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Fighters ace Shohei Otani lives up to expectations in Japan

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Shohei Otani has lived up to the hype. Just as Bryce Harper in MLB and LeBron James in the NBA, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star pitcher/DH not only entered the professional ranks to outsized expectations, he actually met them.

He’s every bit the prodigious talent on the mound he was advertised to be in high school and has ended up perhaps better than excepted as a hitter. The Japanese baseball world was promised a two-way player and someone who could challenge the conventional way of thinking. In his five seasons, that is what Otani has become.

“There are a lot who get hyped early but never quite make it, or have solid careers,” one MLB scout told The Japan Times. “But he has been hyped since he was young and has lived up to expectations on the mound and with the bat when he’s been healthy. It’s been something to watch him grow and develop and actually turn into what the hype has made him out to be.”

Otani stood on the mound and in the batter’s box for the final time at Sapporo Dome this season on Wednesday night. A sense of finality hung thick in the air, some of it left over from longtime infielder Yuji Iiyama’s retirement game the night before, some from the fact it was the home finale and also because most of the 39,823 in attendance understood they may be seeing one of the most special players in NPB history for the last time.

Before the game, Otani’s proximity was heralded each time by a rush of camera shutters going off, as fan club members lucky enough to be on the field for batting practice eagerly snapped away. After the game, some fans hung a banner over the outfield wall wishing Otani good luck in the future.

Otani is widely expected to head to the majors this winter, via whatever the posting system looks like by then. If Wednesday’s contest was indeed his last in Japan, he went out with on a high note.

Otani struck out 10 in a two-hit shutout of the Orix Buffaloes, allowing baserunners on a pair of singles and five walks in the 3-0 win.

“The first thing on my mind was to wrap it up (the season) in a winning fashion,” Otani said.

He became the first player in Pacific League history and first in Japan in 66 years, according to Sports Nippon, to start on the mound while also batting cleanup, and finished 1-for-4 at the plate.

“He was amazing,” Buffaloes slugger Takahiro Okada said. “He played with so much passion out there, and his pitching spoke volumes.”

While his control slipped at some points, perhaps due to fatigue as the 124-pitch outing was only his fifth appearance on the mound this season because of injuries, he dominated the Buffaloes for most of the night. His fastest pitch was 162 kph (101 mph), and flummoxed hitters with his slider.

“I don’t have any more games to pitch after today, so I just tried to be aggressive,” Otani said.

Even with all the attention focused squarely on him, it was no surprise Otani rose to the occasion.

“You can’t even tell,” Fighters reliever Chris Martin said. “He’s really humble. He knows what he needs to do to get ready for games and that’s what he does. I don’t think any of this distracts him at all. I think he’s very focused on what he’s trying to get accomplished in his career. He’s very driven. That’s a great quality.”

The spotlight is only going to grow brighter if he heads to MLB. That move has been anticipated since he was a third-year phenom at Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School. Major league scouts have been watching him ever since.

“I think he keeps getting better and better,” the MLB scout said of Otani’s development. “His velocity has always been great, but the refinement of his secondary pitches, the added strength, the additional work he puts in before games has really started to pay off.”

The number of scouts at Otani’s games swelled this year, as teams took a good look before the feeding frenzy likely begins this winter. Sixteen scouts and executives from 11 teams were on hand Wednesday. Among them was Alex Anthopoulos, vice president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and reportedly, Cincinnati Reds GM Dick Williams. New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman made the trip to Japan in late August.

Otani is 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in five seasons. He has a .287 average at the plate with 70 doubles and 48 home runs in 1,031 at-bats. With likely one more game remaining Otani has driven in 166 runs and stolen 13 bases.

He had two seasons (2014 and 2016) in which he hit 10 home runs at the plate while winning at least 10 games and finishing with over 170 strikeouts on the mound. He has a career 1.08 walks plus hits per innings pitched and, according to Deltagraphs, a career 2.78 fielding independent pitching plus an .862 on-base plus slugging percentage and .215 isolated power.

By now most MLB fans have heard of the player with the above average skills as both hitter and pitcher and wondered how he would fit on their team’s roster. The clubs are probably wondering the same thing. There’s also the question of, once Otani decides to head abroad, whether an MLB team would have to give him the chance to be a two-way player in order to sign him.

“He has the talent, whether he wants to focus on hitting or on pitching,” the MLB scout said. “The real challenge will be having him do both, which I think he’ll want to do. The challenge for him will be to make it through the 162-game season and try to figure out what role he’s best suited for as a pitcher and as a position player. It’s an exciting challenge for major league teams, and for Otani himself.”

An exciting challenge, but not an easy one.

“I don’t think people understand how long the days are,” the scout said. “When you see him pitching at 7:05 or hitting in the first inning, he might have been there since one in the afternoon. As a two-way player, he’s going to have to work on his conditioning as a pitcher, and then his hitting and timing and then maybe he’ll have to do extra recovery. He’s going to have long days at ballpark, and it’s a 162-game season plus spring training and maybe playoffs.

“I think that’s the one thing the average person doesn’t see. It’s not show up at 6 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game and leave at 10. He might get to the field at 1 p.m. and he might not leave until 11, and do that for 162 games.”

If nothing else, Otani has shown he’s at least up for the challenge.

“He’s 23 years old and you wouldn’t know it, at all,” Martin said. “He’s all about business, he’s all about getting his stuff done. Me being a 31-year-old I’ve been around baseball for a long time, and I think that’s what it takes to be great.

“Baseball-wise, he acts like a veteran. I know he hasn’t been playing very long. It’s kind of scary what could happen with a little more experience.”