Shohei Otani, A Monster in the Making
Shohei Otani’s 2015 season ended in a disappointing fashion. In game one of the first round of the NPB playoffs (called Climax Series), the twenty-one-year old lasted only 2.2 innings while surrendering five runs on six hits and three walks to the Chiba Lotte Marines. He and Nippon Ham were eliminated days later.
Even with the early exit from the playoffs, Otani showed a significant step forward in his development and claimed himself as one of, if not the best, pitchers at his age.
In 2015, the flame-throwing righty posted a 2.24 ERA, punched out 196, walked 46 while allowing just seven home runs in 169.2 innings. He was the leader among all qualified pitchers in the NPB in FIP (1.92) and K% (31.6) by substantial margins, despite being the youngest of them. Note that he produced these numbers in the tougher of two NPB leagues. The Pacific League scored 3.98 runs in a game on average as opposed to the Central League’s 3.42 runs.
Let’s talk about his stuff. This past season, Otani mostly employed a three-pitch mix of a mid-90s fastball , an upper-80s splitter, and a low-to-mid-80s slider, while occasionally flashing a slow curve in the mid-upper 60s. Each of his three main weapons missed bats at an above-average clip, with latter of which featuring an astounding 29.9 whiff rate. At the age of twenty-one, Otani dominates the hitters in the league at the highest offensive level in Japan.
While Otani shows an advanced feel for pitching for his age, there are cons about him. The right-hander gets behind in the count in the early innings on occasion. When he struggles to find the zone with the breaking stuff, the opponents sit on his fastball and hammer it, like the Marines did in the playoffs.
There are other concerns, too. During the season, Otani had some early exit due to a rolled ankle and a leg cramp that sidelined him for three weeks. Although he went injury-free in the second half of the season, some still question about his health. At least the good thing is that it’s not arm-related. But to consider his age, there’s plenty of time for him to overcome these problems.
So, here’s the biggest question. When does this high-octane hurler head to the big leagues? Under the current CBA, it’s hard to see the Nippon Ham Fighters post him earlier than the 2019 off-season. Though there might be a major change in the posting system after the 2016 season. If the new rules favor NPB clubs, we may expect a sooner timetable for him.
On Sunday evening, in the opening game of the recently kicked off Premier 12 against Korea, Otani mowed down the opposing batters, retiring seventeen of twenty-one he faced, allowing a pair of hits and walks while striking out ten. He juiced up 100 miles-per-hour with his fastball as well as flashing a 92 miles-per-hour splitter, as captured in the video above. And should Japan advance to the final round of the tournament, he’s slated to start one of the games. The games should be available on WBSC’s official YouTube channel, so setting your alarm for early hours in the morning will very well be worth to watch the future.