Since Nori Aoki returned from the disabled list July 11, he has quietly begun to resemble the player the Royals thought they had acquired last winter. His defense improved after some early season frights, and his on-base percentage in his first 18 games back was .364, 14 points above his career average.
He punctuated the upswing with a grand slam on Tuesday night. It was his first home run of the season. The blast boosted his on-base plus slugging percentage since returning to .752.
Aoki declined to discuss alterations in his style that have aided him. But manager Ned Yost pegged an increased sense of comfort in the American League as the source of Aoki’s output.
“When he came here, he didn’t know any of these guys,” Yost said. “He was asking 1,000 questions on each pitcher. He was really watching video. Now he’s got a better understanding of what they’re doing and what they have.”
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Aoki is unsure if switching leagues affected him to such a tremendous degree. The adjustment was much more difficult in 2012, when he joined the Brewers after eight seasons with the Yakult Swallows in Nippon Professional Baseball.
But he did concede unfamiliarity with opposing pitchers stymied him.
“It’s pretty tough,” Aoki said through his interpreter, Kosuke Inaji. “I watch a lot of video. And a lot of pitchers, they’re not really what you see on video, too, once you’re in that batter’s box.”
Now, as he performs well, his place at the top of the Royals’ lineup appears assured. Lorenzo Cain replaced Aoki as the leadoff hitter during his absence, and appeared ready to hold onto the job. But since Aoki left the disabled list, Cain posted a .608 OPS in 17 games.
With a homer and three other hits on Tuesday night, Billy Butler inflated his on-base plus slugging percentage to .701, the first time he has cracked the .700-barrier since June 20. In his first 17 games after the All-Star break, he hit .293 with three homers and three doubles. He posted three homers, total, in the first half.
Yost was asked whether Butler changed anything to aid his recent hot streak.
“Yeah, he changed a lot,” Yost said. “He started getting hits.”
Duffy’s early night
If the Royals hadn’t busted Tuesday’s game open in the fifth, opening up a 10-run lead in the process, Danny Duffy would have pitched the sixth inning, Yost said. Instead, with the game in hand, Duffy’s night ended after five frames and 94 pitches.
“I didn’t want to take him much past 100,” Yost said. “We’re in the hot part, the middle part of the summer. And I want him strong for the end.”
Duffy (6-10, 2.39 ERA) has tossed at least 100 pitches in only six of his 17 starts. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012. His health is vital to the team’s present and future.