Having lost Aaron Hicks to Tommy John surgery to kick off the offseason, the Yankees need an outfielder who can credibly handle center field. Re-signing Brett Gardner has been discussed, but no one knows how long his age-defying performance is going to last. Cameron Maybin and Mike Tauchman are internal options, but it remains to be seen how well they can perform over a full year. Given that expecting 162-game seasons out of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge is also a pretty large gamble at this point, the Yankees would do well to snag a full-time outfielder in free agency this winter.
Enter Shogo Akiyama, one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s best outfielders, who recently made clear his intention to make the jump to the major leagues. Does Akiyama have what it takes to thrive in center field for the Yankees? While he’s far from a must-sign player, the stats show that Akiyama has enough going for him to be a legitimate candidate.
Akiyama made his professional debut with the Seibu Lions in 2011 at the age of 23, having been selected by them in the third round in the 2010 NPB Draft. After performing at a slightly above average level offensively for the next few years, Akiyama tore up the Pacific League in 2015 at age 27, hitting .359/.419/.522 for a 167 wRC+. Oh, and he also set a new NPB record for most hits in a single season (216).
While 2015 was his career year, Akiyama has more than proved in the years since that it wasn’t a fluke. His wRC+ marks from the past four seasons look like this, from least to most recent: 126, 162, 153, and 142. Meanwhile, his contact rate has never dipped below 81.5% during that time, while he has consistently posted walk rates in the double digits. Currently at 31 years of age, Akiyama may not exactly be a long-term asset, but he should be more than productive offensively for another year or two, considering the strong floor that his contact skills and strike zone recognition provides.
Defensively, Akiyama is a bit less appealing. After posting a UZR of 9.9 in 2017, Akiyama appears to have slipped a bit, recording a -1.2 UZR in 2018 and a -3.8 mark last year. Of course, single-season defensive numbers are fluky, so a more accurate reading of Akiyama’s UZR marks would be that he’s been about five runs above average over the past three years. However, when you factor in age-related decline and the difficulty of transitioning to MLB’s more spacious outfields, it’s hard to get too excited about Akiyama’s defensive chops.
Still, a well above-average bat with both good patience and contact skills paired with an average to slightly below-average glove in center field is a pretty nifty player to have. The question is, how well would Akiyama’s offensive skills translate to MLB?
By my extremely unprofessional judgement, a good NPB star-turned-MLBer comp for Akiyama would be Nori Aoki, who averaged around 1.9 fWAR per 600 plate appearances in his time in the majors with a wRC+ of 105 over six years.
In terms of hitting for contact, Aoki was way better than Akiyama is now, hitting .340 or above four times in his first seven full seasons, and owning a career NPB strikeout rate of just 11.0% compared to Akiyama’s 15.0% clip.
Aoki did manage to avoid strikeouts in the majors as well, posting an absurdly low 8.5% strikeout rate. However, he never did manage to hit above .300, although he did hit .280 with machine-like consistency. The fact that a hitter with superior contact skills never managed to crack .300 in MLB admittedly does not bode well for Akiyama.
However, Akiyama does have one thing going for him over Aoki, and that is power. During his NPB career, Akiyama has posted three 20+ HR seasons and a career .153 ISO, compared to just one such season and a .129 mark for Aoki. While Akiyama is far from a slugger, he does have more punch in his swing than a slap hitter. That should make up for any dip in batting average that Akiyama might experience in the majors.
So, in Shogo Akiyama the Yankees are looking at a center fielder who is likely to hit around, say, .270/.350/.400 and won’t kill you in the field. That’s not the sexiest of free agent targets, but as the Yankees showed last year, having as many credible major leaguers as possible on your roster is a very good thing, and Shogo Akiyama is a good bet to fall into that category.
Since Akiyama is coming over as an FA, there will be no posting fee, and his age, along with general apprehension towards NPB position players, will probably damper his price tag. It’s still too early to talk about years and dollar figures, but I’d imagine that Akiyama will come at a not unreasonable price. If so, the Yankees would be wise to take a good, hard look at the cream of the NPB crop.