MILWAUKEE -- Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting on Monday, a ceremonial end to a successful first season in the U.S. Major Leagues.
The award, as voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, went to Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, the brash 19-year-old who burst onto the big league scene in 2012 and became the second-youngest NL Rookie of the Year to '84 winner Dwight Gooden with the Mets.
Harper garnered 16 of the 32 first-place votes and finished with 112 points to top D-backs pitcher Wade Miley, who had 12 first-place votes and 105 points. The Reds' Todd Frazier was third and the Rockies' Wilin Rosario finished fourth.
Harper led NL rookies in runs (98), total bases (254), triples (nine), extra-base hits (57), multi-hit games (45) and outfield assists (eight), but Aoki held his own against the Washington phenom and the rest of the NL rookie field.
2012 NL ROOKIE OF YEAR VOTING
Aoki played in 151 games, batted .288, led NL rookies in stolen bases (30) and tied the Padres' Yonder Alonso for the NL rookie lead in hits (150). Aoki ranked second in runs (81), doubles (37), total bases (225) and on-base percentage (.355) and became the first NL rookie since the Cardinals' Bake McBride (1974) to have four hitting streaks of at least 10 games in a season. Aoki had streaks of 15, 13, 12 and 10 games.
"It was my first experience over here, so there were some tough times," Aoki said via translator Kosuke Inaji before heading home for the winter. "But overall, I had a great time."
Aoki received two second-place votes (from Dennis Semrau of the Wisconsin State Journal and Paul White of USA Today) and five third-place votes for a total of 11 points, one behind Rockies catcher Rosario. Two BBWAA members representing each NL city cast a ballot with a first-, second- and third-place vote.
Aoki's finish was the best by a Japanese-born rookie position player since Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima was fourth in the 2006 vote. In all, seven hitters from Japan have finished in the top 10 in Major League Baseball's Rookie of the Year races, including Ichiro Suzuki, the only Japanese hitter to win the award, in 2001. Ichiro also won the American League MVP that season.
Before Aoki, the last Japanese rookie hitter to finish in his U.S. league's top 10 was the Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome, who finished sixth in 2008.
Japanese pitchers have had more rookie success in the U.S. Nine of them have finished in the top 10 in MLB's rookie races, including 2012 AL third-place finisher Yu Darvish of the Rangers.
Darvish and Aoki took very different paths to 2012 Opening Day. Darvish was one of the Rangers' prized offseason acquisitions and reported to Spring Training assured of a spot in Texas' starting rotation. Aoki had to travel to Phoenix in January to work out for Brewers officials before they signed him, then returned a month later for Spring Training assured of nothing beyond a bench role.
"That was a tough situation, especially from coming from starting every day in Japan," Aoki said. "Looking back at it now, I'm kind of surprised at myself I chose this route. .... But I've always wanted to play over here, so I'm glad I made that choice."
By May, Aoki had become a key cog in a Brewers offense that would lead the league in runs, home runs and stolen bases.
The Brewers installed Aoki in the leadoff hole in place of second baseman Rickie Weeks, who was mired in a miserable early-season slump. And they made Aoki the regular right fielder after Corey Hart moved to first base to fill in for Mat Gamel, lost for the season to a right knee injury.
By season's end, Aoki was Milwaukee's hottest hitter. He tied the Rays' B.J. Upton for the Major League lead with 18 extra-base hits in September/October, matching a Brewers club record set by George Scott in 1975 and matched by Hart in 2007. Aoki was Milwaukee's Player of the Month for September/October after batting .306 with four home runs, 24 runs scored, 18 RBIs and nine stolen bases.
"I don't know whether it's confidence, where you just let it go and swing," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I don't necessarily know that it's something physical. He's played well all year, but [late in the season] he was really driving the ball. Early in the season, he was rolling over a lot of balls. I know I was doing a lot of bunting with him. Now he stands up there waiting for a good pitch and he's driving it all over the field."
Barring some offseason moves by the Brewers, Aoki projects as Milwaukee's Opening Day right fielder in 2013. He will report to Spring Training as a Major League veteran.
"I was blessed to have all these great teammates, the coaching staff as well," Aoki said. "As the only Japanese guy on the team, they opened up to me with open arms. It was fun."