In the last several weeks, Billy Butler has gotten a lot of attention for bouncing back from his horrific start, and rightfully so. He was struggling mightily early on this season, and lately, he’s been on a tear, collecting extra-base hits in each of his last 6 games. For the season, his wRC+ now sits at 98, and while that’s certainly still below what we wanted, it’s much closer to acceptable.
However, Butler isn’t the only Royal who’s getting back to being the kind of player we expected to see this season.
Nori Aoki came to Kansas City with the idea he could be a solid leadoff hitter, getting on base at a .350 clip with a bit of doubles power. Needless to say, that did not happen early on. Through June 11, Aoki was hitting just .256/.317/.310, with only 9 doubles and a pair of triples in 269 plate appearances. His strikeout and walk rates weren’t terribly far off from his career numbers, but he was making so much weak contact that he stood little chance of hitting for extra bases, if he reached base at all.
None of his swing patterns suggested he was being any less selective at the plate, and in fact, he swung at balls out of the zone less than 21% of the time, which would be a career low O-Swing%. Aoki also maintained contact rates similar to his career numbers. The problem was the kind of contact Aoki generated, and the kind of contact he generated was a whole lot of ground balls. Two-thirds of the balls he put in play were on the ground, and while he does have some speed, the grounders weren’t hit with enough authority to become hits very frequently. He also had a line drive rate of 18.1%, again confirming he simply wasn’t hitting the ball hard enough.
But apparently something changed before the game on June 13. It’s possible that working with Dale Sveum for a couple of weeks finally took effect, or perhaps Aoki made a slight mechanical adjustment, or maybe June 13 is nothing more than an arbitrary endpoint I used to frame this article. You can decide for yourself the true cause, but since that date, Aoki has looked like the Aoki of old.
In his last 115 plate appearances, Aoki is hitting .277/.365/.386, with 8 extra-base hits, including his first home run of the season. That line is good for a 115 wRC+, which looks a heck of a lot better than the 77 he had in the first two months. In order to make this surge, Aoki hasn’t been any more selective, and he’s actually swung at more pitches out of the zone, while also making less contact on pitches in the zone. That’s not normally something you like to see, but as I’ve said many times before: more contact isn’t always better contact.
Since June 13, Aoki’s line drive rate is 23.6%, and his ground ball rate is down to 57.3%. That’s still quite a few ground balls, but the number of line drives suggest he’s making better contact overall, which could indicate those grounders are being struck with more authority. His BABIP during this stretch (.292) is almost identical to his BABIP early on (.290), which is also very close to his career BABIP (.297), which means this doesn’t appear to be dumb luck on batted balls.
Also of note: Aoki has drawn 12 walks since June 13, while striking out just 8 times.
This is the Nori Aoki that Dayton Moore hoped to see when he traded Will Smith to Milwaukee in the offseason. (Smith has a 7.40 ERA in 20.2 innings since June 13, for those interested in such things.)
I don’t want to make it seem like Aoki has been a great player all year, of course. His current wRC+ is still only 89, and for a right fielder, that’s simply not good enough. This could be some speculation on my part, but the Royals did not make a move at the deadline in part because Aoki had been hitting well enough that they didn’t feel pressured to make a splashy move. He had begun to regress to his career norms, and if he produces at that level for the rest of the year, the team can definitely live with him manning right field for what amounts to peanuts, financially.
Aoki still has work to do before he gets all the way back to his 108 wRC+ that he averaged in his first two MLB seasons, but it looks like he’s headed in the right direction. He’s getting on base more frequently, and making better contact overall, and that has led to better results for Aoki, and consequently, the Royals as well.