Heed Fort Minor’s advice and remember the name Shohei Otani. Just 20 years old and already the ace of the Japanese National Team, Otani could quickly become the best right-handed pitcher in the world – if he is not already.
Otani struggled when he broke into Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) at the tender age of 18. With just 6.7 strikeouts and a whopping 4.8 walks per nine innings, he may not have been ready for Japan’s highest level of competition at such a young age. Did the kid have what it takes to be successful?
Fast-forward two years and things have drastically changed. Gone are the questions about Otani being able to hold his own in NPB and in their place are questions about posting fees, his status among the world’s elite, and $200 million contracts. His raw NPB statistics, namely a 15-5 record, 2.24 ERA, 11.0 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 160 innings, barely scratch the surface of the 20-year-old’s talent. Instead, it is the raw stuff and elite delivery that have the current author enamored with his ability.
In an NPB pitching environment typically dominated by balance, sequencing, and the ability to outthink the hitter, the 6’3", 189 lb. righty is an outlier. Otani has matched the fastest pitch in the history of NPB, a 162 kph heater (101.25 mph) and his fastball regularly sits in the mid to upper 90s with life. A rare Japanese power pitcher, Otani looks to attack with the fastball first and foremost, most notably including up in the zone with two strikes.
His best offspeed pitch is a low-80s slider with a sharp, downward break. Consistent with the trend of many current pitchers, Otani pronates the pitch through release, helping him generate extra spin and consequently more break. His other breaking ball, a slow curveball reminiscent of the offering thrown by former Fighters’ ace Yu Darvish, is not used often but is effective in freezing a hitter expecting something with more velocity. Finally, Otani offers a mid to upper 80s splitter featuring late vertical drop and horizontal boring action sold well by his arm speed.
Mechanically, Otani is nothing short of brilliant. His motion contains the standard balance of many Japanese pitchers but also features an efficient arm path and power from an unlikely source. We will begin at maximum leg lift, where Otani is calm and balanced over his back foot. The balance at this position comes at the expense of early momentum, but Otani quickly makes up for that by quickly driving his hips towards home plate with a powerful back leg.
His front leg, meanwhile, reaches aggressively towards the target, giving him a long stride and opening early enough to create an opportunity to establish a firm base from which to throw against. Otani succeeds in creating the firm base but does not stop there. Instead, he engages his front leg in a claw-like flexion against the direction of the throw that helps propel his torso over his extended front leg in a full-body catapult action. This clawing action, objectively measured in pitching labs through ground force, has a significant velocity correlation according to a recent study made popular by Kyle Boddy’s Driveline Baseball Blog. Anecdotally, although data on Otani’s ground forces is not public, the visually apparent force generated correlates well with his high velocity to support the new research.
Otani’s outstanding lower half is supported well by the upper half, most notably the arm path. After breaking the hands, the Fighters’ star avoids a long, loopy path by keeping his elbow flexed and hand on top of the ball through internal rotation, demonstrates significant flexibility through shoulder external rotation, and displays a long deceleration path from ball release to his opposite hip. Additionally, the 20-year-old is also able to find power through a powerful and aggressive shoulder rotation, helped in part by a strong pull back from the glove hand. This is an elite delivery using all parts of the body to generate power and featuring enough balance to repeat 100 times per game.
The remaining question, and the possible $200 million question for MLB teams, is will he be posted, and if so, when?
Kazuto Yamazaki, who writes frequently about NPB, reasons that the Fighters have little motivation to post him before the 2019 offseason. In a recent piece, Yamazaki notes that with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) set to expire on December 1 of the current year, the new CBA could change the posting rules and consequently affect Otani’s projected timetable.
If and when Otani is posted, expect a bidding war unlike any other for the Japanese ace, who seems poised to reach the $200 million threshold. Until then, expect Otani to continue to dominate for the Fighters, lead the Japanese National Team in international competitions, and if he is not already, make a strong case to earning the title of the best right-handed pitcher in the world.
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Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on twitter at @DanWeigel38.