If I spent a few moments thinking about it, I could probably come up with a few names of players who have been more perplexing to watch as Seattle Mariners, but as it stands right now in August of 2016, Nori Aoki takes the prize for most perplexing baseball player I've ever watched over the course of a Mariners season. Nori "nonplussed" Aoki, I call him, since most of the time I have no idea how to react to what I see him doing on the field.
The messed up thing, and the thing that he is arguably not getting enough credit for this season, is that he really is hitting the ball well and getting on base with stunning regularity, especially since his return from his reality check demotion down to AAA Tacoma. And sometimes, he even makes it around the bases successfully to score! But those other times, when Aoki makes a terrible base running decision or lack thereof (also known as a TOOTBLAN for you non-nerd readers out there), he deserves the scorn and ill will he receives from Mariners fans. We'll get to his defense later, probably in .gif form.
He's hitting .338 over the last 28 days, say whaaaat!? Yay selective and small sample sizes!
In my very non-scientific estimation, you can watch Aoki for approximately 3 games and you will think, "That right there is a totally serviceable, top the of the order hitter with passable skills in the outfield. For the right price, he is a worthy acquisition."
But then you watch that 4th game where Aoki gets thrown out on the basepaths, misjudges a routine fly ball, and goes 0-4 at the plate and suddenly you ask yourself, "How did a man so clearly physically and fundamentally overmatched make it so far in his baseball career in the United States?" The funny thing about "the eye test" is that a player like Aoki passes it 75% of the time. The other 25% is the Aoki Conundrum.
The Aoki Conundrum is what we, as Mariners fans, are experiencing in 2016. If any Royals or Giants fans are reading this (damn, you must be bored from all the winning), they are nodding along in solemn, sad, and bemused agreement. If any Brewers fans are reading, hey just move on to the pretty pictures, it's okay guys. Fans of those 3 teams watched this man succeed at the game of baseball and also fail in ways so spectacular and breath taking, that they are only believable in .gif form.
Aoki has a guaranteed contract value of $5.5 million with 100k bonuses for 400+ plate appearances in increments of 25 PAs, which is more than likely why he still occupies a roster spot instead of the younger, faster, and probably more talented Guillermo Heredia. Aoki's production at the plate makes it a difficult decision to outright release him, no matter how bad he continues to be on defense and on the base paths (-2 on base stealing this season, for the love of god please stop letting him try). Although there is the lovely stat known as WAR, which shows Aoki is currently worth a whopping 0.2 wins above replacement. Could be worse, as in negative, but hey there is a fraction of positive value there still. Heredia will certainly be back when rosters expand in September and one can only hope he gets more playing time than Aoki as the Mariners (hopefully) continue their quest for a Wild Card spot or, god forbid, a divisional bid.
Many Mariners fans were pretty happy with the signing during the offseason and hopes were high for more Family Circus routes in the outfield, some decent production, and some funny .gifs. We've gotten the first two for sure, but sadly there really haven't been many funny moments. That probably has something to do with the fact that he's committing these gaffes for a team with real playoff hopes.
On a serious note, though, Aoki should be praised and commended for even continuing his baseball career in any way after taking a fastball to the front of his helmet from Jake Arrieta in 2015 and battling back from a pretty severe concussion (watch at own risk, nothing funny here). Head injuries have completely or nearly derailed the careers of many talented players over the years, most recently Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Johnathan Lucroy. Any player that is able to bounce back and play even close to the level they were playing pre-concussion deserves major points for perseverance. Aoki may still be suffering from concussion-related symptoms, which may be contributing to his errors in the outfield and on the bases for all we know. Also, Aoki played for 8 years in NPB where he was very productive at the plate (career .329 batting average and .857 on base plus slugging percentage) so it's not like appeared from thin air as this spry and hilarious-.gif-producing court jester of a baseball player.
So maybe I'm being unfair and harsh here, but my case remains that Aoki, in spite of his improved performance at the plate, continues to be the most perplexing baseball player I've watched in recent memory. I would love to watch him continue to be perplexing for a team not named the Seattle Mariners next year.