Is anyone born to bat ninth? It’s a spot almost always arrived at incidentally. Prior to 1973’s introduction of the designated hitter in the American League, it was manned by pitchers, who held to the rules of the game by walking from the dugout at the end of every go-round, making a quick out, and walking back. Since then, in the AL, the nine hole has been filled mainly by players who do something else well enough that their hitting does not much matter: brilliant centerfielders and shortstops, ceremonial leader types.
As an offensive presence, and not as a defender who happens to use a bat four or five times an evening, what would the ideal ninth hitter even look like? The phrase—ideal ninth hitter—threatens to dissolve in oxymoron. The easiest answer is that a great ninth hitter would look like a good leadoff hitter, but this avoids the spirit of the question; it is like saying the best way to liven up your commute is to buy a Lamborghini. The curmudgeonly answer is to refuse the premise: “Make the pitcher hit and be done with it.”
The right answer, though, is that the perfect ninth hitter already exists, on the closest thing to a perfect team that the 2017 season has to offer. Nori Aoki plays left and bats last (when he plays at all) for the Houston Astros, that homer-strewing, run-piling club that has already rendered every month until October a formality. Unlike his teammates, Aoki doesn’t hit home runs. He doesn’t hit much in general, really; his .267 batting average and .333 slugging percentage are good for negative wins above replacement. But Aoki’s job, the one that he realizes and embodies as fully as anyone, is not to put up numbers. It is to work the opponent, to frustrate and hang in and prod and pester. A good ninth hitter makes what seems like an easy task, getting the last out in the order, feel a little bit harder than expected. Aoki is the sport’s finest nuisance.
At the plate—or, more accurately, over it, his elbows skimming the strike zone—Aoki bends into a batting stance that could only be superstitious, so divorced is it from any principle of balance. He is small to start with, with narrow shoulders and slightly bowed legs, and then he bunches himself further, knees bent, heels lifted, hands offset on the handle as if he’s wringing a washcloth. The barrel of the bat waggles. He looks stuck mid-process, locked uncomfortably in place.
The swing is a relief. When the pitch comes to the plate, Aoki kicks his leg high, drops it back down, and frees his arms. The bat goes quick, in angles. Aoki has tiered intentions. The first is to make the pitcher throw and throw and thrown, five or eight or ten pitches, so he happily nicks a fastball out into the crowd and deadens a slider into the dirt to the side of home plate. The second is to reach base, however he can. Set next to the rest of the blasting-off Astros, Aoki shrinks and magnifies the game. They want to put the baseball 400 feet away, but he just wants to roll it under the second baseman’s glove or lob it over the shortstop’s head. The ball makes a skipping-rock pattern up the middle; it bends a crescent to left. Aoki has his own set of verbs. Where others mash and wallop, he slices, slips, shuttles.
To value Aoki, you have to value variety for its own sake. This has been his worst season, statistically, and it may be his last in a Major League uniform, but he still nudges the game into a mode few modern players can access. He hardly ever strikes out; he tests defenses tuned to line drives with dribblers and squibs. He spins out of the batter’s box and is running as soon as his bat touches the ball. He a puzzle, a pop quiz, those last few seconds on a timer. He is scheduled surprise.
“We expect a good at-bat and we expect a competent defender in the outfield,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said when his team signed Aoki to a one-year contract in December. This was both rote manager-speak—the sort of reflexive compliment guys in charge dole out to 34-year-olds who can still gain employment as professional athletes—and a wholly inadequate description. For one thing, Aoki’s defense lacks the neatness to be labeled competent; he tracks fly balls in the splayed-arm manner of a kindergartener flying a kite. For another, the pure quality of Aoki’s plate appearances is almost inconsequential. He provides difference, bother. Who can say how exasperation resolves itself? Carlos Correa splits the game open with a home run, but it is Aoki who the pitcher curses under his breath as he leaves the field.