SAPPORO – Shohei Otani hasn’t had a 20-win season. He hasn’t slugged 40 homers in one campaign, either.
Those, of course, are benchmarks for iconic superstars.
Even so, baseball fans and pundits thinks the sky’s the limit for Otani, a unique two-way talent.
The 23-year-old Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher/slugger has displayed his special skills for five seasons in Japan.
But it’s only a glimpse of the future. In short, he hasn’t reached his full potential yet. Which is why a Fighters coach and Otani both believe he still has a long way to go to achieve greatness as a ballplayer.
On Wednesday, Otani batted fourth. He also started the game for the Fighters, and silenced the Orix Buffaloes, firing a two-hit shutout in a 3-0 victory at Sapporo Dome.
It looked like a perfect farewell for Otani and his fans that came to the stadium.
As impressive as it was, Fighters pitching coach Masato Yoshii believes that Otani’s outing didn’t even exhibit half of his potential.
Yoshii believes Otani can become a much better player.
“It’s crazy that he still managed to shut them out,” said Yoshii, a former pitcher in NPB and the major leagues, analyzing Otani’s pitching performance on Wednesday. “His condition wasn’t so good, though. But he is a pitcher on the rise who has a lot of room to grow. If you look at the result of the shutout, it seems great. But considering his potential, he’s really got a long way to get polished.”
Yoshii credited Otani, who won 15 games for the most victories in Pacific League in 2015, for pitching with high concentration and a competitive mind-set against the Buffaloes.
For example, Otani appeared fatigued in the ninth inning. He didn’t possess the same command of his pitches that he had earlier in the game, and, with one out, walked two straight hitters. But he got Orix pinch hitter Yutaro Sugimoto to ground into a double play on a 158-kph fastball to end the game.
“He showcased his concentration there,” Yoshii observed. “He tried to show his professionalism and his spirit to hold (Sugimoto) by any means for his fans. It’s easier said than done, but you can’t really do it.”
Fighters skipper Hideki Kuriyama has always been hard on Otani, the 2016 PL MVP, since he joined the club in 2013. Nippon Ham succeeded in persuading him to not bypass NPB. Instead, the Fighters convinced him to develop as a young player on the Sapporo-based team before moving to the major leagues.
Kuriyama felt he had to make sure that Otani had become a global-level star before departing for the bigs.
Before Wednesday’s game, the manager stated that Otani had only reached “the first stage” of his potential.
“For us, he still has issues here and there,” Kuriyama said after the game.
Interestingly, Otani doesn’t envision what’s the limit of his ability.
“I have not seen the summit yet,” said the Iwate Prefecture native, who is 42-15 as a pitcher with a .287 average and 48 homers in his NPB career. “I don’t know where the limit point is for me. I’m just focusing to get up one step at a time, eliminating my issues.”
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