CHIBA – Shohei Otani might as well be stepping into the swirling winds of a tempest each time he takes the mound for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
The young ace’s starts have become events in their own right. Fans are usually eager to see him dominate hitters, whether he’s blowing 160-plus-kph heaters by them, making them look silly with his forkball or using a slow curve to toy with them. Scouts from Major League Baseball teams also turn out, jotting down notes as they sit with radar guns at the ready, to relay information back home, where a feeding frenzy will take place should Otani ever become available.
The subject of all this attention is very much aware of it. The soft-spoken 21-year-old just doesn’t let the outside noise affect him.
“I feel the fans’ expectations a lot both in international competitions and during the season,” Otani said near the visitors’ clubhouse at QVC Marine Stadium earlier this week. “I do feel that. But that’s not pressure. I’m happy many have those expectations of me.”
Expectations will be as high as ever in Otani’s fourth pro season. The right-hander went 15-5 in 2015, leading the Pacific League in wins and posting PL-bests with a 2.24 ERA and 1.92 fielding independent pitching. Otani, who had a 5.6 WAR according to Data Stadium, struck out 196, and walked 46 in 160⅔ innings.
When the Hiroshima Carp’s Kenta Maeda was announced as the 2015 Sawamura Award winner, Tsuneo Horiuchi, who chaired the Sawamura Award committee last year, said Otani was among the three pitchers, the Hanshin Tigers’ Shintaro Fujinami was the other, who drew the strongest consideration for the honor.
“He’s special,” Fighters catcher Shota Ono said, “to me, to the team and to Japanese baseball.”
Otani has looked good on the mound this spring for the most part. He’s also impressed with his hitting and says he’s in better shape at the plate.
The young star entered spring camp with a slightly increased physique after going through a new weight-training regimen in the offseason. Otani added 8 kg of muscle, though he’s begun to scale back his workouts.
“I switch between upper body and lower body, but I do it once a week,” he said. “I’m not focusing on building more muscle, but rather improving the power I get out of my muscles. I want to maintain the quantity while improving the quality, so I do my weight training less than during the offseason.”
Otani worked out with former Fighters ace Yu Darvish, who increased his weight training during his latter years in Japan and has kept it up in MLB, where he’s been a three-time All-Star for the Texas Rangers.
“Darvish-san gave me advice about the importance of combining strength and pitching,” Otani said. “He doesn’t believe it’s important to bulk up. He really knows about training, and I learned a lot from him.”
Also new is the change-up Otani has been using during practice contests and preseason games. He rarely threw the pitch before, but received sage advice from former San Diego Padres great Trevor Hoffman while the Fighters were in Arizona for the first half of spring camp.
“I learned a lot from him,” Otani said. “I learned the best way to throw change-ups, the proper grip and how to utilize the pitch.”
The change-up adds a new wrinkle to an arsenal that already features a forkball that flummoxes hitters, a great slider and a curveball.
Otani, however, says fastballs remain his bread and butter. Last season, he topped out at an NPB-best 161 kph. He’s already touched 162 this spring, which matches the NPB speed record he shares with former Yomiuri Giants reliever Marc Kroon. Otani’s fastball averaged 152.6 last season, fastest among starting pitchers and second only to Fukuoka Softbank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate (152.9), according to Data Stadium.
“Not everybody can hit that,” Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Jason Standridge said. “There’s so much room for error when you throw hard. You can throw it anywhere in the zone and get away with it. Of course they’re going to hit you every now and then, but that’s what they get paid to do.”
When asked where he thought he made the most improvement over the offseason, Otani replied that his fastball made the biggest jump.
“It got better overall,” Otani said. “I don’t think it’s reached its peak yet. I’m still working on it.”
The thought of Otani getting even better is probably a sobering one for Pacific League batters.
“I’m going to enjoy watching him develop into a better pitcher,” Standridge said. “As soon as he figures out that he’s really good, then I think that’s when he’s gonna be really good. He’s already good, but I feel like when he figures out ‘I can be the best pitcher in this game,’ I think that’s when he’s going to get really good. I think he can do that. It’s going to be fun to see.”