When Ichiro Suzuki first came to the Seattle Mariners in 2001, he was the first Japanese born position player to start for a major league team. This was groundbreaking enough, but then Ichiro proceeded to win the Rookie of the Year and the AL MVP. As if that wasn’t enough, he rattled off 10 consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits (a mark that I suspect will never be broken). After 11 full seasons in the big leagues, Ichiro continues to produce…even at the ripe old age of 39 (he will be 40 in October of this season).
Even though there have been many Japanese players to come and go since Ichiro first starting roaming Right Field in Seattle, when I watch Norichika Aoki play…I see a lot of similarities that I have not seen in past Japanese imports.
They both bat left-handed, but throw right-handed. Both spent a large chunk of their careers playing in Japan’s Pacific League, Ichiro for 9 years and Aoki for 8 years. They both have a very unorthodox approach at the plate that can only be described as “unique”. Most importantly, they come from a country where players are expected to play into their 40’s. Ichiro is almost there and is signed with the Yankees through 2014, which would make him 41.
Now Ichiro has a 3 year head start. In his first full season he was 27, while Nori was already 30. But let’s just take a look at their rookie season stats:
Ichiro: 157 G, 738 PA, 127 R, 242 H, 34 doubles, 8 HR, 69 RBI, 56 SB, .350 BA, and .381 OBP
Aoki: 151 G, 588 PA, 81 R, 150 H, 37 doubles, 10 HR, 50 RBI, 30 SB, .288 BA, and .355 OBP
Clearly Ichiro’s season was one that could never be matched, but for the sake of my article let’s dissect this a little bit. Ichiro had an additional 150 plate appearances, and that is something we really need to keep in mind. However, when I look at these stats side by side, I see some things that I really like. Aoki had more doubles and more home runs, which means he has more pop in his bat. But really look at the difference between batting average and on-base percentage…
It is no secret that Ichiro does not walk, which is why every-single-year… I had to listen to Seattle sports radio personalities’ debate moving Ichiro out of the lead-off spot. Their arguments were valid. Now look at Aoki. The guy is getting on base at a 35% clip, which is all you can ask of your lead-off man.
This stuff is nice, but here is where I really want this article to go.
We need to lock up Aoki to a long-term deal.
Before you accuse me of smoking to much Marijuana in my time living in Washington state, hear me out.
Ichiro’s most productive years as an offensive weapon were from ages 32-36. In that 5 season span, he racked up over 1,000 hits, stole almost 200 bases, and scored 475 runs.
Aoki just turned 31. I think it is safe to assume that as he gets more comfortable with major league pitchers, he is only going to get better. In my opinion, you have to re-negotiate with him for more money and more years. This is not one of those wait and see situation. There are too many similarities between Aoki and Ichiro. Too me, the biggest one is longevity.
If Aoki has another 10 years in him, the Brewers need to keep him for at least 6-7 of those, especially if Ichiro is an indicator of things to come. If we use Ichiro’s career to sort of project what is to come from Aoki, his age 32-36 seasons would average out to look something like this:
Aoki Projection: 155 G, 677 PA, 97 R, 173 H, 38 doubles, 13 HR, 72 RBI, 36 SB, .316 BA, and a .378 OBP
Now obviously this is a projection I made up using my limited math skills (I have not taken a legitimate math class since my Junior year of High School…2000) If those numbers actually came to fruition, how happy would we be that this guy is our lead-off man? These are not unrealistic numbers, should Aoki get a full season worth of at-bats. Isn’t this someone who should get paid?
Now, I will admit that I am jumping the gun a little bit. But if Aoki goes out in April and May and is tearing up the place, we need to open up the pocket book and pay this guy. Think about how long it has been since we had a consistent (and legitimate) lead-off batter. By my calculations, Scott Podsednik, 2003-2004. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am not willing to wait another decade for a “real” lead-off man.
Look, I am not saying that Aoki is going to be the 2nd coming of Ichiro. What I am saying is, there are enough similarities between these two players that you can draw the conclusion that Aoki is going to be at his most productive in the coming years. We only have him locked up for this year, with an option for 2014. That does not work for me. Having seen Ichiro play in person 20-plus times, I can tell you that they both play the same way (accept Aoki dives for the ball in the outfield). If we let Aoki walk, we are going to regret it. Mark my words. You can call me on this.
Watching Ichiro in Seattle for the past 6 baseball seasons, I learned that these Japanese players work so hard at staying healthy and productive. If you think Aoki is going to crap out once he hits 34, you have another thing coming. In the Japanese leagues, you are just a kid until you are 35!! They come from a different world, where home runs and PED’s are not as important as consistency and going station to station. If that is what you want out of your lead-off man and what the organization wants, sign Aoki by the end of May. If you don’t, his value may rise too quickly for you to even have a shot. The time is now.
Who would have thought that watching years of Mariners baseball would finally pay off?