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Otani on familiar path to elite status

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There can’t be a discussion about best pitcher in Japan anymore without Shohei Otani’s name being mentioned. The young Hokkaido Nippon Ham star has been making that perfectly clear since the season began.

What he’s doing this year is amazing. It’s also reminiscent of how two other celebrated Japanese stars made the leap from great to elite.

Otani enters this week 9-1 with an NPB-best 1.47 ERA. Opponents are currently hitting just .154 off him.

Otani also has yet to allow a home run in 79⅔ innings, something no hurler with at least 44 innings pitched can claim. He leads Japan with 99 strikeouts and a 11.18 strikeout rate.

He’s one of three pitchers with an ERA under 2.00, the Orix Buffaloes’ Brandon Dickson (1.75) and the Yomiuri Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano (1.93) being the others. Otani, however, has a far superior fielding independent pitching (FIP), a measure of the things a pitcher controls. Otani has a 1.54 FIP compared to Dickson’s 3.08 and Sugano’s 3.01.

Basically, Otani is dominating. If recent history is any indication, Japanese hitters will have to just get used to it.

At 20 years old, Otani is still getting better. That means he’s going to get a better feel for his fastball, with velocity that sits in the high 150s (kph, and he can dial it up to 160). That biting slider that had the Chiba Lotte Marines falling over themselves last week is also going to get better — ditto for the splitter. His control should also continue to improve.

Otani is doing all this in his third season, which coincidentally is when Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, the pitchers he’s compared with most, really emerged as elite stars.

Darvish’s third pro season, in 2007, was a tour de force. The Fighters ace went 15-5 that year with an 1.82 ERA, 2.54 FIP, and 210 strikeouts in 207⅔ innings. Darvish, who was 20 until Aug. 16 of that year, ended the season with an 0.83 WHIP, and opponents hitting .174 against him.

Tanaka was 15-6 in his third year, in 2009. “Ma-Kun” posted a 2.33 ERA, 3.00 FIP and 1.12 WHIP. He struck out 171 in his 189⅔ innings.

Otani is building toward that type of year, and is on a trajectory that might see him join Darvish and Tanaka in the majors one day. He’s already pitching in front of a crowd of scouts with nearly every appearance.

The two-way star is also handy with a bat, but most feel he projects higher as a pitcher.

Darvish, during a December TV special with Tanaka and former pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, voiced that opinion as well.

“There are a lot of hitters in the majors who are stronger or faster,” Darvish said of Otani at the time. “There’s a better chance to be No. 1 as a pitcher.”

Darvish and Tanaka set the stage for the future in their third seasons and never looked back. Neither won fewer than 10 games in any of their remaining seasons in Japan — both stayed for four more years — and Tanaka’s 2.50 ERA in 2010 was the only time either ace finished a year above 2.00. From their respective third year on, they dominated NPB.

Now, it’s Otani’s time.

He’s beginning to put up the type of numbers those two NPB stars did, and the future looks absolutely blinding.