Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks win draft lottery rights for Soka University pitching phenom Tanaka

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The talent pool for pitchers in this year’s draft class was deep. What’s more, he hurt his right shoulder during this year’s spring season. So there were good reasons for NPB clubs to pass on Soka University right-hander Seigi Tanaka in Thursday’s NPB draft.

But five teams put down the 22-year-old hurler’s name, trying to acquire him as their blockbuster prize, because he’s such a big prospect and it’s worth the risk.

And at the moment that Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo won the lottery to earn negotiating rights with him, Tanaka flashed a smile, indicating his relief.

“I want to be a pitcher that makes people think, ‘We’re going to the game because Tanaka’s starting today,’ ” Tanaka said at a news conference at the school in Hachioji, where 143 reporters from 51 media companies were present, on Thursday.

Tanaka also said that he wants to be an irreplaceable presence for his team.

“I want to be a pitcher that makes the manager feel uneasy without me,” he said. “If players like (starting pitcher Shota) Takeda and (closer Dennis) Sarfate are absent, that’s going to cause trouble for SoftBank. I want to be a player like that.”

Asked if he’d make any predictions about how many clubs would raise their hands for him at the draft, Tanaka said he didn’t make any. But he added that he was surprised that he heard his own name five times while watching the draft on TV.

“I’m not that kind of (great) player,” he said humbly. “But I’d like to eventually be a player that lives up to that billing.”

Tanaka, who went 20-1 with a 0.72 ERA in four years in the New Tokyo University Baseball League, said that he was bracing himself to join the Hawks, one of the best NPB teams in recent years. He added that he would have to work harder from now on.

Tanaka, who throws a forkball, slider and cutter as well as a fastball, said that he wants to learn all he can about the out pitches from his teammates once he joins the Hawks. For instance, this includes Rick van den Hurk’s fastball and Takeda’s curve and cutter to name a few.

But Tanaka’s best pitch will continue to be his blazing fastball. Masashi Kishi, manager of the Soka University baseball club, described the youngster’s fastball as “one of a kind,” which can make hitters swing and miss.

“You’ve got to look at the quality (of the fastball),” Kishi said. “There’s so many that can hit 150 kph in baseball, but when Seigi has a real good grip with the ball, it feels like it hops. He has a good quality with his fastball for sure, so I want him to keep working with it.”

Kishi added that Tanaka’s fastball, which has been clocked as fast as 156 kph, could work even better at the next level, because pro games are mostly held at night, when fastballs appear faster than during the daytime.

Speaking of fastballs, Tanaka was born in the same year as Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ two-way player Shohei Otani, who set an NPB record for the fastest-thrown pitch at 165 kph on Sunday.

“I’m not a player that should be compared with Otani yet,” Tanaka said. “But I’m happy that I’ll be playing on the same stage as him.”

Going in the draft, Tanaka drew ardent attention from major-league scouts, not just NPB officials. He hasn’t hid his desire to pitch in the bigs one day, and he considered bypassing NPB and going to the United States directly. He eventually dropped the idea and decided to enter the NPB draft.

There’s still concern about Tanaka’s right shoulder, which he injured this spring, and that limited him to only two games in the spring season. But Kishi said that Tanaka caused it because he intentionally stopped his weight training before the season and lost shoulder strength, adding that the shoulder’s now completely back to its original form.

“I don’t have any problems right now,” insisted Tanaka, who gave up playing for Samurai Japan men’s national team for March’s exhibition series against Taiwan due to fatigue.

Barring injuries, Tanaka, who played mostly as an outfielder in high school and didn’t have a chance to compete in the national championships at Koshien Stadium, is believed to have the ability to play at the professional level right away.

Kudo said during the draft that Tanaka could even compete for a starting spot in next year’s season-opening game.

“My hurdles have been set high,” Tanaka said with a bitter smile. “I don’t think (Kudo) was serious. But I take it that he wants me to work hard as I’m joining them.”