Introducing Shohei Otani, Baseball's New International Teenage Phenom

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Introducing Shohei Otani, Baseball's New International Teenage Phenom
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Back in October 2012, teenage phenom Shohei Otani had the baseball world buzzing with excitement after he expressed a desire to sign with an MLB team out high school in Japan rather than begin his career in Nippon Professional Baseball.

But after being selected by the Nippon Ham Fighters with the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s NPB amateur draft, the highly touted right-hander ultimately decided to put his major league aspirations on hold, at least temporarily, and sign with the well-known NPB franchise.

However, Otani’s showing with the Fighters this season, highlighted by a recent stretch of flat-out dominant pitching performances—not to mention the overwhelming successes of countrymen Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka in Major League Baseball—now has the 19-year-old back at the forefront of all discussions regarding who will be the next elite Japanese pitcher to pursue a career in the States.

 

Background

After his outstanding career at Hanamaki Higashi High School and strong performance for Japan’s 18-and-under national team, Otani, a 6’4” right-hander, captured headlines worldwide with the announcement that he would bypass the NPB and pursue a career in MLB (via The Associated Press on ESPN.com). He then urged his potential NPB suitors not to draft him in the league’s annual amateur draft.

Unlike Darvish and Tanaka, who each had to go through NPB’s posting system before signing with an MLB club, Otani qualified as an international free agent after completing his final high school season. Therefore, it didn’t come as a surprise to learn that upward of eight teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers, expressed interest in signing the then-18-year-old pitcher (via the New York Daily News).

As previously mentioned, Nippon Ham did not adhere to Otani’s request and selected him with the first pick in the draft. Though he still could have stayed true to his claim by signing with an MLB team, the right-hander ultimately decided to sign with the Fighters for the equivalent of a $1.2 million bonus and receive the maximum rookie base salary of $150,000.

Courtesy of Baseballjapan

Aside from the lucrative and flattering bonus, Otani’s decision to remain in Japan presumably was at least in part influenced by a league rule that any player who signs an international contract without having played in the NPB would be banned from the circuit for three years. Plus, Nippon Ham offered Otani, who also starred as a slugging outfielder for his high school team, an opportunity to keep playing both ways as a member of its organization. For the sake of comparison, he surely would have been restricted to a career on the mound with a major league team and been forced to spend multiple seasons refining his craft in the minor leagues.

Otani actually saw more time in the outfield than on the mound in his first professional season in Japan’s NPB, but struggled to make an impact in either role.

At the plate, the left-handed hitter posted a disappointing batting line of .238/.284/.376 to go along with 15 doubles, three home runs and a 64-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 204 plate appearances (77 games). On the bump, Otani pitched to a 4.23 ERA with 33 walks (4.8 BB/9) and 46 strikeouts (6.7 K/9) in 61.2 innings (11 starts).

However, the 19-year-old’s current sophomore campaign has been an entirely different story.

Shohei Otani: Career NPB Hitting Statistics (2013-14)
PA 2B HR RBI BB K AVG OBP SLG
2013 204 15 3 20 12 64 .238 .284 .376
2014 106 8 2 14 9 22 .271 .339 .438

Baseball-Reference

Offensively, Otani has shown vast improvement despite playing in only 38 games as a hitter, as he currently owns a solid .271/.330/.438 batting line with eight doubles, two homers and a 22-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 plate appearances. 

Shohei Otani: Career NPB Pitching Statistics (2013-14)
Record G GS IP ERA WHIP HBP BB K
2013 3-0 13 11 61.2 4.23 1.459 8 33 46
2014 6-0 11 11 69 2.61 1.159 0 19 76

Baseball-Reference

Meanwhile, the right-hander has rapidly fulfilled his prophecy as one of Japan’s premier pitchers by posting a 6-1 record, 2.61 ERA and 76-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 69 innings (11 starts).

Otani has been especially dominant this month, which began with a jaw-dropping performance against Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda, who many believe will pursue an MLB career in 2015. Otani allowed one run over five innings and struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk. According to Ben Badler (the guru of all things international baseball) of Baseball America, the right-hander bumped 99 mph with his fastball in the outing.

Otani likely would have pitched well beyond the fifth inning—his pitch count sat at 71 heading into the sixth—had it not been for a sprained ankle suffered as he slid across home plate while scoring a run.

Thankfully, Otani’s injury proved to be minor and didn’t prevent him from making his next scheduled start against the Yomiuri Giants, when he once again lit up radar guns with a 99 mph heater (via Badler on Twitter).

 

The Scouting Report

Back in late 2012, when everyone was busy speculating about Otani’s potential jump from Japan to the major leagues, Patrick Newman of NPBTracker.com offered a detailed scouting report on the right-hander after taking in one of his high school starts:

I’ve only seen one Otani pitch one full game, his appearance in this spring’s Koshien Senbatsu tournament against fellow draft phenom Shintaro Fujinami. It was a frustrating game to watch, as the raw quality of Otani’s stuff was evident, but his command was non-existent. He featured a fastball ranging from about 145-152 km/h (90-95 mph), a slider around 132-136 km/h (82-84 mph) and curve around 125 km/h (77 mph). Everything had movement, and his wildness was of the effective variety until the 6th inning, when he and his defense faltered, before melting down (video) in the 7th. For the day, Otani struck out 11, walked 11 and gave up nine runs (five earned) while taking the loss.

Though Newman’s assessment of Otani was based on a single start, his less-than-flattering evaluation of Japan’s next pitching sensation highlighted more weaknesses than strengths, not to mention the large gap between his present ability and overall potential.

Courtesy of 18kuroda

However, fast forward to the present day and the scouting reports on Otani now depict a future star with legitimate front-of-the-rotation stuff. According to Badler:

Otani’s fastball was overpowering, sitting at 94-98 mph and hitting the upper end of that range consistently. His lone run allowed came on a hanging slider to Brad Eldred, who crushed Otani’s mistake for a home run.

Otani, who’s 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, overmatched hitters with his fastball, though his 84-88 mph splitter was a solid pitch at times. He also throws a 78-81 mph slider and a curveball that he manipulates speeds on, ranging anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.

Now that’s more like it.

 

The Future

For those hoping to see Otani suddenly bail on his NPB career in favor of signing with an MLB team—don’t get your hopes up; both Darvish and Tanaka spent seven seasons in Japan before becoming eligible to be posted. '

Plus, after the latest amendments to the NPB posting system, which sets a maximum posting fee—a product of MLB teams' feeding frenzy for the chance to land Tanaka—Nippon Ham will have even less incentive to make Otani a free agent after his required seven years in the league. Therefore, assuming the organization follows that regulation, it’s likely that the earliest we’ll see him pitch in the States is 2020.

However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Given the ballooning injury rate this year among pitchers in the minor and major leagues, teams willing to shell out big bucks for Otani might be better off monitoring his development and health over the coming years rather than hastily going all-in to offer him an absurd long-term, nine-figure contract as a 19- or 20-year-old.

 

*All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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