The Best Young Pitcher in the World

This post was written by the team behind NEIFI, a projection system and systematic evaluation methodology about which you can read more at their site. They also tweet @NEIFIco, and have started their own blog as well.

We’re NEIFI. We build decision systems for teams, systems that produce both evaluations and valuations. Increasingly, there’s a need for such systems to work globally, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word; decision makers must be able to intelligently compare the relative values of draft picks, Korean free agents, a prospect, and 30-year-old big leaguer with two years and $30 million left on his contract. We’ve now been working explicitly with international leagues for about five years, and for much longer with domestic evaluations and valuations. We believe our methodology helps to put players from wildly different contexts on a neutral playing field for cross-comparison.

A few weeks ago, members of the Baseball Writers Association of America chose Jake Arrieta as the recipient of the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, even though it’s generally agreed upon that Clayton Kershaw is currently the best pitcher on the planet right now. NEIFI has little interest in awards voting (or the subsequent debates), but we do enjoy estimating the future. Here’s how our system projects the top 10 overall talent levels among starting pitchers going into 2016, simply on a rate basis. This uses the ERA scale; league average is fixed at 4.00, and an average SP is around 4.13:

Top SP Projections for 2016
Name 2016 Age
Kershaw, Clayton 2.35 28
Fernandez, Jose 2.75 24
Sale, Chris 2.87 27
Arrieta, Jake 3.01 30
Scherzer, Max 3.03 32
Otani, Shohei 3.08 22
Keuchel, Dallas 3.13 29
Kluber, Corey 3.15 30
Price, David 3.15 31
Strasburg, Stephen 3.16 28
Darvish, Yu 3.19 30

So we actually cheated: there are 11 pitchers included there, because as you may notice, one of them is not currently pitching in Major League Baseball. Shohei Otani’s dominance may not be groundbreaking news if you follow Japanese baseball to some degree, but we find that it’s still interesting to put his projectoin in this context. And for the sake of corroborating his gaudy ranking above, consider Darvish, who actually played for the same team in Japan.

Below is a comparison of Otani’s 2015 and Darvish’s 2011 — far and away his best season in Japan — with the main components relative to the league average in those seasons:

Attributes Relative to League Average
Name, League-Season K/BF BB/BF BABIP HR/BIP
Darvish, 2010 PL +13.3% -2.5% -1.4% -0.5%
Otani, 2015 PL +13.5% -1.4% -3.7% 0.0%

In a strict component sense, Otani’s 2015 was effectively equivalent to Darvish’s best season. Now, here’s the kicker: Darvish pitched 2011 at ages 24-25, while Otani began his 2015 at age 20, and didn’t turn 21 until the summer. To describe that as “remarkable” seems to be a severe understatement. So then, given that he’s still just 21, and projecting as the world’s 8th-best SP on a rate basis, should we one day expect Otani to be the best starting pitcher in the world?

Let’s spoil one thing immediately. He shouldn’t be expected to top Kershaw’s current mark of 2.35. Kershaw is simply a singularity. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Kershaw would decline more aggressively than expected, at a time while Otani is still at his peak.

Given that, here’s the expected peak rate projections for everyone who is 24 or younger as of July 1, 2016:

Best Peak Projections, 24-and-under SPs
Name Peak 2016 Age
Fernandez, Jose 2.66 24
Otani, Shohei 2.76 22
Urias, Julio 3.37 20
Severino, Luis 3.42 22
Syndergaard, Noah 3.42 24
McCullers, Lance 3.52 23
Fujinami, Shintaro 3.59 22
Walker, Taijuan 3.60 24
Rodriguez, Eduardo 3.60 23
Berrios, Jose 3.70 22
Rodon, Carlos 3.78 24
Nola, Aaron 3.82 23

With apologies to the Japanese, it appears a dominant Cuban is expected to hold onto the crown, but Otani is the only pitcher alive that our system expects to put up a significant challenge to Jose Fernandez for that title.

It’s true Fernandez suffered a major arm injury — although his performance barely noticed, as his 2015 return was typically remarkable — and, just generally speaking, things are unpredictable. If these pitchers remained in this order for several years, that would be by far the most remarkable outcome of all. These are simply our estimates from this point forward. It does, though, seem that Otani and Fernandez are in a class of their own; no other pitcher is within 0.6 runs per nine innings, which is an enormous gap.

Sidebar: is it perhaps telling that the top four pitchers here were not raised within American pitching conventions? They’re from Cuba, Japan, Mexico, and the Dominican, respectively. Those four nations added together don’t eclipse the total population of the U.S. That’s another post entirely, but also worth pointing out.

We made this list 12 deep, instead of 10, because it includes 10 currently domestic players, plus Otani as well as another Japanese pitcher: Shintaro Fujinami. Fujinami who scouts enjoy tossing back-and-forth in comparison to Otani, is a similar combination of remarkable dominance and youth. Otani definitely appears to be the better pitcher, but it is enjoyable to watch the 6-foot-6, whippy-armed Fujinami consistently sit 95-96.

Unfortunately for fans looking to see Otani (or Fujinami) in the U.S. any time soon, the new Japanese posting rules have a lousy unintended consequence. When the posting fees were capped at $20 million, it was applauded as a bridge to prevent the Yankees and Red Sox from being the only ones able to afford top Japanese talent, though we’d point out that those teams frequently wound up with Matsuzakas and Igawas, while plenty of great value like Suzuki, Uehara, Aoki, Otsuka, Darvish, Iwakuma, and Iguchi went to mid-or-small-market teams.

The other edge of that knife, though, is that you ensure it will virtually impossible for it to be worth it for the Fighters to post Otani anytime soon. While the economic scale is different in NPB, there’s no chance multiple seasons of Otani would be valued at less than $20 million. Without a change in the system, it is unlikely that Otani will be pitching in MLB any time soon.

In the case of Otani, it seems like we may be missing out on something truly special. Someone who would indeed be a serious Cy Young contender within the current generation, while being younger than most pitchers still popping up on various prospect lists. If he ever does make his way to MLB, expect unprecedented levels of interest for an unprecedented young arm.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Jeff Long
8 years ago

One looming hurdle is that Otani likes hitting and there’s a pretty tiny chance than an MLB team would let him hit when not pitching. The Dodgers tried to sign him before he entered the NPB draft (where he knew it’d be years before he would have a chance to go to MLB again), but he opted not to sign because the Dodgers reportedly wouldn’t let him hit. It’ll take a VERY progressive team that’s flexible with Otani to convince him to sign (OR one that’s willing to pay him enough to make it a moot point).

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Long

I don’t know if he would turn down a 10 million dollar a year pay raise because his new team won’t let him play outfield when he isn’t pitching. And I don’t know if I would call a team that let their pitcher play outfield on their off days “progressive”.