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International Free Agent Profile: Shohei Otani

One of the best players to hail from Japan will be made available this winter via the posting system.

Samurai Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 5
Shohei Otani
Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

The Japanese media coined the term Matsuzaka Sedai“Matsuzaka Generation”—to describe a group of highly-talented baseball players born between April 2, 1980, and April 1, 1981, with phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka being considered the cream of the crop. The group of players born between April 2, 1988, and April 1, 1989, are sometimes called Hankachi Sedai“Handkerchief Generation”—in reference to the handkerchief that collegiate star Yuki Saito was known to always carry. In another place, another time, there might have been an “Otani Sedai,” but when it comes to Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, nothing is routine.

Born July 5, 1994, in Oshu, a city in the Iwate Prefecture, Shohei Otani attended Hanamaki Higashi High School, and under the watchful eye of manager Hiroshi Sasaki, a star was born. The high school student opened eyes not only around Japan but the entire world every time he stepped on the mound. In an environment where fastballs in the mid-to-high-80s are the norm, and the low-90s are considered elite, Otani was flirting with triple digits, setting the record with the hardest pitch ever recorded in the Summer Koshien tournament at 99 MPH. Adding to the excitement swirling around the right-hander was the fact that he was open to skipping over playing in his native country altogether and playing in North America upon his graduation from high school.

After filing his letter of intent to play baseball, Otani told the assembled media that he was undecided where he wanted to play, though he narrowed his choices to the NPB and MLB, with about a 50-50 chance for each.

“I think the most important thing is where I want to play, but I could become the first high school student that could be selected in the draft to go to America and I would like to ask what kinds of things might happen because of that. This is not about money, but about what I want to do.”

Numerous Major League Baseball clubs had already reached out to the 17-year-old, attempting to court him, hoping to avoid a similar situation that had unfolded a few years before with Yusei Kikuchi. An elite talent and fellow graduate of Hanamaki Higashi High School a few years prior, Kikuchi had shook the Japanese baseball establishment when he announced that he was considering bypassing the NPB amateur draft and instead signing with an American team. The left-hander ultimately decided to stay in Japan, going on to be drafted by the Seibu Lions, but only a few years later, the Japanese baseball establishment was facing a similar situation.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Nippon Ham Fighters were the first two teams to reach out to Otani, but in the weeks that followed, he met with a variety of NPB and MLB teams. Ultimately, he decided that he would skip playing in Japan altogether and chose playing in the United States instead. The premier talent in Japan would not play for a Japanese team, but instead an American team, of which the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers were considered frontrunners. Otani was on the list of first-round draft candidates for most NPB teams, so his decision triggered reactions from disappointment to anger.

Days after the announcement, the Nippon Ham Fighters did a curious thing. General Manager Masao Yamada informed reporters that the team would still be selecting Otani in the 2012 amateur draft. Yamada said:

“It is Otani-kun. I am planning to select the best player available…Otani-kun commented that he wanted to play for an MLB team, but our plan is to select the best player. We plan to select Otani-kun…We understand that Otani-kun has strong feelings for the majors. Even if we do get rights to negotiate with him, I am not confident [we can sign him]. However, we will not step down…It is not about selecting players we know we can sign, but rather selecting the number one player. That is what the draft is about and what our scouting is about.”

The move was especially risky for the Fighters, as their 2011 first-round selection, Tomo Sugano, had not signed with them after making it abundantly clear that he would not sign with any team except the Yomiuri Giants and following through on his word. If Otani did not sign with the Fighters, they would be the first team to lose out on signing two consecutive first-round draft picks since the Hanshin Tigers in 1974 and 1975, when they missed out on signing Masaaki Koga and Yoshio Adachi.

