6/27/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Aoki is an antidote for the strikeout epidemic
Brewers leadoff man fans approximately one-fourth as much as MLB average
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
It is time for us to salute Norichika Aoki. He plays the game the way it is supposed to be played -- or at least the way it was supposed to be played up until about 15 seconds ago.
In a season in which striking out has somehow become a routine activity, Aoki isn't going along with the three-strike syndrome.
The right fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers strikes out once every 16.76 at-bats. In the rest of the big leagues this season, there has been a strikeout every 4.53 at-bats. That is a dramatic change from 10 years ago, when a strikeout occurred every 5.38 at-bats.
So Aoki is striking out at roughly one-fourth the pace of the remainder of hitters. He should be congratulated, applauded, celebrated. He may be swimming against the tide of history, but he is still doing the right thing.
For hitters, the strikeout used to be seen as an ignominious end to an at-bat. It was completely non-productive. The hitter gave his team no chance with this result.
Not all that long ago there was a standard two-strike approach. The hitter choked up, shortened his swing -- anything to punch the ball somewhere. Perhaps a runner could be moved. Perhaps the other guys would fail to catch the baseball. The possibilities existed, as long as the ball was put in play.
What is the two-strike approach this season?
"Swing even harder than you did on the first two strikes," said a Major League scout.
Or there are the growing numbers of hitters taking called third strikes. Once, the two-strike rule of thumb was, if the pitch was close, you had to offer at it. Now, your agent is telling you that you need to see more pitches per plate appearance. That marginal two-strike pitch? What the heck, take a chance, maybe the ump won't ring you up. Oops.
There used to be a coaching mantra on this issue: "The first two strikes are for you. The third one is for the team."
In other words, once the count gets to two strikes, all of your personal ambitions are history. You are trying to stay alive, to make contact, to put the ball in play, for the collective good of your team. Avoiding a strikeout was a higher calling.
This lesson seems to have been lost, or at least temporarily mislaid, this season. This is why Aoki, who makes not striking out a way of life, is probably a role model for the youth of North America, even though this is not his native hemisphere.
Aoki, 31, was an All-Star and a batting champion in Japan before joining the Brewers in 2012. His left-handed batting style is a reminder, not surprisingly, of the work of Ichiro Suzuki.
Aoki frequently slashes at the ball, giving the simultaneous impression that he is moving rapidly toward first base while still hitting. He is content to punch the ball the opposite way, but on occasion he can turn on the pitch and drive it. Aoki hit 10 home runs last season.
He runs well, having swiped 30 bases last season. He is a .291 hitter over his 1 1/2 seasons in the big leagues, with a .360 on-base percentage. He is also a very sound defensive outfielder. In other words, he is a productive big league player and a legitimate leadoff hitter.
And, Aoki strikes out very infrequently. Kudos also to Marco Scutaro, Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre, Nick Markakis and Andrelton Simmons. Through Tuesday night's games, among players with enough at-bats to qualify for the leader lists, they were all averaging 10 or more at-bats per strikeout.
These players do not go quietly. They do not often have to trudge back to the dugout after failing to do anything other than adding one more number to the strikeout epidemic.
More than ever, they deserve our thanks and our support for not succumbing to the strikeout/surrender outlook that grips the rest of the game. But the one individual who deserves the largest amount of thanks and support is Aoki. In a season where the strikeout seems inevitable, Aoki persistently demonstrates that it is not.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.