoff

Don't call it a comeback. Actually, you know what....

The screw up plays an interesting role in stories. In a tense, edge-of-your-seat drama, a character constantly tripping over his own shoelaces can provide some much needed levity. In a comedy, his various foibles and inadequacies can be used to further the plot, or to throw the protagonist(s) noble, and redeeming characteristics into sharper contrast.

One of the dangers of the screw up, is that the writers use him too much. His failings and pratfalls, after a time, cease to invoke laughter and incredulity, and begin to engender a sympathetic response from the audience. I think I'm guilty of that crime.

For the 2016 Seattle Mariners, Nori Aoki has been my screw up. Brought in to get on base, and provide adequate corner outfield defense, Aoki spent the season’s first three months doing absolutely nothing of the sort. I won’t go into detail on his defense. Not only is there really nothing left to say, but it’s not going to get better, and the Mariners have taken to regularly substituting Ben Gamel and/or Guillermo Heredia for Aoki in late innings. Simply, his defense is bad.

Offensively is where Aoki earned my ire. After spending years of my life watching Chone Figgins and Austin Jackson swing at baseball with bats made of nothing but balsa wood and nerf foam, Aoki’s 79 wRC+ in the first half damn near drove me insane. His K% was a career high 10.9, he barely got on base at an adequate rate, and also was one of the worst baserunners on the team. I had found my screw up, and I labeled him as such. I have continued to work him like a punching bag for the majority of the Summer, both here and on Twitter.

It should be fairly obvious that the dangers of writing off a baseball player are similar to those found in writing off people. We categorize, label, judge, and move on. But people and baseball players refuse to be static entities. They change and shift; grow and recede. When the Mariners sent Nori Aoki to Tacoma on June 24th, I mentally wrote him off. But since his July 20th promotion back to Seattle, Aoki has been exactly the leadoff man this team needs. Let’s go to the splits:

1st half - .245/.323/.313, 7.7 BB%, 10.9 K%, 79 wRC+
2nd half - .319/.363/.457, 4.8 BB%, 8.0 K%, 125 wRC+

Wow that’s quite a difference. The first thing to look at to explain that disparity is BABIP, and there is indeed a sixty-eight point difference (.275/.343) between the two halves. But BABIP isn’t entirely random, and a cursory glance at the data shows that, indeed, Aoki has been a different hitter since late-July. Primarily, he’s stopped slapping the ball to all fields, and started hitting the ball in the air to right field:


1st half - 27.8
2nd half - 36.5

Fly ball%

1st half - 16.5
2nd half - 27.9

Or, visually:

1st half

Aoki Before

2nd half

Aoki after

Mechanically Aoki appears to have altered his stance, opening up his front foot, bringing the bat more vertical at address, and perhaps getting a bit lower. This is, of course, with the caveat that I am nothing remotely close to a hitting expert, and even if I were, Nori Aoki's mechanics are, objectively, an atrocity. Nonetheless, here he is in May:

Aoki stance before

And here he is last night, right before spasming a two-run single up the middle:

Aoki Stance After

Nori Aoki's season long performance has been underwhelming, and a disappointment. But his second half has looked eerily similar to his rookie season, when he posted a 113 wRC+, hit 37 doubles, and was a useful baseball player. The Mariners have, blessedly, put a leash on his stealing attempts, and now regularly sub out his below average glove with a lead in late innings. Through this they have maximized his skills, and minimized his deficiencies, which is exactly what a smart team should do with a useful, but flawed player.

I spent most of the year calling for Nori Aoki to go away. The Mariners were patient, they adapted, and it has paid off. In a season that has come down to eighteen games, he is the right man to start at leadoff, and in left field. A job well done by both the organization, and Aoki. They adapted to each other's needs, and improved as the season went along. I'll gladly eat some crow.