After losing their previous two games against the Chunichi Dragons, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters needed a win Sunday to ensure they would finish their interleague slate with at least a .500 record. They won 3-2, largely because Shohei Otani rode to the rescue, striking out 12 over eight shutout innings on the mound and recording a hit and drawing two walks at the plate.
That the game was in Nagoya Dome, a Central League park where the designated hitter rule is not in effect, was hardly a disadvantage for the Pacific League’s Fighters. Manager Hideki Kuriyama batted Otani fifth in his lineup, far from the normal spot at the bottom pitchers, especially Pacific League hurlers, usually occupy when forced to hit.
Hitting and pitching in the same game has been the norm for Otani for the past few weeks — the Fighters have even waived the DH rule a few times to keep him in the lineup. Now that interleague play is over, Kuriyama faces a dilemma every professional manager, in or outside of Japan, would probably love to have: Does he scale back Otani’s at-bats to “normal” levels, or continue to play without a DH when the ace is on the mound.
Otani has reached a point, this season at least, where calling him a pitcher who can hit is a disservice. There aren’t pitchers doing what Otani is doing — Madison Bumgarner is a heck of a hitter, but he’s also not in the San Francisco Giants’ lineup on a regular basis — and good luck finding a hitter with Otani’s skills on the mound.
Even with some early hiccups, Otani is 6-4 with a 2.21 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 93⅔ innings as a pitcher. At the plate, Otani is hitting .336 with nine home runs, eight doubles and a 1.098 on-base plus slugging percentage in 107 at-bats.
Otani, who was also a decent right fielder when the team was still letting him do that a few years ago, can seemingly do it all. The Fighters just have to decide whether they’ll let him.
Nippon Ham isn’t going risk Otani as a pitcher, so things really boil down to if the team will continue to waive the DH during his PL starts, as it did once before interleague play and at home against CL teams, or rein him in a little.
The positives are clear. The team can use offense and you don’t want to take a bat like Otani’s out of the lineup, especially when he’s better than the alternatives right now, unless it’s necessary. Batting regularly might also help him keep his rhythm, which helps avoid a repeat of last year’s poor showing at the plate.
The worry is overworking Otani with so much of the season left. He’s young and he’s sturdier than he was before, owing to a new offseason training program, but he’s still human. He’s shielded from excessive wear and tear as a DH, but he’s still out there working at the plate and on the bases, plus pitching a full season. There’s a long way to go, and the team will want him at his best for crucial games late in the year and (potentially) the postseason.
Otani is shaking up the system and his performance this season has been one long smirk at those who said he must choose between hitting and pitching (and he seems to still be getting better at both). He’s the type of player you want to have on the field as much as possible, but also want to protect. It all presents quite the enviable conundrum for the Fighters and Kuriyama going forward.