Nori Aoki and Lineup Diversity

Last week, we discussed some potential free agent targets, eventually depositing a brief comment on former Kansas City Royals outfielder Nori Aoki:

Speaking of Alexi, Nori Aoki graduated summa cum laude from the Amarista School of Outfield Defense, but the numbers say he’s somewhat effective out there. He’s ultra consistent with the bat, posting batting averages between .285 and .288 and on-base percentages between .349 and .356 in each of his first three seasons in the majors, though his power is trending down. His high-contact offensive style might be a good fit in Petco, though he isn’t a clear-cut upgrade over a Will Venable or Seth Smith.

Unlike some of the other names mentioned in last week’s article, Aoki seems like a particularly good fit in San Diego for a couple of reasons: (1) he should be relatively cheap, even by today’s free agent standards, and (2) he would help fill out an outfield that has plenty of pieces that are coming off of injury-plagued or underachieving seasons like Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, and Carlos Quentin.

There’s another reason why Aoki might be a good fit for the Padres offense, and it isn’t as obvious as the ones mentioned above. Last week, Ken Arneson wrote a thoughtful piece entitled, “10 Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence.” Much of Arneson’s piece focuses on the batter-pitcher matchup, with plenty of interesting thoughts about pitch sequencing and prediction states, but some of it — the part of interest here — concentrates on lineup diversity. As Arneson says:

A lineup with too many batters with similar strengths and weaknesses can make it easier for a pitcher to settle into a psychological/mechanical rhythm and mow down such a lineup. A lineup that is diverse (some hit fastballs, some like it inside, or low, some slug, others make contact, etc.) makes a pitcher have to change his approach from at-bat to at-bat. That forces the pitcher to have to make a variety of quality pitches in order to win. It’s harder for a pitcher to win if he has to have multiple pitches working well.

So when I praised the Giants for having Pablo Sandoval, I did not mean that an entire team of hitters like Pablo Sandoval would be ideal. But having one or two guys like him in a lineup with some more patient-type hitters is a good thing.

Earlier in the article, Arneson mentioned that the biggest difference between the Giants and A’s offenses in the playoffs was, in his opinion, Pablo Sandoval (and, to a lesser extent, Hunter Pence), because Sandoval gave pitchers something different to look at it — a hitter that punishes balls, as the old saying goes, from his toes to his nose. On the other hand, the A’s lineup was composed mostly of patient hitters that stay within themselves, rarely chasing (or punishing) pitches outside the zone, which in turn made them susceptible to good pitchers hitting their spots, a point that is magnified in the playoffs. It’s an interesting theory, even if it’s one that isn’t proven.

So … do the Padres have one of those offenses? We know one thing — last year’s offense was mowed down by good pitchers, average pitchers, and downright bad pitchers at various points of the year. In fact, nine of the top 100 game scores by starting pitchers came against the Padres in 2014, with those starters ranging in quality from Clayton Kershaw to Tim Lincecum. Lackluster nights with the bats occur with all offenses at some point during a 162-game major league season, but to the 2014 Padres it became an almost nightly dramedy. Which otherwise ordinary major league pitcher is going to look like Walter Johnson tonight against the Padres? (The answer to that question was all too often Tyler Matzek or Zach McAllister or Jerome Williams or Roenis Elias.)

Take a look at the following image, which shows some swing/contact tendencies, batted ball distribution, and plate discipline numbers courtesy of FanGraphs:

aoki
*Check this Fangraphs article for definitions on some of the more obscure plate discipline numbers.
**The group of players above is all Padres with at least 300 plate appearances last year, plus Nori Aoki and a couple of likely future contributors like Cameron Maybin and Yonder Alonso. The stats are from 2012-2014.
***2014 league averages: O-Contact% — 65.9%, Z-Contact% — 87.3, Contact% — 79.4%

Aoki makes more contact with pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Contact%) than anybody else listed besides Yangervis Solarte, and Solarte’s only had 535 major league plate appearances. The number that most differentiates Aoki from the current group of Padres is his ability to make contact on pitches outside the zone, as you can see by his 84.9 percent O-Contact%. That mark puts him five percentage points better than Solarte and upwards of 25 percentage points better than the likes of Cameron Maybin, Rene Rivera, Jedd Gyorko, Carlos Quentin, and (the now departed) Chase Headley.

