When Norichika Aoki came over from Japan, he had his routine.
He’d followed it for years, taking 1,000 swings a day, arriving earlier than almost everyone to take extra batting practice before games. While that worked in Japan, the grind of the big league season wasn’t allowing him to continue the extra work without wearing down.
The Brewers asked Aoki to cut down on some of his extra work, and he obliged. That’s just one example of the adjustment the former Japanese batting champion had to make coming over to the United States.
Now in his second spring training with the Brewers, Aoki is feeling much more relaxed and comfortable with his surroundings. The swings are down, but he still puts in more time than most.
“He’s not swinging 1,000 times a day. That’s different, but he still gets extra work in,” says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
“He’s got a nice little personality. I think the more comfortable he gets, the more we are going to see it. He’s good. He fits in really well here.”
After the Brewers won the negotiating rights to Aoki last offseason, Milwaukee had the 31-year-old former Japanese Gold Glove outfielder in for a workout at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. They still weren’t convinced Aoki would fit in with their ballclub, and hadn’t even seen him in person yet.
There’s no way Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin could predict the future that day, but saw evidence he’d contribute in some way.
“You are just looking at some tools,” Roenicke said of what he was looking for during the workout. “Nobody is that good where in one day looking at somebody you can tell what they are going to do but you can see tools. If you can grade out tools and know the guy has a pretty good head for the game and instincts, you can predict a lot more that way.
“We were just fortunate it worked out well. He had some history there. If you lead the league that many times in batting average plus Gold Gloves, there was some history we were comfortable with.”
Aoki still had to prove himself. He entered the season as the team’s fourth outfielder and primary pinch-hitting option. When Mat Gamel tore his ACL on May 1 and Corey Hart moved from right field to first base, Aoki got the chance to become the everyday right fielder.
He thrived atop Milwaukee’s lineup, hitting .288 with 10 home runs while stealing 30 bases. He not only proved he was worth bringing over from Japan, but he was one of the biggest bargains in all of baseball.
“Last year was more about showing everyone what I can do,” Aoki said through his translator Kosuke Inaji. “This year I hope to build off of that.
“Starting from spring training this year, I’m mentally just able to be more relaxed and have fun. Hopefully I can continue that through the season.”
Most second year players have to go through an adjustment period as pitchers around the league learn to expose holes in their swings. As more of a veteran player in terms of playing professionally, Roenicke feels Aoki may have to deal with that less than most because of how different his approach at the plate is.
“I don’t really because I wouldn’t know how to pitch him,” Roenicke said. “I wouldn’t know how to defense him. I don’t know what guys are going to do differently. He can do what he needs to do against that pitcher or against the defense.”
Aoki passed on an opportunity to play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic to concentrate on playing for the Brewers. He knows he’ll be hitting leadoff on Opening Day and playing right field, now Aoki can focus on making improvements during camp.
“Last year I learned how to have fun playing baseball,” Aoki said. “Now I’m having fun playing baseball in spring training this year.”
Interviews for this story provided by the Milwaukee Brewers