When draft day came, Nippon Ham followed through and drafted Otani. When asked about the situation, Otani was quite blunt. “In my personal opinion, there is zero chance [I will sign with Nippon Ham],” he said. “I decided I wanted to do my best over there. Right now, I only have thoughts of playing in America." Throughout November 2012, members of the Fighters’ front office met with Otani and his parents repeatedly, including GM Masao Yamada, scouting director Takashi Ofuchi, and manager Hideki Kuriyama. During these meetings, Otani’s opinion began to change and his steadfast desire to go straight to America began wavering, especially when he spoke with Kuriyama. Key to the change was how the Fighters were willing to work with Otani regarding his desire to pitch and hit, their willingness to post him should he ever decide he wanted to play in MLB, the amount of money they were offering him, and promising him uniform number 11, the number that former Nippon Ham superstar Yu Darvish wore. Finally, on December 9, Otani decided that he would stay in Japan and sign with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

“I informed the Nippon Ham Fighters that I wanted to sign with them. I want to give back to the people that helped me up until this day and to the people from my home town by having them see me pitch in Japan. I will do my best to become the type of player that kids can look up to. I will do my best to become a member of the Fighters. I want to do my best so that I can put up results in my first year. I initially felt it would be best to head to the U.S. as soon as possible in order to have a long career [in the U.S.]. My feelings changed little by little, but I ultimately talked it over with my family before making a decision."

After a busy winter and spring training, Otani made his professional debut on March 29, 2013, the Fighers’ season opener, playing right field. Otani made his first professional start a few weeks later, against the Yakult Swallows on May 23. The 18-year-old rookie hit .238/.284/.376 in 77 games and posted a 4.23 ERA in 61.2 innings, walking 33 and striking out 46. With 4 of the 233 votes for 2013 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, Otani placed a distant second behind Takahito Norimoto, but he was voted to the 2013 All-Star Game by Japanese fans. While he did not exactly set any record with his performance, his season was historic in many other ways. Otani was just the second NPB rookie drafted out of high school the year prior to both pitch and hit, following Kikuo Tokunaga in 1951.

Otani was much better in his sophomore season. As a hitter, he batted .274/.338/.505 in 87 games with 10 home runs, and as a pitcher he went 11-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 155.1 innings, walking 57 and striking out 179. With 11 wins and 10 home runs, he became the first player in Japanese history to reach double-digits in both categories. He was once again voted to the All-Star Game- this time much more deservingly- and made history on the mound. In the bottom of the first on the second night of the festivities, he threw multiple pitches that were recorded at 101 MPH, setting a new record for the fastest pitch thrown by a Japanese pitcher, beating the record of 100 set by Yoshinori Sato in 2010. Weeks later, he did so again, breaking the record for fastest fastball thrown in a regulation NPB game, set by Marc Kroon in 2008. In the end, Otani finished third in the 2014 Pacific League MVP race, placing behind Chihiro Kaneko and Yuki Yanagita. That winter, he received a ¥70 million raise, with his salary increasing from ¥30 million in 2014 to ¥100 million in 2015, making Otani just the second player in NPB history to be drafted out of high school and reach the ¥100 million yen plateau in just three years.

The 20-year-old was named opening day starter in 2015, and though he took a step back at the plate, he got even better on the mound. In 70 games, he hit .202/.252/.376 with 5 home runs, while on the mound, he posted a 2.24 ERA in 160.2 innings, walking 46 and striking out 196. The right-hander was voted to his third consecutive All-Star Game, and thanks to his dominance on the mound, won the Pacific League Best Nine Award for pitcher.

In 2016, everything came together for Otani. The right-hander had a breakout season both at the plate and on the mound. As a hitter, he hit an impressive .322/.416/.588 in 104 games, launching 22 home runs. As a pitcher, he was dominant, posting a 1.86 ERA in 140.0 innings, walking 45 and striking out 174. Otani certainly wasn’t alone, but he was a major reason the Nippon Ham Fighters navigated through both stages of the Climax Series to win the Pacific League pennant and made it to the Nippon Series. He started the first game of the series and struck out 11 over six innings, but Nippon Ham lost 5-1 with Otani giving up three runs. He might’ve put Nippon Ham behind the eight ball with his performance in Game One, but he gave them life in Game Three, when playing as DH, he hit two doubles and drove in the game-winning run in the tenth inning.

Otani received a lot of hardware that winter. He won his second Best Nine Award for pitcher and won a second Best Nine Award for DH, beating out Cuban superstar Alfredo Despaigne. Though the Sawamura Award went to Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kris Johnson- the first gaijin to win the award since Gene Bacque in 1964- Otani won the 2016 Pacific League MVP Award, getting 253 of the 254 first place votes, easily beating out runner-up Brandon Laird.

