Any comparisons to Babe Ruth are subject to hyperbole, but the recent exploits of 22-year-old Shohei Otani give us reason to believe the Japanese star could be the Major League’s next great two-way ball player.
The recently-named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball became the first professional league Japanese player to hit 10 or more homers and win 10 or more games as a pitcher in the same season. The only player in major league history to score a double-double was Ruth, who stroked 11 home runs and won 13 games for the 1918 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
Otani is coming off one of the greatest seasons in Japanese history, boasting a 10-4 record with a 1.86 ERA. The right-handed flamethrower posted a 0.95 WHIP while averaging 11.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings. Moonlighting as a left-handed-hitting DH, the 6-foot-4 Otani slugged 22 home runs while hitting .322 with a whopping 1.004 OPS in 104 games. After four professional season, Otani is 39-13-2.49 as a pitcher while batting .275 with 40 homers and an .838 OPS.
Pacific Rim scouts have referred to Otani as the “modern-day Babe Ruth”. A top-of-the rotation pitcher and a middle-of-the-order slugger all in one. Otani throws a high-90s fastball that has reportedly topped out at 103 mph. He uses a low-90s forkball to keep hitters off balance. His changeup, which he hasn’t needed to this point, still a work in progress.
With natural power and a keen eye at the plate, Otani projects to be a legitimate major league hitter. Otani played 62 games as a corner outfielder his first two years as a professional. A sprained ankle early in the 2014 season quickly put an end to Otani’s outfield duties. He has been used exclusively as a DH when not pitching over the last two years.
Otani yearns to pitch and hit in the majors, to compete against the best in the world as a pitcher and a hitter. The questions ahead are complicated: How does he walk away from Japan and gain entrance to the majors at such a young age? Is there a major league team that will break the bank to sign Otani and allow him to hit between pitching assignments?
Otani cannot test the free agent waters until accumulating nine seasons in the Nippon Professional
League. However, the Nippon Ham Fighters can — and reportedly will — allow Otani entrance into the majors via the posing system at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The Fighters will surely receive the maximum $20 million posting fee from the major league team that would sign Otani. With revenues on the rise for MLB and free agent contracts spiraling upward — not to mention the mystery surrounding the next potential international star — could mean a long-term contract breaking $200 million for Otani, according to published reports.
Several Major League teams — including the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rangers — expressed interest in Otani four years ago. As a high school two-way player, Otani led his team to the Koshien Championshipship. The Fighters were able to convince Otani that his only chance to excel as a two way player would be in Japan.
A year from now several teams will be will likely be willing to empty the vault for his services. His decision may hinge on which team allows him to pitch and hit on a regular basis. Will an American League team allow Otani to DH or play the outfield two or three times a week? Is he better suited to pitch — and hit for himself — in the National League? Will batting just every fifth day satisfy his appetite? Will pitching every fifth day opposed to every sixth day (as he does in Japan) affect his workload as a pitcher or hitter? Questions that possible suitors and Otani need to answer in what looks to be a fascinating 2017 off season.
Otani is expected to display his baseball skills globally in the World Baseball Classic next spring. Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo is planning to use him as a pitcher, DH, and pinch hitter.
Otani’s first baseball card was an insert in Japan’s Sports Card Magazine #97 released in January 2013. It was a promo card for the 2013 BBM Rookie Edition set. Expect this card and other Otani rookies to gain significant interest during the WBC.