It’s Finally Time to Talk About Shohei Otani

In order to properly sum up Shohei Otani‘s talent, one only has to go back to July 2 of this year when his Nippon Ham Fighters were playing against the SoftBank Hawks, the two-time defending NPB champions. Otani is a two-way player, though he plays in the Pacific League, which uses the designated hitter. On this day, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama elected not to use the DH, instead batting Otani leadoff.

Since the Fighters were on the road, Otani was the batter that started the game. He was facing Kenichi Nakata, a decent pitcher in his 12th NPB season. Nakata is not an ace, and not a name people unfamiliar with NPB are likely to hear frequently. However, he is a serviceable starter among the Hawks’ enviable pitching depth.

On the first pitch of the game, Otani did this:

After one pitch, Otani put his team up 1-0. He then pitched eight innings of shutout ball, allowed five hits, struck out 10 batters, and walked two. The Fighters won 2-0; the second run was also scored by Otani.

To put Otani’s talent into more concise terms: in his age 21 season (he turned 22 in July), he pitched 140 innings with a 1.86 ERA, and had a 1.004 OPS in 382 plate appearances. He is extremely likely to win the Pacific League’s MVP due to his combined performance at the plate and on the mound, and his excellence even forced the NPB to change their ancient Best Nine Award rules so a player could win at pitcher and another position.

The Fighters ended up winning the Japan Series this year, and that has raised the odds of him being posted this year from “infinitesimal” to “very unlikely but plausible.” The chances are enough that it’s worth talking about Otani in more detail.

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Before getting started, it must be noted that NPB is not MLB’s farm system. Fans in Japan are already tired of the endless “When will Otani be posted?” questions, which started almost immediately after “When will Masahiro Tanaka be posted?” questions were finally answered. The questions about Tanaka started immediately after “When will Yu Darvish be posted?” questions were answered, and if Otani is posted, people will start asking about Tetsuto Yamada or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. I also know a few Fighters fans and don’t want this article to be taken as talking about removing their best player before they’ve had a chance to savor the moment. As a fan of NPB in general, I get it. Still, there’s enough background noise on the topic right now that it’s worth writing about in more detail. Besides, Otani is my favorite player in all of baseball and has been for three years, and this is the first time I’ve had an excuse to write about him in detail.

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Let’s talk about Otani as a player before we talk about the posting situation. He plays on both sides of the ball, but his upside is higher as a pitcher so we’ll start there.

Otani’s headlining pitch is his fastball, and for good reason. In a relief appearance in the closing game of Climax Series Stage 2 (NPB equivalent of the LCS), Otani hit 165 KPH with his fastball, or 102.5 MPH. This came after he started the game as DH, which created this outstanding GIF:

Here’s one plate appearance from that outing, including the record-setting fastball in question:

The reactions of Sho Nakata and Dai-Kang Yang (a.k.a. Daikan Yoh) are just the best. Even the Hawks were amazed, despite the fact that their season was fading away. Here are highlights from the whole outing:

The 165 KPH pitch broke Otani’s NPB record of 164 KPH, set in a start in September against the Orix Buffaloes, which broke Otani’s NPB record of 163 KPH, set in a start in June against the Yomiuri Giants (old friend Luis Cruz fouled that pitch off). These numbers come from radar guns, as NPB does not have publicly available PITCHf/x data. It’s also worth noting that Otani’s fastest radar-recorded pitch on the road was the 163 K{H he set against the Giants, and his fastest at most parks he pitches in frequently sits closer to 160 KPH:

Even ignoring the potential conspiracies (like that the Fighters want him to break records for publicity purposes and make the gun hot as a result), that’s a starting pitcher who can touch 100 MPH. That’s elite.

Otani’s fastball generally averages between 94-97 MPH, though he likes to change speed as leverage increases. He’s thrown fastballs anywhere between 91 and 102-ish this season, and in most starts he’s somewhere within an 8 MPH range. He usually only cranks up the velocity with runners on base or against elite hitters, but otherwise he holds some energy in reserve. Otani did have one start this season where he averaged near 100 MPH, but that’s an exception and not the rule. A comparable pitcher might be peak Justin Verlander, who would ramp his velocity up as games went along. So it’s unusual but not unheard of.