Otani was to pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic but backed out to due an injured ankle that he sustained during the Nippon Series. Injury would be a recurring problem for the young phenom all throughout the 2017 season. In addition to the lingering effects of the ankle injury, he missed significant time at the beginning of the season with a hamstring strain, limiting him to DH for most of the season and curbing the amount of time he spent on the mound. When the season ended, he had surgery on his right ankle. All in all, he hit .332/.403/.540 with 8 home runs in 65 games, and posted a 3.20 ERA in 25.1 innings, walking 19 and striking out 29.

Shortly after the Nippon Series ended, the Nippon Ham Fighters announced that they would be posting their 22-year-old ace. During the press conference on 11/11, the ace who wears uniform number 11 informed the media that he felt the time was right to finally act on his dreams of playing in America. He felt that the five years he spent with the Fighters turned him into a more complete player that could compete at the MLB level, and now that he had helped the team win a championship, he felt that he had accomplished something and had succeeded in giving back to the fans.

Otani is often compared to his Nippon Ham ace predecessor Yu Darvish, but teammate Shota Ohno, who caught both pitchers, sees a distinct difference in philosophies.

“Darvish has so much in his arsenal and enjoys getting guys out with many different pitches. Otani thinks a lot about percentages: 'If I throw this pitch here, I have the highest chance to get this player out.' He has very good instincts on the mound, maybe because he's a hitter. He thinks about what he'd like to see, or not like to see, in certain situations. His gut feeling is right most of the time- if he was the hitter, what he would not like to see. That's the pitch he will make.”

Otani has the physical build to succeed in pitching in the MLB environment. At 6’4”, 213-pounds, he has the kind of lanky, athletic body that scouts look for in pitchers. The right-hander has dealt with injuries during his career in Japan, but none had a prolonged impact on his health and ability to hit or pitch except his most recent ankle injury; whether or not Otani will continue to feel the effects of the 2016 injury after the corrective surgery is unknown.

Otani’s primary weapon is his fastball. Scouts are generally wary of handing out 80s, the highest grade on the 20-80 scouting chart, but many agree that Otani’s fastball is an 80 pitch. It generally sits 93-97, topping out at 101 MPH. The ball is easy out of his hand, and he is able to get it to flirt with and touch triple digits without adding any extra violence or effort in his delivery. The pitch gets plus life, which sometimes results in shaky command, but also results in swing-and-misses.

Otani’s best secondary pitch is his forkball, an above-average pitch that sits in the high-80s to low-90s. He uses it as a weapon against right-handers and left-handers, with the movement on the pitch varying from fade mirroring a changeup to hard, fall-off-the-table drop, depending on the situation and count. His slider is just as good, another above-average offering, sitting in the low-to-mid 80s. When the pitch is working, it has razor sharp break, though when it is not, the pitch is more lazy tilt.

The last, and least effective, pitch in Otani’s pitching arsenal is his curveball. The pitch is raw, but because he rarely utilizes it, there is time for the right-hander to clean it up and develop it further if he was interested in doing so. The pitch gets loopy 11-5 break, sitting in the mid-to-high 70s. Otani’s curveball has actually been very effective throughout his career in getting strikes, especially looking strikes, but this is more because of its element of surprise rather than effectiveness.

He is aggressive and will challenge hitters with his fastball, forkball, and slider. He often falls in love with his fastball, but given that the pitch is so good, there is not anything necessarily wrong with that. He is comfortable using all four quadrants of the strike zone, and pounds the zone rather than nibbling.

Otani is a bit less impressive as a hitter, but when taken in the context of a pitcher that can hit, his prowess at the plate is almost unheard of in modern baseball. He has a quiet, balanced set-up at the plate, and a smooth, easy swing with slight plane. His biggest asset at the plate is his raw power, considered above-average. Generated by slightly above-average bat speed, most of his power is to left and left-center, his pull side. He often gets pull happy in his approach as a result, over-swinging and extending too far, which opens holes in his swing for pitchers to exploit. That swing-and-miss in his game will likely prevent him from hitting for a high average.

Otani is a gifted athlete, which has allowed the Fighters to play him in the outfield in addition to using him as DH. With a long, smooth gait, Otani has the physical tools to play center field, but lacks the instincts and experience to track the ball and decide on routes. In right field, his above-average range and plus-plus arm play up.

Whatever team wins the Otani sweepstakes will be adding into their system, by a large margin, the best prospect in Major League Baseball.