Aoki doesn’t necessarily swing often — only Everth Cabrera, Seth Smith, and Yasmani Grandal swung less often than Aoki over the past three seasons. When he does swing, however, he’s more likely to make contact than any current Padres hitter, save for maybe Solarte, and in many cases he’s far more likely to make contact. Here are a couple of images, again from FanGraphs, that illustrate these points:

aokicontactaokiRAA
(click to enlarge) The left image shows Aoki’s contact percentage in each area in and around the strike zone. On the right, you can see that Aoki does a lot of his damage, in terms of runs above average per 100 pitches, on offerings that are located well outside of the strike zone. 

The differences don’t stop there. Aoki’s batted ball distribution, which consists of a heavy dose (nearly 60 percent) of ground balls, only resembles Cameron Maybin’s and Everth Cabrera’s. This isn’t by itself necessarily encouraging, but it’s another aspect of Aoki’s offensive game that makes him a relative outlier on a Padres offense that consists of many hitters that struggle to make contact and hit plenty of fly balls. Further, Aoki’s strikeout rate is lower than anyone else’s on the list, again with only Yangervis Solarte in the same vicinity. Despite a strikeout rate nearly three times lower than five different Padres listed, his 7.8 walk rate is right in the middle of the pack.

Consider Aoki’s career splits vs. power pitchers compared to how the Padres fared against that type last year:

aokipower

Aoki’s numbers aren’t just strange when compared against different Padres; he’s a offensive freak when compared to the entire league. From 2012-2014, among all major league players with at least 1,000 PAs over that stretch, Aoki ranks fourth in O-Contact%, 19th in Z-Contact%, sixth in Contact%, fifth in GB%, third in K%, and fourth in BB/K rate.

Putting Aoki — and maybe Solarte, too — in a Padres lineup full of players with gaping swing-and-miss holes would give pitchers something else to think about, an unexpected change-of-pace. Hopefully, like Arneson mentioned, it would deter starting pitchers from falling into an all too frequent rhythm against a Padres offense that’s been lacking in diversity.

There are other reasons to like Aoki:

  • He should be cheap — MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year, $16 million contract, which seems entirely reasonable for the soon-to-be 33-year-old right fielder’s services (and I’ll guess he’ll get a better deal than that). The free agent position player class isn’t particularly deep, but there are plenty of high-profile outfielders — like Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, and Yasmany Tomas — that will overshadow Aoki.
  • No qualifying offer — Unlike the top free agents (and Michael Cuddyer, who signed a two-year, $21 million deal with the Mets yesterday), Aoki doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached to his name, meaning that the team that signs him won’t have to forfeit a draft pick. For the Padres, whose late-season turnaround played them out of a protected first-round pick, that means that signing Aoki won’t have any affect on their first-round/13th overall draft pick next year.
  • He would fix the No. 1 or 2 hole in the lineup — Aoki was primarily a lead-off hitter in Kansas City, but there’s no reason why he couldn’t slip down to the No. 2 slot if needed. Last year, the Padres featured a revolving door of hitters in those two lineup slots and — outside of Solarte late in the year — none of them worked out, as the team posted a sub-.300 on-base percentages in both slots. It isn’t a one year thing either, as the Padres have had trouble with the top of the order since the middle of the last decade. In fact, they haven’t had a reliable showing at the 2-hole since a Mike Cameron/Brian Giles combo led to .264/.340/.455 team slash line in 2006.
  • Aoki is the perfect top-of-order, NL-style hitter — Part of the problem with the Padres struggles at the top of the lineup in recent years is their insistence on putting speedy, low-OBP type players in those positions because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, especially in the National League. Aoki has all the traits of the prototypical 2-hole hitter — like speed, contact ability, “bat handling” skills, bunting skills, the ability to hit-and-run, etc. — but he’s also productive, with a career on-base percentage of .353.
  • Lack of a lefty/righty platoon split — Players with major platoon splits aren’t always a complete liability. When paired with a player with reverse platoon tendencies, a two-headed combo can adequately cover up each other’s vulnerabilities . However, platoons also take away a roster spot and lineup continuity. Aoki swings left-handed, but he actually hit lefties better. Last year he posted a ridiculous .363/.428/.435 split against same-sided pitching (albeit in only 140 plate appearances), but even for his career his OPS vs. lefties (.776) is clearly superior to his OPS vs. righties (.726).
  • Avoiding the Petco effect (maybe) — Aoki’s game revolves around a slap-hitting barrage of singles, which Petco Park can’t do much about. Heavy air and (increasingly less) deep dimensions probably aren’t going to take many home runs away from Aoki, who hit just one last year and nine in the past two seasons. But what about the maybe part? Careful readers may note that Petco has not only had a tendency to suppress hits on fly balls, but it’s also been historically tough on ground balls, as Sam Miller noted a few years back. If that’s still true, it could have a big impact on Aoki’s ground ball-centric game, making it something that’s worth further investigation.
  • The injury track-record — The only significant injury on Aoki’s major league resume is a groin strain that cost him 18 games last summer. He also played 140-plus games in six out of his seven seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.
  • Double play avoidance — Okay, maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but I thought this was an interesting tidbit. Despite the extreme ground ball tendencies, Aoki’s only grounded into 20 double plays in 1,811 major league plate appearances. According to Baseball Prospectus, that’s only something like three fewer double plays than expected in his career, based on double play opportunities. In other words, this wouldn’t be noteworthy on its own, but considering he hits the ball on the ground with the frequency of a coach during infield practice, it’s somewhat impressive.

