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Scouting the 201X Free Agent Market: Shohei Otani

I want to preface this with the fact that I am not a scout, I just play one on the Internet. These are just observations from the young Japanese star's starts against the MLB “All-Stars,” so small sample size should apply.

Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

This week saw the end of a weeklong series between select players from Major League Baseball against some of the very best that the Japanese league had to offer.  Out of all the players representing the Japanese league, young star Shohei Otani is a name that every fan should get to know.  Two years ago, Otani made waves throughout the baseball world when he announced that he wanted to forgo playing in Japan and sign with an MLB team.  Otani, at the time, was widely viewed as being the next Yu Darvish, though he did not possess the levels of polish that Darvish exhibited at the same age; the raw talent exhibited by the then 18-year-old was unquestioned.  In spite of his statements about wanting to play in the MLB, Otani was drafted number one overall by the Nippon Ham Fighters aka Yu Darvish’s original club.  The Ham Fighters (the team’s name is actually just "Fighters" but I love saying "Ham Fighters") were able to convince the young pitcher to stay and sign with their team by appealing to Otani’s desire to pitch as well as play the outfield on the days he was not starting.  There was also a well-known gentleman’s agreement in which the Fighters promised to post Otani whenever he decides that he wants the bigger challenge that is Major League Baseball.

In his rookie season, at only 18 years old he managed a solid 4.23 ERA with a 4.8 BB/9 while striking out 6.7 batters per 9 over 61.1 innings.  As a position player, he hit .238/.284/.376.  Those numbers may not sound all that impressive on their own, but considering that the NPB league is widely believed to be equivalent to the AAA level of the minors, his rookie numbers are very impressive.  Otani improved dramatically in his sophomore campaign, throwing 151.1 innings while cutting his walk totals to 3.3 per nine as well as improving his strikeout rate to over 10.4 batters per nine.  With the improvement in his peripherals Otani dropped his ERA to a sparkling 2.61. At the plate, Otani showed massive improvements with the stick, turning in a solid .274/.384/.505 season with ten home runs and 48 strikeouts in 234 plate appearances.

Any scouting report about Shohei Otani’s repertoire should always start with his fastball.  A nasty four-seamer this pitch was regularly clocked sitting in the mid to upper 90’s and fully capable of reaching 100 mph.  During his start against the MLB players, Otani’s baseball appeared to have lost little velocity after pitching so many innings for such a young player.  Otani’s fastball also appeared to possess good movement, regularly boring in on same sided hitters especially up in the zone.  The Fighters ace used his fastball to great effect striking out Yasiel Puig swinging on a high riding fastball, and Indians slugger Carlos Santana looking on an inside fastball that broke back across the plate.

During the game, Otani also displayed a curveball, slider and split-finger fastball. The young ace was not as consistent with each of these pitches as he was with his fastball but there is little doubt that it is only a matter of time until he masters them.  Otani showed a lot of trust in his curveball, willing to throw it for strikes and even double up on it to begin at bats. During his exhibition game, Otani appeared capable of varying the break and speed of his curveball.  Against Justin Morneau, he threw the pitch for strikes.  It was slow bending and almost eephus-like in movement and speed.  In a later at bat, Otani got a batter chasing the pitch for strike two.  This curveball appeared much harder and displayed far more drop than those thrown against Morneau.  The slider in this particular game appeared to be giving Otani the most amount of trouble in my eyes.  The movement was fairly inconsistent but he still managed to snap off some that showed nasty late break, planting the idea that on this day, the slider just wasn’t there for him.  Last and certainly not least, is Shohei Otani’s split-finger fastball.  Out of all the off-speed and breaking pitches the right-hander threw, his split finger impressed me the most during his outing.  While a few that were thrown almost looked like a hanging slider, most were downright filthy.  When thrown correctly, the pitch would come in hard and fast before completely falling out of the zone.  On a few occasions during his outing I caught myself thinking about how his splitter reminded me of Masahiro Tanaka’s.

Otani’s outing was not perfect. While the stuff was no doubt impressive, he still showed that he is not yet a finished product.  Otani would occasionally fall out of sync with his mechanics.  This was especially true the second inning of the exhibition game.  This caused him to miss his mark by a wide margin. During his outing, Otani hit a couple of batters and narrowly avoided missing a few more.  In addition, while his secondary pitches showed a lot of promise and potential, there was inconsistency in the shape and the movement of the pitches, especially when it came to his slider.

Otani is an incredibly special player; his talent and repertoire are undeniable.  He appears to have some issues with his consistency but considering that he only just turned 20, that is not surprising.  It is only a matter of time before he decides that he wants to come to the United States, and when he does, the Yankees need to go after him just as hard as they did when they chased Masahrio Tanaka last year.