Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani has attracted a crowd of scouts to Arizona this past week with his pitching, but his batting has left them speechless.
The 21-year old, who hits left-handed, has been drawing rave reviews in batting practice and games since the Fighters arrived in Peoria, Arizona, late last month, for the first phase of their spring training.
Matt Winters, a Fighters international scout and former star slugger for the club, has been keeping tabs on the youngster’s fourth spring camp. The difference this year is that he has a lot of company in the stands as big league clubs have shown up in force to see Otani up close.
“He’s looked much better than he did a year ago. His approach looks better,” Winters told Kyodo News by phone on Friday. “He took two extra BPs that were something else. (Scouts’) jaws were dropping.
“There were about 50 people, scouts and general managers, here the other day for his game and after his second at-bat, when he was done, they began leaving in packs of five. By the end of the game there were about three left. It’s no secret why they’re here.”
Unlike a lot of young Japanese players who practice Ichiro Suzuki-like leg swings and gyrations, Otani is relatively still in the batter’s box.
“Bob Mariano, the Triple-A manager for the (San Francisco) Giants, said Otani has a toe tap that reminds him of (Giants’ second baseman) Joe Panik,” Winters said. “But Otani’s real quiet, really easy.
“The Giants guys were saying they’ve got to get Otani and (slugging Giants southpaw) Madison Bumgarner together.”
Otani put on some extra muscle while working out with Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish over the winter, but quickly dissolved any concerns about whether he bulked up too much.
“You hope he (Otani) didn’t get too heavy and then he goes out on the mound and is easily throwing 96, 97 (miles per hour, roughly 156 kph), and you go, ‘Nope, it looks like he’s OK,’ ” Winters said.
In his only game on the mound in front of MLB scouts this spring, the right-hander struck out four straight batters over two innings on Wednesday against the Korean Baseball Organization’s Lotte Giants.
On Saturday, Otani had his first hits of the spring, an infield single and a hard-hit, opposite-field double.
As a rookie in 2013, Otani became the 11th player in the history of Japanese professional baseball with 15 or more extra-base hits in a season at the age of 18, and he did it in just 189 at-bats. Seven of the other 10 went on to have Hall of Fame-caliber careers.
The following season, Otani went 11-4 with 179 strikeouts in 155-⅓ innings, while batting .274 with 10 homers, 17 doubles and a triple in 212 at-bats. While Otani had his best season on the mound in 2015, he batted less often and his results suffered at the plate.
While Winters loves Otani’s batting potential, he realizes it’s hard to overlook the allure of Otani’s heat and promise on the mound.
“He has the potential to be one of the top five pitchers in the world at his age,” said Winters, who hit 160 home runs in his five seasons in Japan. “I am an anti-pitcher guy, but being how he can throw 100 miles an hour (161 kph), how can you not have him in the rotation?”