Baseball

Otani's extraordinary skills gain wider exposure during games against Mexico, Netherlands

by Jason Coskrey and Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff writer

The only reason Shohei Otani won’t be Japan’s breakout star at the 2017 World Baseball Classic is because everybody is already talking about the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star.

He can throw 160 kph and hit home runs beyond 130 meters. The wonders of the internet means most fans have at least seen clips. Next year’s WBC won’t be so much of an introduction as much as confirmation one body can indeed possess so much talent.

Otani was front and center during Japan’s recent exhibition series, which saw the team play two games apiece against Mexico and the Netherlands as a way to prepare for the WBC. Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo used Otani exclusively as a hitter, and the 22-year old didn’t disappoint.

“I was thinking about so many things while I was playing,” Otani said. “I want to take advantage of this experience. I think I was given a very good opportunity.”

Otani was 5-for-11 during the series with a home run and three doubles.

“He swings the bat good,” said Netherlands infielder Yurendell de Caster. “He had a quick bat. He missed one to left field (in the third game) that he almost hit out. He’s got a good approach, he looks like a good hitter.”

Otani’s performance also got the attention of a couple of players who could be his peers one day.

“I think he’s got great balance, he’s got a great hand path and he’s got the ability to hit to all fields,” said Mexico and Los Angeles Dodgers star Adrian Gonzalez. “I think he’s got a lot of great tools that you need to be a successful hitter.”

Mexico pitcher Sergio Romo, who has spent the last nine seasons with the San Francisco Giants, faced Otani in Game 2, retiring the young star on a fly ball to right.

“He seems to be a complete pitcher also, I’ve only seen clips,” Romo said. “But as a hitter, he definitely can play in the league. He seemed to be able to make adjustments. You need to be smart and thinking mid-at-bat. Against me, I surprised him maybe with my first slider, because he hadn’t seen it. After that, he seemed right on it.”

Otani’s skills have left many fans wondering if he will one day head to MLB, assuming that remains part of his plans, as a pitcher or a hitter. Or if he’ll take a path unprecedented in today’s game and try to do both.

“He’s got the ability to do both,” Gonzalez said.

The idea of a two-way player in the majors used to seem rooted in fantasy. It’s one thing to read about Roy Hobbs, the main character of the 1952 novel “The Natural” or watch actor Robert Redford bring the character to life in the 1984 film of the same name. It’s another thing entirely to actually see something close to the real thing.

Where the idea once seemed incredulous to some baseball people, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. One GM told writer Barry Bloom, when asked about letting Otani hit when not pitching, in an article on MLB.com last week, “Sign me up. I think every one of the 30 teams would be in the mix.”

One reason there hasn’t been a two-way player in the majors is the traditional thinking that it simply can’t be, or just isn’t, done. Athletes are usually ushered to one side or the other. The money invested in pitchers plays a role as well, with teams loathe to put their stars in harm’s way.

Otani did both jobs just fine for the Fighters this season. He finished 10-4 with 174 strikeouts and a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings on the mound. He also hit .322 with 18 doubles, a triple and 22 home runs in 323 at-bats. Otani drove in 67 runs and stole seven bases.

Netherlands manager Hensley Meluens, also the San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach, feels Otani could be a one-way player in the majors for those aforementioned reasons. Though he also said he wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Otani do both after watching him hit.

“He’s a great athlete,” Meulens said. “He’s big, he’s fast, he’s got power. I haven’t even seen him pitch, except on video, but he throws 100 miles per hour, so he’s one of the elite talents in the game.

“It’s hard to tell. It’s a different league in the major leagues. In the major leagues, they find your holes quick. Previous guys who came to the major league with good numbers here didn’t pan out in the major leagues. Ichiro (Suzuki) and (Hideki) Matsui did, couple other guys.”

Romo took a cautious approach during their matchup.

“I was told he’s aggressive,” Romo said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s not afraid to go the other way. He seemed very balanced at the plate, so there isn’t one particular pitch that you could throw at him that he’s going to be out in front of. A complete hitter, really. One of the things we were told was just be careful with the guy.”

Former major leaguer Andruw Jones, who was working as a coach for the Netherlands, saw Otani up close during his two seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. As far as Otani’s power, Jones is a believer.

“If you have power, you have power, it doesn’t matter where you play,” Jones said. “If you can hit home runs here, you can hit home runs in the United States. It’s up to what kind of adjustments you’re going to make.”

He showed off some of that power with a massive homer to center in the third game and by hitting a ball so hard during the fourth game that the ball got stuck in one of the panels on the ceiling.

“If he gets a strike down in the zone, I think he’s a low-ball hitter, he punishes it,” Muelens said.

That said, Jones, a five-time MLB All-Star, and 2013 NPB All-Star, said he’d like to see Otani choose pitching.

“I’ve seen him grow as a hitter very well,” Jones said. “He’s become a better hitter from the previous years I saw him as a rookie. As a pitcher, I see how he’s continued to have that great arm. I would like to see him pitch more.

“An arm like that, you don’t see it that often. You’re not going to have a guy that can start and throw 100 every time he gets on the mound. He has a tremendous arm. If he goes to the National League, he can even help the team off the bench, you’re going to have an extra hitter. He can be a very valuable player for a National League team.”

Netherlands coach Steve Janssen has followed Otani’s career and also thinks he’s the complete package.

“Being a guy who works with pitchers, I’m also a big fan of the way he throws,” Janssen said. “I really like the way he uses his body. Obviously he’s a big guy, but I think he’s a perfect example of an athlete who uses his body 100 percent. The way it moves to throw the ball or to hit the ball.

“I can’t remember seeing him hit a single. If I see him hit, it’s always at least a double. I call him Mr. Double. I’ve been following already for a while. I call him the Japanese Babe Ruth. I’m probably not the only guy calling him that. He’s a great ballplayer.

“I can compare him with players like (Mike) Trout or (Bryce) Harper. These are phenoms. Those guys have extraordinary talent. They’re gifted.”