One of the big questions to be answered this year in Japanese baseball is, how will the Tokyo Yakult Swallows fare without All-Star center fielder Norichika Aoki, posted for major league service during the offseason and now with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Aoki was a three-time Central League batting champion (2005, 2007, 2010) and the guy you wanted at the plate with the game on the line; maybe not for home run power but to get that clutch, two-out hit with the tying or winning runs on base. He was one of the main reasons for improvement made by the Yakult club over the past year and a half and will obviously be missed.
The Swallows went from being buried in last place in May of 2010 when a managerial change from Shigeru Takada to Junji Ogawa lit a flame and took the team to a strong fourth-place finish. They led the CL most of the way in 2011 until a late season slump saw them relinquish the top spot to the Chunichi Dragons. Yakult finished second but lost to Chunichi in the Climax Series.
What will 2012 be like?
Can the Swallows maintain the status of a pennant contender without Aoki?
Last year’s Central League home run king Wladimir Balentien says the Swallows will surely miss him, but not to worry, as the Yakult lineup includes hitters who will take up the slack.
“There is no question our team’s offense will be different without Aoki, but we have others who can step up,” said Balentien, a native of Curacao who goes by the nickname “Coco.” He might have been referring to first baseman Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, second sacker Hiroyasu “Beavis” Tanaka, veteran third baseman Shinya Miyamoto and catcher Ryoji Aikawa.
Tanaka, by the way, got his nickname a few years ago from foreign teammates who said he bears a resemblance to the animated U.S. TV show character and partner of “Butt-head.”
Balentien, playing his second season with Yakult, was also probably thinking of himself and his new American teammate, Lastings Milledge, among those who can help make up for the loss of Aoki and his potent bat.
“My goal is to have a better season than last year,” said Balentien prior to a recent exhibition game at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. His performance in 2011 was similar to that of his team, with a hot first half that earned him a spot on the CL All-Star team as he led the league in home runs in the early going. He also hit above .300 for the first third of schedule.
Like his ball club, however, he faded in the second half, but hung on to win the league home run title with 31. His batting average, well above .300 in May, dropped steadily, and his home run/RBI ratio was not that great, as he ended the year with 76 runs batted in.
When the season concluded, his average was at .228, which ranked him 24th and last among batters with enough plate appearances to qualify for listing in the final statistics. He also led the league with 131 strikeouts, so to achieve this year’s goal, he will need to cut down on the whiffs, put the ball in play more, raise his average and be more consistent throughout the season.
As for Milledge, Balentien says his new buddy seems to have the right attitude and should have no trouble fitting into the Swallows lineup and outfield alignment vacated by Aoki. Milledge will be trying Japanese ball after a six-year MLB career with the Mets, Washington, Pittsburgh and the White Sox.
There are a couple of interesting quirks about the new guy. He will be wearing uniform No. 85, a numeral usually reserved for managers and coaches in Japan, and his nickname is “Spam,” about which I was curious to know if that comes from a brand name of canned meat or bad email messages.
He also wore jersey 85 in the major leagues in 2009 after giving up his No. 44 to teammate Adam Dunn on the Nationals. He switched to 85 because he was born in 1985 and is now continuing to wear that number in Japan.
As for the nickname, it’s the meat. “I ate a lot of Spam as a kid growing up, and my friends started calling me that,” he said. It stayed with him.
Having been born in ’85, Milledge is still 26 and will turn 27 on April 5. He is one of the youngest foreign players in Japan, and he has the opportunity to play here for a long time.
“That’s my plan,” he said. “I want to play another 10 years, whether it’s here or back home.” He got some information and advice to go to Japan if given the chance by former Chiba Lotte Marines (2009) outfielder Chase Lambin, a teammate in the U.S. last season.
Milledge also feels he has adjusted well so far, blending in with his Swallows mates and, if his batting average during exhibition play is any indication of how he will perform during the season, Yakult fans would be happy. Through March 22, he was hitting .344 while batting in the third spot in manager Ogawa’s order ahead of sluggers Hatakeyama and Balentien.
It remains to be seen if the Swallows cam overcome the loss of Aoki, but a lot will depend on “Coco” and “Spam” with some help from “Beavis,” too.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com