Yakult Swallows center fielder Norichika Aoki had an off year in 2009, when he only hit .303 with 16 home runs, often batting in the leadoff spot.
Doesn't sound like an off year for most people, granted. But Aoki isn't most people. The 2005 Central League Rookie of the Year hit .344 his first full season in the league with an Ichiro-like 202 hits that year. And he was just getting started.
Since then, the 28-year-old Aoki has had over 190 hits in two other seasons and his average has been north of .340 three times. The man can do it all, as evidenced by his four All-Star selections, four Best Nine awards and three Gold Gloves. In 2009, he was named to the World Baseball Classic All-Tournament team after helping Japan win its second title.
Besides his career .331 batting average, Aoki has averaged more than 15 home runs a season over the past four years and he steals an average of 20 bases a season.
MLB scouts have been salivating over the left-handed hitting Miyazaki native, who still needs three-plus years of NPB service to reach free-agency status. Of course, there's always the posting system, should the Swallows decide to cash in on their golden child.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with the Swallows' swinger to get his thoughts on a variety of issues--from his baseball heroes to the key to hitting a nasty split-fingered fastball.
* * *
What is the single most important factor in hitting a baseball, in your opinion--eyesight, bat speed?
There are many important aspects, but to me timing is the most important.
* * *
Do you ever get tired of people in the media or fans constantly asking if you want to play Major League Baseball?
During the season it makes me a little uncomfortable because I want to focus on playing for the Swallows and I don't want to disrespect this organization. In the offseason, however, it's no problem to answer questions like that.
* * *
You've had a lot of success in your career wearing No. 23, but this year you switched to No. 1. Why the change, and do you feel more pressure to perform now with the No. 1 on your back?
So far, I haven't felt any additional pressure. I was recently invited to a Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame party for (former Swallows star player and manager) Tsutomu Wakamatsu, who used to wear the No. 1. When I was there I really started to feel like maybe this number should be mine.
* * *
You are often compared to Ichiro by many people, such as major-league scouts, in terms of your hitting ability. Is that something that bothers you at all or does it make you feel proud?
I'm very happy that I've reached a level in this game where people compare me to Ichiro, one of the all-time great players. I feel very honored that some people make that comparison, put me in the same category as Ichiro.
* * *
If you were not a professional baseball player, what do you think you might be doing for a living?
Hmmm--maybe a freeta (freelancer or semi-employed, said with a laugh). That's a tough one. I've only ever focused on being a baseball player, I've never even thought about doing anything else.
* * *
What do you think of NPB's free-agency system, where players have to put in seven years to become a domestic free agent and nine years to move overseas? Is it a fair system?
It makes no sense. It's way too long (the required NPB service time).
* * *
What's your proudest accomplishment in baseball so far?
Winning the 2009 World Baseball Classic. I also played in 2006, but last year I really contributed more and felt like one of the main players. I was named to the WBC Best Nine team and was really proud to represent my country and win the world title again. I played hard to help us reach our goal and I feel that is my best memory in baseball.
* * *
Did you have any baseball heroes growing up as a kid, Japanese or American?
Derek Jeter (New York Yankees captain/ shortstop). He's a guy who always plays hard and is just focused on winning. That seems to be all that is important to him and I admire that attitude.
* * *
Do you have any specific goals for the 2010 season?
First off, I want to help the Swallows win the Japan Series. Personally, I want to hit as close to .400 as possible. It might not be possible for me to hit .400, but I want to set a high goal that will make me push myself, and in turn help us reach the Japan Series.
* * *
Who are the guys on your team who mess around with the other guys the most, the biggest jokers on the club?
Jamie (D'Antona) and sometimes AG (Aaron Guiel). They're always joking around, but I really like that. It's good for the mood of the team. Most Japanese players are pretty quiet and don't talk much, but not Jamie. He is always having a good time and that keeps us more relaxed, so I think it's good for the team.