In baseball, strikeouts happen. Every player strikes out, some more than others. But no player in baseball has been harder to strike out this season than Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki.
Entering play Friday, Aoki has struck out every 17.9 at-bats this season, by far the best in baseball, as San Francisco’s Marco Scutaro is second at 14.5 and Miami’s Placido Polanco third at 12.2.
Aoki is on pace to be the hardest player to strikeout in baseball since Jeff Keppinger in 2008, when he struck out every 19.1 at-bats.
“It’s a discipline, it is a mental part, but it’s just talent,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s hand-eye coordination. We’ve watched him now for over a year and our guys are still amazed at the movement he can have at the plate and still get the bat on the ball. He can be running out of the box and still flip the bat and foul it off.”
Marlins right-hander Jacob Turner struck Aoki out looking to start Tuesday’s game, ending Aoki’s streak of plate appearances without a strikeout at 72. Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina went 68 plate appearances without a strikeout in 1999 and also holds the franchise record with 103 plate appearances between strikeouts in 1996.
Because of Aoki’s slapping ability, opponents have found it hard to implement any kind of defensive shift against him. While he can hit the ball out of the park early in the count, Aoki becomes a fighter at the plate with two strikes.
Signed as a free agent from Japan before last season, Aoki has picked up right where he left off in 2012. Though he’s streaky at times, he’s hitting .303 with four home runs and 14 RBI, while getting on base at a .376 clip.
“He’s very hard to defense because you don’t know if the ball is going down the third base line or the first base line,” Roenicke said. “He has a gift. He is blessed with the tremendous ability to have that hand-eye coordination.”
Aoki has said his approach with two strikes is simple. He tries to swing at strikes – he rarely swings at a bad pitch – and just tries to put the ball in play to make something happen.
Roenicke wants to make sure Aoki is still focused on putting good swings on the baseball, instead of just worrying about not striking out. To Roenicke, not striking out can’t be a focus, but yet something that happens.
“I mean, that’s impressive, no doubt,” Roenicke said. “I don’t want it to become a thing where he’s not giving you the good at-bat where he’s trying to drive the ball instead of just putting it in play because he hasn’t struck out.
“So it depends on what goes on with those at-bats. I still see him squaring up a lot of baseballs. He’s run into a lot of bad luck lately … I like that he’s going to put the ball in play. I think that’s really important.”
While they are two completely different players, Roenicke compared Aoki’s tremendous hand-eye coordination to former major league outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. It would be hard to find another player in the history of the game that could not only hit pitches well out of the strike zone, but hit them hard.
“Vladimir struck out more times than Nori does because he didn’t have that discipline part, but hand-eye coordination, I’ve never seen a guy do the things he did,” said Roenicke, who coached Guerrero for five seasons with the Angels. “I saw him hit a double on a ball that bounced in the dirt. It’s just unbelievable the way that these guys are blessed.”