By most accounts – including the MLB‘s own – this year’s NL ROY competition is essentially a three-horse race, with Bryce Harper, Wade Miley and Todd Frazier all vying for the honors.
That said, the race is the NL is much closer than its AL counterpart (in that there’s some competition at all) – what if there’s a player outside of the three front-runners being overlooked? Might there be a chance for a dark horse to come in and take the ROY award?
Norichika Aoki is one such player. The Milwaukee Brewers outfielder is hardly a rookie to professional baseball – he came into the major leagues after leaving Japanese baseball as a seven-time NPB all-star, so it’s hardly a surprise that he’d put up MLB numbers that puts him among the rookie elites.
So what are some of these numbers? Over 588 plate appearances in 2012 (nine less than Harper), Aoki notched six more hits (150) than the Washington Nationals‘ super-rookie; on top of that, he also hit for a higher average (.288), and got on base (.355) more than both Harper and Frazier. One of the main reasons for Aoki’s success is his excellent plate discipline, striking out at a rate of just 9.4%; in comparison, both Harper and Frazier struck out at more than twice of Aoki’s rate, at 20.1% and 22.2% respectively.
Simply put, Aoki made fewer outs than both guys ahead of him. When he got on base, the Japanese import didn’t have any problem using his speed either, nabbing 30 stolen bases. A proper comparison for Aoki might be something like a Michael Bourn-lite – someone with less speed, but strikes out much less. Oh, and his ten homers doesn’t make him a total loss in that category either.
With a 2.9 WAR on the season, Aoki is already the second-most valuable rookie in the NL (though it is likely that Frazier might have exceeded that with more playing time). So what holds the NPB vet back from the front of the pack?
Well, a couple of things. His counting numbers – particularly in power – aren’t as flashy as either that of Harper’s or Frazier’s. Aoki scored just 81 runs despite the 10-30 season, but I’d say that hitting in front of a sub-par Rickie Weeks had something to do about that. The bigger factor why Aoki is being held back in the race is likely his defense, which is average at best; this is where Harper has a major advantage, as he has the ability to make game-changing plays that Aoki simply can’t. Defense isn’t the easiest thing to measure in numbers, but a -0.9 UZR for Aoki compared to a 9.9 for Harper should give you an idea of the gap between the two.
Despite this, I’d still like to think that Aoki should be as deserving of a NL ROY nod as Frazier is. As arguably the only true lead-off man in the NL rookie class, Aoki is as good a dark horse as any to steal some votes away from the favourites.