SAPPORO – Despite the hype surrounding his bad right ankle and missing out on this month’s World Baseball Classic, Shohei Otani rates his offseason a success and remains adamant about his dual pursuits of hitting and pitching.
“Because of the perception of my not being fully fit, some might say my offseason overall was not good, but I don’t believe that,” Otani told Kyodo News in a February interview at the Sapporo-based Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’s spring training site in Nago, Okinawa.
“I think it was good. It’s just my ankle that is not fit. Had I done nothing, I would be worse off. The practice I was able to do was definitely a positive.”
Otani, who is expected to move to the major leagues after this season, hurt the ankle during October’s Japan Series. And despite it being heavily taped, he aggravated it during November’s Samurai Japan games against Mexico and the Netherlands. He cannot yet run at full speed, has been dropped from Samurai Japan’s WBC roster and will not open the season on the mound.
Following the 2015 season, Otani picked up some weight-training and nutrition pointers from Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish, as well as 8 kg of muscle. With that boost, he had a banner year at the plate offensively, hitting 22 homers, winning 10 games and rewriting his record as Japan’s fastest pitcher.
With that in mind, many were interested to see how much Otani could grow before he entered the 2017 season, only for all the news to be about his right ankle.
“In terms of building up my body, I was able to accomplish what I wanted to a certain degree,” he said. “As far as running goes, and pitching, I barely ran in December because of the condition of my ankle. I divided everything into things I could do and things I couldn’t, and diligently did everything I could.
“It wasn’t a good offseason regarding pitching and running. But, I come into the season with no elbow or shoulder issues. If it’s only my ankle, I don’t think that’s the worst-case scenario. On the whole, I don’t think it was that bad of an offseason.”
In the end, it won’t be Otani’s offseason that matters, but what he accomplishes from March to October. Because he is the rare starter in the world whose fastball sits close to 162 kph, his pitching gets more attention from big-league scouts than his hitting. But last season, at the age of 22, Otani was one of Japan’s most productive hitters. Critics of his batting talk about how much better Otani could be as a pitcher if only he gave his bat a rest. But he isn’t buying it.
“I think that’s up to each individual’s values. It’s not like ‘I really want to be a pitcher and hit, or that I am a batter who also pitches.’ That’s not it. I want to do both,” he said. “Since I began playing ball when I was little, I’ve wanted to do both. I started playing baseball not thinking, ‘I really want to be a great player as a pitcher,’ or ‘I want to be a great player as a hitter.’
“I want to bat well. I want to pitch well. That’s the desire I’ve always had. For example, when it’s said, ‘if he focused on pitching, he’d be an even better pitcher so why doesn’t he do that?’ all I can say is that I really want to be a better hitter.
“On the other hand, if I were to focus on one or the other, there’s no guarantee I’d be better at it. That’s where it is now. Of course, I don’t know what kind of numbers I’m going to put up this season or the ‘ifs’ or ‘maybes’ should I focus on one.”
What makes the choice possible is Otani’s strength in a country where baseball dogma warns players against weight training. Although he has been lifting weights since high school, Otani said he shied away from building his upper body until turning pro.
“When I joined this team, (former training coach Seiichiro) Nakagaki handed me a training menu that covered the basic minimum strength exercises I needed to perform. I didn’t know what some were, because I had never done upper-body work, and wasn’t aware of the necessity,” Otani said.
“When I started doing those exercises, I realized their importance and began studying on my own, and then with Darvish and others. To a certain extent, I’ve developed my own methods.
“There is a strong perception (in Japan) that weight training is harmful in baseball. Certainly, some overseas players have done too much, and it could possibly be a minus. But there aren’t unnecessary muscles in your body. Rather than looking for what is not necessary, one needs to look at what is.”
It’s not, he said, about being bigger or stronger, but being better.
“If you can’t incorporate that (weight training) into your playing skills, you aren’t going to get better. Training is not the same thing as skill,” Otani said. “You have a skill, so you train. To perfect a skill you need a certain amount of strength. To be able to move a certain way, certain muscles need to be strong.”
Otani is not against the endless running Japanese athletes do from a young age, but said he dislikes the conventional wisdom that says you should only build your lower body by running.
“What I hate is thinking that if you run from foul pole to foul pole some hundred times, that’s enough,” he said. “Building strength and running are both important. You need both, just one is no good.
“If you think about it carefully, you’ll realize it’s true.”
WBC or not, failed offseason or not, Otani seems determined to acquire new knowledge, new skills and new benchmarks to achieve. And given his track record of making his doubters look foolish, it would be unwise to bet against Otani having even more surprises in store.