By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- "He's better now than Jose Fernandez was before he got injured."
A pretty bold statement by any standard, but when talking about a player who turned 20 just three weeks ago and is only in his second season as a pro, it is certain to raise some eyebrows.
These words come from the GM of a Nippon Professional Baseball team who has watched Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters phenom Shohei Otani develop over the past two seasons and is also very familiar with the abilities of Miami Marlins sensation Fernandez, who went down with a torn ligament earlier this year.
What makes the comments even more provocative is that Otani is 23 months younger than the Cuban star. After making a splash in the fall of 2012 by asking NPB clubs not to draft him because he wanted to go straight to play for a major league team, Otani was strong-armed by family and the baseball establishment in Japan and relented.
But with each game it seems as if his departure for North America could come sooner rather than later. The 6-4, 190-pound right-hander is 9-1 this season with an ERA of 2.14 and a WHIP of 1.06. Earlier this month he struck out 16 batters in a complete-game victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (Masahiro Tanaka's old team).
As if that wasn't enough, Otani then topped it by twice throwing pitches at 100 miles per hour in the second NPB All-Star Game on July 19, where he was the winning pitcher for the Pacific League. It was the fastest a Japanese pitcher has ever been clocked.
The trip to the All-Star Game was his second in his short two-season career. He made it last year as an outfielder, and by pitching this year, matched a feat achieved only once previously in the history of the game here (by Junzo Sekine of the Kintetsu Buffaloes back in the 1950s).
When Otani signed with the Fighters, the Sapporo-based club promised to let him bat and play the field as well as pitch and has stayed true to its word. The Iwate native has played the outfield in more than 50 games for the Fighters this season and is batting .286.
He hit two home runs in a game against the Chiba Lotte Marines on July 5 and has five roundtrippers on the season. Though he is clearly gifted both on the mound and at the plate, the consensus of pro scouts is that his MLB future lies as a pitcher.
"His best pitch is his fastball -- anywhere between 94-100 miles per hour -- and he has the ability to hit the lane he is aiming for," said an American MLB scout who requested anonymity. "He's not afraid to use both the inside and outside part of the plate."
The scout makes it clear that Otani has all the tools needed to succeed at the highest level of the game. "All the scouts are impressed with the easiness of his delivery and efficiency of his arm speed. He is sound mechanically in his delivery and has been blessed with great arm speed."
This scout, who has been around the game for decades, sees Otani taking the ball every fifth day in the majors. "I have seen him do both, but I believe that he would be more valuable on the mound because No. 1 and No. 2 starters are just not that easy to find when you are talking about championship-caliber ones."
Now that Otani has established that he has the goods, the talk on both sides of the Pacific is about a timetable for his departure. "I have no idea on a timetable," the scout says. "That will be entirely up to the Fighters as to when they decide to post him, but I think most MLB teams are trying to build some type of history by getting some looks at him on a semi-regular basis just to be prepared and educated on his progress."
The GM of the NPB team is certain that the Fighters have an arrangement set for Otani when he wants to go to the majors. "The general perception in the NPB community is that it is either spelled out in his contract or there is a gentleman's agreement in place. Either way, the Fighters won't stand in his way."
The GM cites Otani's four-seam fastball as his best pitch, with his curve and slider not far behind. He says Otani also uses a splitter and changeup when the situation calls for them. "Nobody in the world pitches like him," states the GM. "He has an amazing combination of command and speed and has matured very quickly. He is really smart."
With his skills not in question, his youthfulness could make him even more attractive to the majors at this point.
Because he has a lot less wear and tear on his arm than other Japanese pitchers -- like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tsuyoshi Wada and Tanaka -- had when they went to the majors. "He will get a lot of money because he has never been overused here," the GM says. "He was not overused in high school and hasn't been with the Fighters as well."
With Tanaka sidelined with a partially torn ligament in his pitching arm and possibly facing Tommy John surgery after just 18 games with the Yankees, after they invested $175 million to acquire him, there is no doubt that the appeal of fresh and polished product like Otani would reduce the anxiety for MLB teams.
Tanaka pitched 1,315 innings in his seven seasons with the Eagles, after being used heavily during his high school days at Tomakomai High School in Hokkaido.
The GM says that signing Otani over a veteran pitcher is a case of "possibility and probability -- money versus injury." "He will be valued higher than Fernandez," believes the GM. "I would say close to the Clayton Kershaw level. I think something like $200 million for 10 years is realistic."
Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese man to play in the majors (with the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65) and an analyst for NHK, would like to see Otani get some more seasoning before following the path he took nearly 50 years ago. "He certainly has the natural talent," said Murakami. "He has great speed, but I would like to see him refine his control more. He's pitching very well now. His fastball and curve are his best pitches."
A Japanese MLB scout, who did not wish to be identified, credits Otani with nearly singlehandedly keeping the Fighters in the playoff race this season. The scout cites Otani's improved command and stamina as keys to the numbers he is achieving as a pitcher. "Otani's been awesome. He's a monster. The real deal," he said. "The Fighters finished with a 42-40 record and were in third place at the All-Star break. I don't think they could have done it without Otani."
The Japanese scout points out that the criticism that Otani initially faced over his original plan for double duty has dissipated with his success. "Last year a lot of former players here were saying that they didn't like Otani doing the double duties and he should focus on his pitching," the scout noted. "But since he's done so well in both this year, it seems like the volume of that criticism has decreased."
Fumihiro Fujisawa, the president of Association of American Baseball Research and a longtime analyst on both NHK and cable television in Japan, would like to see Otani focus on his mound skills going forward. "Former Yomiuri Giants star pitcher Masumi Kuwata said last year that Otani should be either a pitcher or a batter, not both," Fujisawa stated. "Kuwata also said that it would be better for Otani to be a pitcher. I agree with him."
Added Fujisawa: "I think Otani will be a good outfielder, but he will be one of the best pitchers."
Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who wrote You Gotta Have Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro, believes it may still be a while before Otani boards the plane for North America. "I think Otani won't be going to the MLB for at least another six years," Whiting said. "I would guess he won't be posted until a year before he qualifies for international free agency. Nippon Ham went to a lot of trouble to persuade him to stay in Japan, so I would imagine they will hang on to him as long as they possibly can.
"If they post him, under the new system they will only get $20 million. That's a far cry from the $51 million they got for Darvish. It is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but the incentive to sell is lessened."
However, Whiting also thinks the Fighters will be faced with a moral dilemma the longer Otani stays in Sapporo. "If Otani is a big success, helps the Fighters win a lot of pennants and draws the fans in, thereby increasing the economic viability of the franchise, there is even less incentive to post him," he points out. "On the other hand, if the fans want him to see him in MLB, that could be another factor.
"Eagles owner Hiroshi Mikitani let Tanaka go because he was afraid that keeping him might upset many Japanese fans and serve to drive the price of Rakuten stock down, or so I understand."
Some may question Otani's pitching numbers against NPB players, but one who certainly won't is former MLB star Andruw Jones, who has been given fits by the fresh-faced kid.
Going into last Saturday's game against the Eagles, who Jones helped win the Japan Series last season, the man who slugged 434 home runs during his career in the bigs was 0 for 7 with five strikeouts against Otani. His first time up in that game, Jones was able to foul off a couple of pitches from Otani before striking out again.
A former MLB manager, who has seen Otani pitch in person, summed up the feeling of many in Japan with his analysis: "He reminds me a lot of Yu Darvish."
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Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 19 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations in the NBA and NFL Europe.