Otani’s slider is his best secondary pitch right now, and has really made advancements in the past couple of years. The pitch does not have huge velocity, a surprising 84-86 MPH compared to his elite fastball. But, uh, just look at it:

That’ll play. The pitch typically exchanges some of that run for drop, but that’ll play.

Otani’s other superlative breaking option is his forkball/splitter combo. Technically they’re two different pitches since the grips are different, but they’re used in approximately the same way. The splitter is usually in the same 84-86 MPH range as the slider, and the forkball is harder at 87-90 MPH, giving him a change of speeds. He struggled to command this mix at times this season, but when it’s working, batters will either swing over the top of it or roll over weakly.

Otani also throws two curveballs. He has a slow looping version in the mid to upper-70s that he likes to use to steal a strike early in counts. Early in his career he’d lean on this pitch too much, but a reduction in usage has helped make it more effective. This season he also started to experiment with a power curveball which tops out around 82 MPH. When it’s working, it’s nearly as good as that slider.

Rounding out Otani’s arsenal is a straight change, which he introduced this spring after lessons from Trevor Hoffman, who is definitely not a bad person to learn a changeup from. Unfortunately, Otani still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of commanding the pitch, so he uses it sparingly to the point of being a surprise when it’s thrown.

If you want to see him putting it together, here are a couple of “Otani struck out a ton of batters today and here are all of them” videos:

Despite this arsenal, Otani has not put together a truly dominant pitching season yet like Tanaka or Darvish did before they left Japan (both at an older age). Otani has not yet won the Sawamura Award, given to Japan’s best pitcher every year, and he has two hurdles remaining: Injury problems and command.

In 2015, Otani set a career-high with 160 regular season innings pitched. However, he had to leave several outings early and missed a few more with frequent leg cramping issues. These issues never resulted in any serious strains, but they potentially showed some flaws with his conditioning and almost put a premature stop to the two-way player experiment, as Otani’s performance at the plate suffered as well. This season, Otani reported to spring camp in the Best Shape of his Life™ after reworking his offseason conditioning program and gaining weight. Other than a slight problem caused by running the bases in April, Otani’s legs were healthy throughout 2016. Instead, he had new demons to battle, ones which are all too familiar to Dodger fans: blisters.

Otani left his April 24 start early with a blister but did not miss any starts as a result. He left another start with a blister on July 10, but this one was more serious. Since the blister did not impact him at the plate, he was allowed to continue as a designated hitter, but other than one relief outing he did not pitch again until Sept. 8. Reports were that the blister was healed well before his return, but nevertheless it was an issue that came up twice during the regular season.

Otani’s command early in the season was quite poor. On May 15, Otani had an ERA of 3.34 and had walked 28 batters in 56 2/3 innings pitched. After watching more than half of the starts in that period, it was pretty clear that something was wrong. Otani could not get a single breaking pitch down in the zone, other than occasional snippets of hope. There were reports that his first blister (the one from April) was still bothering him more than a month later. If Otani went through a stretch like this in the U.S., he would have been hit very hard. He was still able to get through NPB on mostly fastballs, but a fair number of the failed secondary pitches would have been pulverized in the U.S. Following that low point in the season, Otani allowed eight earned runs in 83 1/3 innings pitched (0.86 ERA). He struck out 105 batters (33.7 percent) and walked 25 (8.0 percent). It’s safe to say he found himself again.

So, that’s Otani as a pitcher. He’s instantly at least a number two starter in the U.S. with potential to be one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball. He has the potential to have Noah Syndergaard‘s fastball, Andrew Miller‘s slider, a splitter/forkball combo unseen in the U.S., and an above-average curve. He just needs to spot them consistently and he’s showing signs of improving in that regard.

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That brings us to Otani’s offense. He hit .322/.416/.588 this season, all as a DH. He also hit 22 dingers, and was third in home run rate among Japanese-born players in NPB this year behind Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Tetsuto Yamada, both legitimate power prospects who play in bandboxes. Here are all of Otani’s dingers this year compiled in a somewhat low-quality video:

Otani has tremendous power to the opposite field and can crush mistakes over the outer half of the plate. He can struggle with inside pitches under the hands, and pitchers really adjusted to that as the season went on. He has the bat speed to catch up with and pull velocity on the inner half, but he doesn’t always pick the best pitches to swing at. Otani’s homers started to tail off as the season wound down, but he was getting better at pulling his hands in and hitting pitches down the line for doubles. In the Japan Series, the Carp pitched Otani almost exclusively inside, and he hit four doubles in 16 plate appearances.

