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NPB, MLB keeping track as Otani continues to blossom

by Jason Coskrey

Shohei Otani struck out 12 batters over seven innings on July 2 and fanned 16 in a complete-game effort in his next start July 9. He was in the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ starting lineup twice in the days between those outings on the mound and hit two home runs during a July 5 contest against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

He’ll be at the NPB All-Star Series as a pitcher for the first time later this week. This coming a year after being an All-Star as a batter during his rookie season.

People are starting to take notice as well. His outings are becoming appointment viewing in Japan, while former Fighters manager Trey Hillman, who now works with the New York Yankees, was spotted at Otani’s most recent start.

Otani is already a great player, and can throw above-average pitches from the mound and also crush them at the plate.

“Lights out,” said one scout from an MLB team. “I’ve never seen a kid like that. So young and can pitch (with) so much confidence and so much velocity. Sometimes you’ll hear about a young pitcher . . . they’ll start firing the ball, they run out of gas in the fourth inning and they’re just gone. This kid, he knows how to pace himself, I think, and from what I’ve seen, he’s consistent.”

Otani began the 2013 season as a position player and was eased into double duty once he began pitching. He was in Nippon Ham’s rotation from the start of the season this year and has excelled.

Otani is 8-1 in 14 starts, second in the Pacific League with 111 strikeouts and third with a 2.35 ERA in 92 innings. His rate of 10.86 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in Japan — Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko (10.59) is the only other pitcher above 10.00.

Otani threw his first career shutout on May 13 and on June 4 touched 160 kph for the first time as a pro, and has since hit the mark a few more times. He can offer up a solid slider, curve and splitter as well to go with the heater, and when he’s on he can make hitters look bad.

The last pitch of Otani’s aforementioned 16-strikeout gem was a 159-kph fastball that he blew by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ John Bowker. That was pitch 113.

“If Otani were in the United States, he would rank among the game’s top pitching prospects,” wrote Baseball America’s Ben Badler in a July 9 article on the Baseball America website.

At the plate Otani is hitting .282 with 11 doubles, a triple, five home runs and 20 RBIs in 50 games. He’s slugging .496 and getting on base at a .345 clip.

Almost from the time he began his pro career, baseball fans and media members have argued about whether Otani would be best served by focusing on either batting or pitching, or by doing both.

Ask three people and one could elicit three different answers.

“I would personally like to see him as a pitcher and concentrate on pitching,” the scout said. “If he goes to the National League, he would be a great No. 9 guy in that slot.

As he continues to improve, it’s natural to wonder how much longer Japanese fans will get to watch Otani up close and personal.

Masanori Murakami pitched in the majors in 1964 but the barrier keeping the best Japanese players in Japan didn’t begin to crumble until 1995, when Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Hideo Nomo slipped through the cracks to join the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fifty-two players have followed Nomo to MLB since then. Currently there are 12 Japanese players in the majors, including 2014 All-Stars Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Koji Uehara.

It’s true that after a few years Otani could decide to remain in Japan, but the allure of the path his predecessors have taken will be very enticing.

Two years ago, Otani was adamant about heading to the majors straight out of Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School, and the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers all showed interest. He asked NPB teams to not select him in the draft, something Junichi Tazawa did when he bypassed NPB on his way to the Red Sox, but the Fighters rolled the dice.

Nippon Ham convinced Otani to begin his career in Japan, but one has to think the posting issue came up once or twice during those talks.

Darvish and Tanaka were both in Japan for seven seasons before being posted. Hisashi Iwakuma and Daisuke Matsuzaka were around for eight though Iwakuma had to come back for an extra year after to failing to sign with Oakland.

Even if the Fighters sweetened the pot by promising to let Otani move sooner, he still probably has several NPB years ahead.

He could be video-game good by then, and Japanese fans should take a good long look while it’s still possible.