By now, the Seattle Mariners know what they have in Nori Aoki. As the team’s season concludes, the issue facing the front office is whether they want more of what Aoki has to offer in 2017.
At the time of his signing last December, team leadership presented Aoki as a leadoff hitter with a penchant for reaching base. During his first four seasons in the majors, Aoki had been remarkably consistent hitter with a career .287 batting average and .353 on-base percentage (OBP).
Just how consistent was the left-handed hitter entering this season? Look at his batting average and OBP during his stays in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and San Francisco. You’ll see negligible deviation from year-to-year.
|Nori Aoki: A Model of Consistency|
Yep, it certainly appeared the Mariners had finally found a proven catalyst for the top of their batting order — until the season began.
During his first three months in Seattle, Aoki hit just .245 with a .323 on-base percentage. By the end of June, the club optioned him to Class-AAA Tacoma. Suddenly, his off-season signing looked like a big swing and miss by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Then, the unexpected happened.
Aoki returned from Tacoma in late July and has been a productive hitter ever since. So much so that he’s nearing his career norms in batting average and OBP and — according to Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News-Tribune — the Mariners have expressed interest in retaining him for next season.
Keeping the 34-year-old may remain a no-go in the minds of many. Yet, his recent performance has given some doubters a reason to pause and reconsider his value, including team management. General manager Jerry Dipoto recently described Aoki as “awesome” and went on to say “I don’t think he was ever out of our plans (for 2017).”
What a difference a few months can make.
So, here we are in late-September. The Mariners are in the wild card race and the player most fans gave up on in June has been a key contributor down the stretch. This leads to the following question.
Should the club retain Aoki?
Before answering, let’s discuss the four-year veteran’s offensive woes before his June demotion and subsequent upsurge upon returning to the big league club on July 20. First, his first-half numbers with the Mariners.
|Nori Aoki First-Half Platoon Splits
|Apr 4 – Jun 24||vs. RHP||197||8.1%||8.6%||.276||.358||.371||105|
As you can see, Aoki did relatively well against right-handed pitching, but struggled mightily against southpaws prior to being optioned on June 24. When asked about the demotion, manager Scott Servais told Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish “He hasn’t done what he normally does, particularly against left-handed pitching’’
Why is Aoki so much better now? As Divish noted over this past weekend, the veteran has made adjustments in his swing, which have led to him hitting the ball with more authority. Still, there’s factor that has contributed to his superb second half in the Emerald City — he’s become a platoon player.
Since returning to the Mariners on July 20, the ball club has made a concerted effort to limit Aoki’s appearances against left-handed pitching. He’s faced southpaws just 17 times since July 20 — just twice in September.
|Nori Aoki Second-Half Platoon Splits
|Jul 20 – Sep 19||vs. RHP||127||4.7%||7.9%||.339||.381||.508||144|
Further evidence that the organization has shifted their approach with Aoki was his late-August demotion to Tacoma despite his superb offensive output. As Divish reported at the time, the club knew they were going to face a high number of southpaws and chose to send Aoki down because he wouldn’t start versus left-handers.
Still, his history suggests he can handle more — a lot more.
Between 2012 and 2015, Aoki had the highest batting average versus southpaws among left-handed hitters with more than 600 plate appearances. Here’s how he stacked up against his peers, including several former Most Valuable Players and a couple of current teammates.
|Top LHBs vs LHP (2012 -2015)|
When discussing 2017, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the two factors of Aoki’s game that truly infuriates fans — his fielding and base running.
Although watching his routes to fly balls can be hair-raising, Aoki generally makes the play. However, his -4 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranks No. 11 out of 14 left fielders with 700 or more innings and suggests he’s a below average fielder.
When it comes to the base paths, 2016 has been disastrous for Aoki. As of today, he’s been picked-off four times — tied for second in the American League with Jose Altuve. There’s a distinct difference between the two players — their stolen base success rate. Altuve is at 77-percent, while the Mariners left fielder sits at 44-percent.
Despite the fielding and base running miscues, it’s plausible that Mariners could want to keep their Aoki. As I said earlier, they know what they have.
Remember, his reputation of taking circuitous to fly balls preceded him to Seattle and, while his difficulties on the base paths have been dramatic this season, he’s a good base runner otherwise.
In the end, it’ll come down to whether Aoki’s proficiency at the plate outweighs his blemishes. Based on the Mariners current roster and salary structure, I think they do. That’s why I believe they should retain him.
Doing so likely means that Seth Smith — and his $7 million team option — won’t be part of the club next season and that won’t sit well with many fans. But, Aoki is more athletic, cheaper, and more likely to have success against left-handed pitching than Smith — career .201/.282/.311 triple-slash against southpaws.
Sure, it’d be preferable for the Mariners to add younger, more defensively talented outfielders than Aoki and Smith. They’ve started to do so with the additions of Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel. But, both are unproven, while Aoki has an established track record.
Keeping the veteran around for one more season helps the Mariners transition their roster to younger players, while providing insurance in case they should falter next season. It’s a prudent and cost-wise strategy. That’s why it makes sense to me.
Besides, we already know what we have in Nori Aoki.