Yoshikawa, Otonari off to strong starts this year


So at what point does the other shoe drop for Mitsuo Yoshikawa and Kenji Otonari?

Expectations weren’t particularly high for either pitcher entering the season, yet both are off to hot starts that statistically have them among the best in Japan.

The duo is currently first and second among all pitchers in ERA and have been a breath of fresh air for a pair of staffs that incurred heavy losses over the winter.

Yoshikawa was drafted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the first round of the high school draft in 2006, the same year future ace Yu Darvish helped lead the club to the Japan Series title.

Fast-forward six seasons and Yoshikawa, who up to now hadn’t spent much time in the Fighters’ rotation, is leading Japan with a 1.20 ERA.

With Darvish heading to the majors this year, the Fighters were hoping for a breakout season out of a former first-round draft pick, they just expected Yuki Saito to be the one to deliver it.

But at 7-2, it’s Yoshikawa who is tied for the Pacific League lead in wins — second only to Yomiuri’s Toshiya Sugiuchi (8-3) overall — and has a .185 opponents’ batting average, the lowest among qualified NPB pitchers.

While Yoshikawa has been fairly consistent, there are red flags.

For starters, it remains to be seen how his production will fare as the innings pile up. Yoshikawa has never thrown more than 93⅓ innings in a single season (2007), a career-high that will certainly be shattered this year. He has currently pitched 67⅓ innings.

Yoshikawa also has a .210 batting average on balls in play and a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.48, which suggests a return to earth may be in the cards as the year goes on.

As much as Darvish meant to Nippon Ham, he was just one spot in the rotation. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, meanwhile, lost three starters — Sugiuchi, D.J. Houlton and Tsuyoshi Wada, who combined to finish 43-18 with a 1.87 ERA in 2011 — in one winter. Left behind was a talented pitcher in Tadashi Settsu, but not much else.

While Settsu has been as good as expected this season, the majority of the team’s other starters have been inconsistent, and that’s without accounting for disgruntled former Hawk Brad Penny and the spectacular failure that has been prize free-agent signing Kazuyuki Hoashi thus far.

That’s why Otonari’s strong performance has been equal parts surprising and refreshing for the defending Japan Series champions.

Otonari has been here before, just not quite at this level. He raised expectations with a strong sophomore campaign in 2008, winning 11 games and posting a 3.12 ERA in 155⅔ innings, but hasn’t been able to replicate those numbers.

He’s pitching at a high level again after a few lean years, using better command of his arsenal, including a more polished two-seamer, to race out to a 5-3 record with a 1.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and a 6.90 strikeout rate. Opposing batters are hitting .216 against the lefty, who also has a 2.89 FIP.

Yoshikawa and Otonari have both gotten off to strong starts, but to be recognized among NPB’s best, they’ll have to maintain their level of play.

The Pa. League duo has raised the bar early on, and with their teams the hardest hit by the talent drain the PL experienced over the winter, they will be counted on to keep it up the rest of the way.