Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Otani impresses visiting MLB stars

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Shohei Otani exhibited some of the immaturity of a 20-year-old pitcher but also some of the potential that could eventually see him playing on American soil.

Looking on the bright side, Otani, who started for Samurai Japan in its 3-1 defeat in Game 5 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series on Tuesday, wasn’t charged with an earned run (he gave up two unearned) and got seven of the 12 outs he recorded in four innings via strikeout. He even clocked 160-kph on one pitch.

But there were also negatives.

Otani’s control was off and he had a difficult time locating his pitches on the edges of the strike zone. He often fell behind in the count and struggled to maintain any rhythm.

“I think we took advantage of some mislocated pitches (by Otani),” said John Farrell, the skipper for the MLB team, after the game.

Otani acknowledged that he knew MLB hitters wouldn’t make mistakes if he left his pitches over the plate.

“When I got behind in the count and tried to pitch for strikes, (the major league hitters) didn’t miss them,” said Otani, who went 11-4 with a 2.61 ERA for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2014. “Especially the hitters who led off innings (he allowed two lead-off hits and walked one).”

Otani also reflected on the fourth inning, when he quickly retired the first two batters but gave up two consecutive singles after that. He said that overall he should have been more aggressive, and was afraid of issuing a walk.

Despite his miscues, Otani was able to show why he’s getting a lot of attention in both Japan and the U.S.

Otani loaded the bases with one out in the third, but escaped by fanning two consecutive batters. The second-year pro said getting out of that jam was one of the few things he could give himself credit for during his outing.

“I could get strikeouts when I wanted to,” said Otani, who was third in the Pacific League with 179 strikeouts. “That’s what I can take back home as a positive thing.”

And although he occasionally struggled to locate his pitches, Otani proved to the MLB players, coaches and scouts at Sapporo Dome that he definitely has great stuff in his arsenal.

It means Otani isn’t just a guy with a 160-kph-plus fastball, as he demonstrated with a few forkballs in the mid-140s, including one he threw perfectly in the second inning to strike out Tampa Bay Rays star Ben Zobrist.

Otani also tossed some curveballs, which he said he didn’t use so much during the season.

“He’s got very good secondary pitches,” Farrell said.

Otani wasn’t at his best, but it’s important not to forget: this kid is just 20 and has just wrapped up his second campaign as a pro.

“He’s what, 20 years old?” MLB’s Game 5 starter, Los Angeles Angels righty Matt Shoemaker, said of Otani. “That’s impressive enough. Let alone he has that kind of arm, maybe he can be a two-way player.”

Since the major league team arrived in Japan, “Is Otani an MLB-caliber pitcher?” has been one of the most-asked questions Japanese reporters have had for the big leaguers.

But that’s almost a silly inquiry, because their answers have simply been “absolutely,” and it wasn’t any different after they saw the Japanese sensation in Hokkaido.

“When you look at his physical abilities, he’s got a tremendous career in the future,” Farrell said of Otani, who originally tried to go to the United States right out of high school before he eventually ended up signing with the Fighters. “He’s one of the better pitching prospects, regardless where he comes from.”

Otani knows he still has a long way to go, and still has plenty of time to develop.

“They are at a level I cannot reach yet,” Otani said. “I just want to make improvement step by step, and hopefully, I’ll get closer.”