Will Otani Change the Game?

TAMPA, Fla. — Even if Shohei Otani is not the next Babe Ruth, even if baseball has to settle for welcoming the next Madison Bumgarner some time in the not-too-distant future, some team will be quite happy.

You’re probably familiar with Otani. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Japanese star, however, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the resume.

As a 21-year-old last season, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA over 20 starts in the NPB. He struck out 174 and walked 45 in 140 innings. Oh, he also OPS’d 1.004 with 22 home runs over 323 at-bats in 104 games. He was named the league’s best pitcher and best DH.

The following exhibits from 2016 are visual evidence of this player’s existence.

Let’s start with the fastball that sits in the mid- to upper 90s and that has touched 102 mph…

And just as important as the velocity is his ability to locate the pitch…

He can miss bats with his bending breaker…

And, oh yeah, he’s also picked up a changeup…

He might be the best bat and arm since George Herman Ruth, though the Yankees decided to end Ruth’s pitching career.

The 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter won the home-run derby and once launched a ball that never came down from the Tokyo Dome roof:

Otani could be posted after this season according to reports from this past winter, and according to, Yahoo!, there are potentially ways around the new, stricter limitations in signing Under-25 international players. Dave Cameron examined some other contractual challenges Otani will present.

Otani is, I believe, the best international prospect we’ve seen this generation (or ever?). He certainly owns the most dynamic and unusual skill set we’ve seen. Unique is often mis-used. One cannot be “kind of,” “sort of” or “somewhat” unique. Unique means one-of-a-kind. Otani is unique. While he’ll be courted as a pitching prospect, he’s the kind of extremely rare talent that can impact the game from the mound and the batter’s box, the idea being he could be a better version of Madison Bumgarner. The kind of player, in other words, a team actually thinks about playing in the field between starts. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh noted he led the NPB with 10.4 WAR last season: 5.8 wins as a pitcher, 4.6 as a hitter.

The team that signs Otani will have a bit of a quandary, albeit a desirable one: how do you maximize his many talents? Should he mostly pitch? Could he spent some of his time between starts in the lineup as a DH in the AL or as an outfielder in the NL? Does it make more sense for him to land with AL or NL club? There is no road map to follow. Just yesterday Eno examined the curiosity that is catcher-pitcher Christian Bethancourt.

Wrote Mr. Sarris:

If Bethancourt gets 20 plate appearances as anything other than a pitcher this season, and adds 20 innings pitched, he’ll join a list of just eight players who have ever managed the feat. You’ll recognize a couple of these names — the rest did their very best to stay in the game, bless them. Not a Bullet Joe Rogan in the bunch.

But Otani is different, of course, because he could be an ace pitcher and an above-average offensive performer. The Davenport Translation for his age-21 performance in the majors? A .306/.367/.512 slash line.

To better understand Otani I spoke with Anri Uechi of Kyodo News, who covers Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees but also has followed the career of Otani. I asked Uechi for a comps on Otani as a pitcher and hitter. He came up with a blend of Yu Darvish — only with more velocity – and Christian Yelich. Hey, not bad.

“I have a dream that maybe he can change the game,” Uechi told FanGraphs. “He can bring a revolution to the major leagues. If he can do that and be out of Japan that would be something. Maybe amateur players that have a hope that they can do both [will be encouraged]. Maybe some teams will try Otani [as a two-way player] … The thing about baseball here [in America] is it’s all about money, a six-man rotation is more money. I don’t think it’ going to happen soon. But I believe he has a chance to change the game in some ways and make a difference.

“Maybe some team will try six-man rotation and put him in and allow him to play outfield or DH or whatever so that is kind of a dream.”

It raises an interesting question of whether Otani would provide more of a competitive advantage in the NL, where he projects to have more value than Bumgarner over opposing pitcher’s bats. Bumgarner has produced, roughly, 1.0 to 1.5 wins over most of his NL contemporaries via his bat in recent seasons. The average pitcher slashed .133/.165/.172 last season. Or would Otani benefit from pitching in the AL where he could be employed as a DH on days he is not pitching?

But employing a unique talent like Otani would come with challenges and would be in need of creative solutions.

“I don’t think he has addressed specific leagues or teams he wants to play for. … I think he wants to get at-bats more than just pitching for National League teams, but realistically I think it’s harder to play [every day and pitch] in the [majors],” Uechio said. “There are only four days rest, more games in a season, more traveling, the time differences he has to adjust to. Even [Masahiro] Tanaka struggled for his first couple of years adjusting to the schedule…He got used to it and had a better routine last year. As I fan, I want to see him in the American League to make a revolution, be that two-way player that can be successful in both ways in the AL. But realistically I think he will be a Bumgarner, a really good pitcher with good hitting skills, maybe pinch-hitting. But fielding in the outfield, too? That would be challenging.”

Tanaka and Otani worked out together during the offseason.

“They talked about command because Tanaka has really good command,” Uechi said. “Playing over here is totally different. He cannot play the same way as he has been.”

Still, could he make 100 starts as a DH or in the outfield? Could he log 400 plate appearances of above-average performance along with being a top-of-the rotation arm? Would clubs risk the extra strain in what figures to be valuable (and expensive) asset?

Uechi said Otani is motivated to play in the majors as soon as possible and considered making the jump out of high school.

“Everybody knew he wanted to come over here and play. That was his hope when he got drafted from high school,” Uechi said. “Coming over here directly from his high school was his hope, his choice, too. But the Nippon-Ham Fighters — his current team — gave him a presentation and told him that going directly to America would be harder. [Nippon-Ham said] he should play here for a few years and then we will send you over there. That’s their agreement.”

When he does arrive, with health, he figures to be great. And perhaps he can be great enough to force a break from convention, and become the rarest of assets in baseball, a two-way, impact star. And maybe that will allow for more two-way players to be developed, which could be a major roster advantage in an age of reduced innings from starters and bullpen specialization. Maybe instead of making a choice on draft day on whether a prospect like Josh Lowe or John Van Benschoten is a pitcher or a hitter, maybe there is a development path that can allow both skill sets to be explored and development.

Maybe Otani is so good he will force the game to consider the boxes and labels it adheres — and often quickly adheres — to prospects. Maybe other two-way players will follow. Uechi believes that’s the promise of Otani.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Look gifs are all well and good but the real way to experience Otani if you’re unfamiliar with him is this youtube highlight reel of all 200 strikeout pitches from 2015: https://youtu.be/L88TThVSJ9Y


Yes, viewing the gifs I find I miss the excited Japanese-language commentary. I especially need to find a YT clip of that ball that never came down.