8 Days Till Opening Day: Assessing Aoki, Appreciating Blanco

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Norichika Aoki is one of those non-star players you see on opposing teams and quietly covet. You know he’ll never be the difference between your team contending or not, but you just appreciate his game; how solid his at-bats always are, how he seems to make great defensive plays regularly. Add to that his distinctly Japanese style, and how in the game’s highest strikeout era he never strikes out, and Aoki is a player you’re glad to see in your favorite team’s colors. When the Giants signed him this offseason, no one rushed out to buy an Aoki jersey. No one bought a round of drinks for the bar, no one hurriedly texted their mom or sister to discuss the implications. Aoki’s signing came with a smart, solemn nod.

There’s a broader narrative at work though, which is that in so, so many other parallel universes or timelines or whatever, Nori Aoki is forever a hero in Kansas City thanks to his game-winning RBI double in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. We just happen to live in the universe where Juan Perez was positioned—on his own or by dint of the savvy Ron Wotus—in the perfect spot to deny Aoki his glory. Instead, Aoki’s new teammate Madison Bumgarner is Sportsman of the Year and a baseball legend for all time. So it goes.

Aoki is going to provide similar overall value to Michael Morse a year ago but in a completely opposite way. Instead of occasionally running into one and striking out the rest of the time, like Morse, Aoki’s instead going to battle in every at-bat, foul off a ridiculous number of two-strike pitches, and either work a walk or slap a single the other way. Rather than being as mobile as Fisherman’s Wharf in the outfield, Aoki’s going to provide value on defense, even if his routes make Pagan’s look like the height of parsimony.

The Giants in recent years haven’t been a very fast unit, and even individual guys with speed haven’t run a lot. Stealing bases doesn’t seem like something Bochy or the front office values much, and for good reason. But this year there’s going to be a serious lack of power in the lineup and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Bochy force the issue on the bases, with the Aoki signing evidence of that plan. Aoki was terrible stealing bases last year, swiping 17 while being thrown out 8 times. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen again. Aoki’s instincts and speed can add value on the bases as long as they’re leveraged to take an extra base, go 1st to 3rd, tag up, etc. If he’s running in 2015 I hope it’s for those reasons, and not because he’s trying to steal.

Aoki has a career reverse split, being better against lefties than righties. For almost any other player that would be an aberration, and not something you can count on, but Aoki’s skillset explains it. His game against lefties is to go the other way, so pitches on the outer half get slashed into left field automatically. A look at his career spray charts bears this out: the majority of his base hits against lefties have been to left field. That tendency nearly victimized Bumgarner and won Aoki a ring. Look for it to benefit the Giants this year. Assuming Pagan is healthy (and I’ll get to that unlikely scenario in my next post), an Aoki/Blanco platoon in left field is conceivable, even though they’re both lefties.

Aoki will hit .285/.350/.370, because while AT&T Park crushes lefty power, he’s less susceptible to that than most due to his opposite field approach. He’ll match last year’s 6 triples thanks to Triples Alley and will make astute fans of other teams quietly covet his subtle value.

Since he isn’t penciled in as a starter but will certainly see plenty of playing time, I want to briefly discuss Gregor Blanco.

Since 2012, when the Giants signed Gregor Blanco as a minor league free agent, he’s been worth about 6 WAR per Baseball-Reference.com, while earning $4.4m. In the same time frame, Angel Pagan has been worth about 6 WAR while earning $23.3m. Blanco has been the bargain of the last few years, a scrap heap signing who got playing time due to injury and shined. I’m only being slightly sentimental when I say that Blanco is as responsible for the Giants’ recent success as nearly anyone. The Giants simply had no business getting as much out of Blanco as they have when they signed him in 2012.

Talking about Blanco dovetails nicely with mentioning Bill James’ recent comments on the limitations of WAR. It’s true that Pagan has been disappointing the last two seasons due to missing so many games from injury, and as I did above, it’s easy to talk about his WAR total relative to his salary. But Pagan’s contributions shouldn’t be measured against what a hypothetical replacement player would do, because there was never a replacement-level player waiting in the wings—there was Gregor Blanco. And as we’ve seen, Blanco is a solid big leaguer in his own right. The depth he’s provided has won two rings for the Giants, and I hope fans appreciate that.

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