With spring training now officially underway, we’re now in the time of year during which position battles are constantly being talked about. With this year’s version of the Royals, though, the position battles aren’t terribly sexy. We’ll surely cover everything going on with the competition for bench spots in the next few weeks, but since the starting lineup is essentially set, I wanted to dig a little deeper into each player’s profile to get an idea of how opposing pitchers have attacked each hitter. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll go through the Royals lineup to figure out what we might expect to see in 2014. I’ll start at the top of the order today, with Norichika Aoki.
First and foremost, Aoki loves fastballs. In his career, he has a .338 average and a .501 slugging percentage against fourseam fastballs, and against sinking fastballs, those numbers only dip to .290 and .391, respectively. This makes sense, of course, considering how excellent Aoki’s bat control is. If a pitch is in the strike zone, he’s likely going to make solid contact with it, and since hard stuff isn’t going to have as much movement as breaking balls, making contact is easier for him to do. Last year, Aoki didn’t hit fastballs with as much power, but he still posted batting averages of .332 against fourseamers and .285 against sinkers. Those averages don’t include instances of Aoki reaching on error, which is something he does incredibly well. In 2013, Aoki safely reached base after putting a fastball in play 97 times (including reaching on error), more than any other player in baseball.
When a player seems to have so much success against a single kind of pitch, you might expect pitchers to not throw the hitter that pitch as frequently. It makes sense, right? Apparently, major league pitchers either didn’t have a scouting report on Aoki, or they just chose to ignore it. Among qualified hitters, only seven players in baseball saw a higher percentage of fourseam fastballs than Aoki (39%). Also, only 14 hitters in all of baseball saw a higher percentage of sinkers than Aoki (16%). Of the 2,439 pitches Aoki saw in 2013, 1,326 were either a fourseam or sinking fastball.
Why would pitchers give Aoki so many fastballs, assuming they don’t come into the game completely unprepared?
If you look at the leaderboard for players seeing the highest percentage of fastballs, you’ll likely notice that nearly every one of those top-ranked players is a leadoff hitter or a hitter in the second spot. The only exception is Michael Brantley, who primarily hit in the fifth spot – although his second highest plate appearance total was at leadoff. This suggests to me that pitchers are more concerned with not showing everything they’ve got, than focusing on individual scouting reports. This could bode well for Aoki in 2014, if pitchers continue that trend. It would also help if pitchers continue to ignore that Aoki hits under .230 against changeups and sliders.
Another cause of Aoki’s high fastball percentage is the number of first pitch fastballs he saw. In 2013, he saw 414 first pitch fastballs, which was the fourth highest number in baseball. If pitchers do start attacking Aoki differently and maybe throw him more offspeed stuff early in the count, a few things could happen. First, with Aoki’s great plate discipline, anything out of the zone could put the pitcher in a hole against a hitter who excels against fastballs. Second, if they use more of their repertoire to get Aoki out, it may give the rest of the lineup an extra look at the pitcher’s stuff on that particular day. While I personally think that advantage can be overblown at times, it does seem like pitchers are not fond of using all their pitches against leadoff hitters. So even though pitching backwards to Aoki may help the pitcher initially, it’s certainly no guarantee for success later in the game.
Pitchers don’t seem to fear throwing fastballs to Aoki, despite his success against that pitch. The data indicates they’d be better off throwing him sliders and changeups more frequently, while giving him less hard stuff to hit. We’ll have to see if Aoki’s transition to a new league affects the way teams attack him, or if they will continue to hold back some of their secondary stuff in order to save pitches for later. If they do continue to throw fastballs to Aoki over 50% of the time, the Royals’ new leadoff hitter could be poised for yet another solid season.