Of course, with any free agent that didn’t receive a qualifying offer and isn’t expected to sign a substantial free agent contract, there are warts. His age — 33 in January — is one. While the likely short-term deal will limit the downside risk, there’s always the potential for a mid-30s collapse.  And for a team like the Padres that might still be a year or two away from truly competing, Aoki probably isn’t going to be a long-term answer in the outfield.

The right fielder’s power has become almost nonexistent. After displaying unforeseen pop in his stateside debut in 2012 with Milwaukee, Aoki’s power numbers have faded. He hit 51 extra base hits in 2012, 31 in 2013, and just 29 last year. And his fly ball percentage dropped from 27.7 percent in 2012 to 17.1 percent last year, while his home runs/fly ball rate also dropped from 7.9 percent in 2012 to just 1.4 percent last year.

Then there’s his defense, which draws mixed reviews. The advanced numbers, like UZR and DRS, actually say it’s a tick or two above average. The scouting reports, the occasional “serpentining outfield routes or wacky misadventures,” and the fans disagree. In the World Series, Ned Yost sat Aoki all three games in AT&T Park in favor of the offensively inferior Jarrod Dyson, while Dyson also replaced Aoki late in games throughout the playoffs. (Dyson is, of course, a great defensive outfielder.) Aoki’s probably not a major liability in the outfield, but his defense doesn’t come without question marks.

Finally, the overall long-term projections on Aoki aren’t always that hot. BP‘s long-term projection pegs him as, essentially, a league-average hitter and a 1.0 WAR player for 2015 and 2016 (though those aren’t updated with 2014 data yet). Once you put everything together, he’s sort of a middling player, and not an obvious upgrade on Will Venable depending on how you view the two players.

While the total package might not be that exciting, Aoki would bring a contrasting style to a Padres offense that excels in monotony. Add Aoki in with some Yangervis Solarte and just the right dose of Alexi Amarista, and suddenly the Padres might feature a stylistically diverse lineup, with the patient power of the Yasmani Grandals, the swing-for-the-fences Jedd Gyorkos, and the contact-at-all-cost Aokis. Even if the theory that a diverse lineup comes up empty, there’s enough to like about Aoki in general — the solid OBPs, the excellent health history, etc. — to make him a solid free agent investment.

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  • Bielsa Widow

    I like the idea of Aoki but I don’t think the Padres can afford to give a corner outfield spot to a slappy OBP guy. Can he play shortstop?

    • Dustin

      It’d be nice to get some power out of one of the outfield corners, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The Royals — and I hate to use the Royals as an example, because everyone does — got a total of 25 home runs out of their three starting outfielders last year (and just one more out of their fourth outfielder).

      The Padres should have above average power from second base and catcher next year, but yeah, it’d be nice to add another power bat in one of the outfield/infield corners.

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