Zoning in on the 2016 Mariners is a daily series in which we’ll examine one player every day, 30 total, in the lead-up to Opening Day. We’ll explain their role on the field, what they’re like off of it and provide highlights and photos.
Who else better to lead off this series than the leadoff man himself? Signed as a free agent in December, outfielder Nori Aoki’s role on the team was clear from the jump.
“This was about as simple a fit as there was in this year’s free-agent class,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said at Aoki’s introductory press conference. “Nori fit exactly what we were looking for—a catalyst at the top of our lineup, an everyday outfielder in some capacity.”
While it was Dipoto who pulled the trigger on the acquisition, it’ll be Scott Servais who will pencil him into the lineup—and he agrees on where that should be.
“I’m really excited to put him at the top of our lineup,” said Servais before the club’s first full-squad workout. “He’s a tough out. He’s the guy pitchers don’t like to see up there because it’s foul balls, it’s battling, it’s always a good at-bat.”
And that’s exactly right. It isn’t just that Aoki is a catalyst leading things off, but the right kind of catalyst. Dipoto has spoken on numerous occasions about his desire for players to control the strike zone.
“Nobody in the big leagues does it any better than Nori Aoki,” said Dipoto. “He draws a fair amount of walks; he doesn’t strike out very much. He’s the hardest player to strike out in baseball, in fact.”
He’s not exaggerating.
Over the past three years, nobody has struck out in less of his place appearances than Nori Aoki, who was turned away on strikes in only 5.9 percent of his PAs. Over that span, he also ranked in the top 30 in baseball in on-base percentage and making contact when he swings.
For a team looking to find players who can put pressure on opposing pitchers, particularly from the leadoff spot, Aoki is the perfect fit.
Aoki comes to the Mariners having played last season with the Giants, before that a year with the Royals and two with the Brewers—the club with which he professionally debuted. Before joining the Brewers, he played for six seasons in Japan with the Yakult Swallows.
With the Yakult Swallows, Aoki won three consecutive Gold Glove awards as a centerfielder from 2006 to 2008. It’s something Dipoto is well aware of as he identifies suitable options for when Leonys Martin needs a day off.
Growing up in Japan, you can likely guess one player Aoki looked up to. Yes, Ichiro.
“When I was a kid, he was 20 years old when he came up in Japan, and I followed him then,” Aoki told the SFGate, referring to Ichiro’s rookie season in 1994 with the Orix Blue Waves. “We all copied him when we were younger. He had a different leg kick than he has now. It was like a metronome.”
You can see the leg kick still in Aoki’s game, and Ichiro’s style in the way he plays.
These type of hits should look familiar.
Aoki and gifs go hand-in-hand. While he’s been a consistent and valuable player in his four years in the league, he’s perhaps most well-known for the way in which he plays—and the visual results that produces.
You might remember was this catch in the 2014 World Series:
And then this last year:
Off the Field
Having both played in Japan, Nori Aoki and Hisashi Iwakuma go way back. But it isn’t just on the field, they actually once both appeared in a mattress commercial together.