Shohei Otani turned heads with his bat during the first portion of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ spring camp in Peoria, Arizona. While Otani’s pitching is what scouts turn up to see, he’s pretty good with a bat and is a capable right fielder to boot.
Otani is probably considered to be the best hitter among Japanese pitchers, though he rarely does both in the same game. Otani has a career average of .245 with 36 doubles, a pair of triples and 18 home runs.
There aren’t really any other pitchers in Japan with Otani’s skills at the plate, certainly none with his power, but there are a few who are more than just automatic outs.
Among current NPB pitchers, there are seven who have made at least 40 plate appearances in each of the last three seasons. Of those players, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Masanori Ishikawa, has performed the best.
Ishikawa has a .183 average and .392 on-base plus slugging percentage (with four RBIs and four walks), over the last three seasons, both tops among the aforementioned seven pitchers.
Ishikawa has been a decent-hitting pitcher for the majority of his career. Entering his 15th season, the veteran lefty is a career .171 hitter with a .369 OPS. The Swallows star has 112 career hits and has driven in 28 runs. He hit .184 and drove in a run last season.
Hanshin Tigers duo Shintaro Fujinami and Atsushi Nomi are the only other hurlers among the seven with an OPS above .300.
Nomi, another long-serving left-hander, has a .136 average, .356 OPS, four doubles and a home run over the past three seasons.
Fujinami has a .123 average, .318 OPS and six extra base hits (five doubles and a homer) over the same span.
Otani has had few opportunities to hit and pitch in the same game, owing to his playing in the Pacific League, where the DH is employed.
He did both in the same game once in 2013, going 1-for-3 with an RBI during an interleague contest against the Hiroshima Carp. Fighters fans got to see Otani hit at home in 2014, when NPB flipped the DH rules during the interleague portion of the schedule, making pitchers hit in PL parks and employing the DH in Central League stadiums. He was 1-for-7 in those games.
Otani hit sixth in the lineup during an interleague game at Koshien Stadium last season and struck out three times.
New tricks: Hiroshima Carp pitcher Hiroki Kuroda has been playing professionally since being drafted in 1996, a career that’s taken him to the major leagues and back.
The 41-year-old right-hander is still shaking things up heading into his 20th pro season.
According to Sports Nippon, Kuroda is working on adding a changeup, said to be in the 115-125 kph range, to his arsenal. Kuroda threw a 66-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday, mixing in about 10 changeups, according to reports.
A new wrinkle would give hitters something else to worry about from the veteran, who was 11-8 with a 2.55 ERA last season.
Closing time: Yuki Matsui wasn’t the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ first choice to be the closer last season — necessity thrust him into that role.
The former high school star, and the team’s top draft pick in 2013, thrived at the back of the bullpen, recording 33 saves and 12 holds in 63 appearances. Matsui struck out 103 in 72⅓ innings.
Now he wants more, saying he hopes to reach 40 saves this season.
“My plan is to keep making adjustments until opening day,” Matsui told reporters. “So far everything is going well.”