Power-hitters moving from NPB to MLB have had a lot of problems in the past, and Otani will have a lot more to prove on that side of the ball. MLB pitchers will be better able to take advantage of the holes in his swing and sub-par plate discipline on pitches at his hands. To me it seems like his bat can remain above average, though with a higher strikeout rate to go along with a lot of extra-base hits.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, if Otani were to hit he’d also have to play defense. In his rookie season, Otani did play some outfield and was not bad at it. He obviously had an elite arm:

People who watched him regularly at the time said he was pretty competent in the field, if unspectacular. The problem is that Otani has not played the field since 2014, when he was 19. Defense doesn’t age well and rust is building. If anyone can pick fielding back up it’s Otani, but he was moved to DH to protect him from fatigue, an option that only half of MLB has available (and obviously not the Dodgers).

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By now I think it should be obvious that if Otani were made available, the Dodgers should break the bank. The hitting thing is obviously a huge question mark, but talent like Otani’s at his age is not available on the open market, ever. They should even make concessions if they have to. Plus, as a fan, it’d be fun as hell to watch Otani try to be the first good two-way player in MLB since Babe Ruth.

However, the question remains: Will Otani be made available to sign this year? This question is very complex. Otani is under contract with the Fighters until after the 2021 season. However, at any time before then the Fighters have the option to post Otani and make him available for MLB teams to bid on. Since the posting system was changed in 2014, posting fees are capped at $20 million, so there is no real financial incentive for the Fighters to post Otani now if they think his talent will continue to be elite. Why take the $20 million now, when they can wait a few years, win more, and get the same amount later? That’s the question that needs to be answered.

Since Otani was being courted by MLB teams (including the Dodgers) out of high school, there is speculation that the Fighters had to make promises to Otani (either on the books or off) in order for him to stay in Japan. One potential clause might be triggered now that the Fighters have won the Japan Series. There is also precedent for players being posted after superlative seasons like Otani’s. For example, the Fighters posted Darvish after his 2011 season in which he pitched a 1.44 ERA in 232 innings. The Fighters had Darvish under control for two more years, but they posted him anyway. That precedent is a little loose because posting fees were not yet capped and the Fighters got $51.1 million for posting him.

More recently, the Eagles posted Tanaka after his 2013 season, in which he won the Sawamura Award and led his team to a Japan Series title. Tanaka was under contract for two more seasons as well, and at that point posting fees had been capped. Some teams are willing to respect players’ wishes, especially if they’ve accomplished their goals in Japan, and Otani’s Fighters are one of those teams. However, they’d still be setting a new precedent and giving up so much for themselves that it’s hard to picture it happening.

There’s also a very big question that nobody but Otani really knows the answer to: “Does Otani want to come to MLB right now?” This is probably the most important factor, yet the evidence isn’t in its favor. This is the most direct evidence against Otani wanting to change leagues right now, but it’s not definitive. There’s plenty of reason for him to stay, though. The next World Baseball Classic finals are in March, and Otani is currently slated to lead Samurai Japan’s pitching staff. If he were to move to MLB, his new team would be hesitant to let him participate. He also has a lot more leeway to hit for the Fighters than he would in MLB, which almost certainly would have converted him to just a pitcher by now. Countering those points, if he were posted he’d have tremendous negotiation leverage, since he can just return to Japan for another season if MLB teams won’t meet his demands.

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Shohei Otani is a tremendous talent. He’s worthy of keeping an eye on, not just because of his potential MLB impact, but because he’s incredibly fun to watch. If the Fighters let him, and if he’s ready to do so himself, the Dodgers should absolutely be ready to break the bank and sign him. However, the chances of that happening in 2016 are remote.

Still, as long as he’s still playing somewhere in 2017, I’ll be more than happy to watch, even if that means staying up until 4 a.m. and posting about it on Twitter.

About Daniel Brim

Daniel Brim
Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.