About an hour east of Tokyo, well removed from the human congestion and hurry of Japan’s most renowned metropolis, there is a bedroom community called Kamagaya. Its streets are narrow and winding, dotted with little playgrounds and pear orchards that break up the rows of modest two-storey homes crammed together like matchsticks. It’s not known for much. But it is home to Kamagaya Stadium, where the minor-league side of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters play ball.
The Fighters play in Nippon Professional Baseball—Japan’s top league and the second-highest level of baseball in the world after MLB. They’re a big deal in the warmer months, but today it’s January, the off-season, and it’s awfully cold. Kamagaya Stadium’s infield has been stripped down to the dark brown layer of clay that lives beneath it. The outfield grass is a dull yellow. No baseball will be played here today, or anytime soon for that matter, but that hasn’t stopped a mob of hundreds from assembling at the ballpark early on a Thursday morning, armed with cameras and small gifts.
It’s a mixed crowd—men and women; young and old; some in suits, some in sweats—standing for hours in the cold as sunlight streams over the tree line. But they are united by the commotion they cause a little before noon when a shaggy-haired man wearing a blue tracksuit and carrying a large backpack emerges from the Fighters’ complex.
He’s huge—built like a quarterback at six-foot-five, 220 pounds. He would be hard to miss even if hundreds weren’t awaiting him. As he nears the crowd, fans rush to the barriers erected to keep them at bay, where police officers straighten their posture and scan the assembled. While the man walks briskly past, his eyes trained firmly ahead, the fans gasp and squeal and extend smartphones to take pictures. They do anything they can to get as close as possible, like he’s a Beatle returning to Liverpool.
The man keeps walking. And in his wake, all you can hear is his name: “Otani! Otani! Otani!”
Shohei Otani is the greatest thing to happen to baseball in a century. Not only is he Japan’s best pitcher—featuring a high-90s fastball and three strong secondary offerings—he’s also one of the country’s best hitters. Blessed with a towering frame and unteachable athleticism, Otani dominates on the mound and absolutely rakes at the plate. He’s a staff ace who hits in the heart of the order on the days between his starts. He’s an athlete who, in 2016, was named the NPB Pacific League’s best pitcher and its best designated hitter—earning a 1.86 ERA in 20 starts and striking out 11.2 batters every nine innings, while putting up a 1.004 OPS, launching 22 home runs and reaching base at a .416 clip across nearly 400 plate appearances. He’s a player many scouts believe is ready to step into MLB today as a front-of-the-rotation starter or an everyday outfielder with a middle-of-the-order bat—or maybe both. He’s something baseball has not seen for lifetimes. He’s a modern day Babe Ruth.
The last MLB player to be truly dominant at both the pitching and hitting of baseballs was George Herman himself, who played both ways in earnest for two years early in the 20th century. In 1918, he put up a 2.22 ERA and a .966 OPS; in 1919, it was 2.97 and 1.114. Ruth gave up regular pitching after that, opting instead to write record books with his bat, but those two seasons still stand as the hallmark for MLB two-way excellence. Since, few have even tried.
“Wonderful” Willie Smith gave it a shot with the Tigers and Angels in the ’60s, throwing 53.1 innings of relief over two seasons when he wasn’t playing the outfield, before giving up pitching for good. The Brewers let journeyman Brooks Kieschnick pinch-hit in 2003 in addition to his primary role in the bullpen. He made 144 plate appearances and threw 96 innings of relief over the next two seasons, his final campaigns as a big leaguer.
And that’s it. Outside of a couple brief, failed experiments, no one on this side of the Pacific has even tried what Otani is doing in a century—and certainly no one has done it as successfully. Ruth isn’t just a tall comparison for Otani—he’s the only comparison. And if you’re wondering what it would be like to have a player that talented in MLB again, you won’t have to wait long to find out. “I’ve always had a desire to play in the majors,” Otani says, speaking through an interpreter. “I don’t know exactly when that’s going to be. But when I feel ready to go, I’ll go.”
You can expect to see Otani in an MLB uniform sometime in the next three years, and possibly as soon as next off-season, which would be unprecedented in and of itself. A player worth more than 10 wins above replacement in his age-22 season hitting the open market—that doesn’t happen. But then again, Otani makes a habit of doing things no one else does. “Hitting and pitching, it’s the only baseball I know. Doing only one and not the other doesn’t feel natural to me,” he says. “I suppose it’s an accomplishment—I’m doing what others are not. But, to me, this is just normal.”
There was nothing remarkable about Otani’s upbringing in Oshu—a city of 120,000 in northern Japan. His father, Toru, played baseball his entire life and pushed both his children (Otani has an older brother, Ryuta) into the game, playing catch with them for hours when he got home from his job at a Mitsubishi plant. Otani took to the sport quickly, and started playing in a weekend little league when he was eight. “I watched baseball players and they looked so cool,” he says. “I was always anxiously waiting for the weekend so I could play.” The only team he could watch on television in Oshu was Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, who featured Hideki Matsui, a power-hitting left fielder Otani modeled his game after. He was captivated by pitching, too, but never thought baseball was anything more than a hobby. “I didn’t think I was good,” Otani says. “Before high school I didn’t participate in many tournaments, so I assumed there must be many players better than me.”
Turns out there weren’t, and by his freshman year at Hanamaki Higashi High School, the numbers on the radar gun were hard to miss. Otani was throwing in the mid-90s at 16 and hit 99 mph a year later, leveraging a long build that soared to his full six-foot-five when he was 17. He grew so quickly that he struggled with groin and hamstring injuries throughout high school, which caused him to miss several starts and left his pitching mechanics a mess. His delivery was effortful and stiff, which gave Otani all kinds of trouble staying in the strike zone. “He was really in the process of growing into his body,” says Dave DeFreitas, a former Cleveland Indians Pacific Rim scout who watched Otani in high school. “The coordination and body control that every pitcher needs took some time to show up.”
Still, when you’re throwing 99 mph as a teenager, teams are going to start poking around. North American scouts kept a close eye on Otani because he confidently told them he wanted to skip the Japanese draft and go straight to the United States. As his profile rose to that of the top high school prospect in the country, Otani made his intentions public, asking NPB teams not to draft him because he planned to chase his MLB dream.
When Otani graduated, the entire country of Japan assumed he was gone. He had taken meetings with the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, with L.A. emerging as the frontrunner. But then, a curveball from Masao Yamada and the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Renowned as the most innovative organization in the NPB, the Fighters are notorious for bucking conventional thinking. “They don’t have as much money to work with as many of the other teams,” says Kazushi Nagatsuka, the assistant chief of the Japan Times sports department. “They use a lot of sabermetrics when making decisions. They play ‘Moneyball,’ so to speak. Other teams don’t operate like them.”
Yamada, the club’s general manager when Otani was draft eligible, is a progressive thinker with a scouting background and he has a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to the draft: you take the most talented player, regardless of signability. So maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise when he selected Otani first overall. Just as no one was surprised when Otani stuck to his guns after the draft and publicly reaffirmed he was heading to the U.S. “It was quite a bold move at the time—people were shocked when the Fighters took him,” says Jason Coskrey, who covers the NPB for the Japan Times. “No other team would touch Otani. It was a huge risk to use a first-round pick on him.”
Yamada prepared a full-court press in hopes of convincing Otani to stay in Japan, which some say included a video dramatizing the grim life of a minor-league ballplayer in America—long bus rides, dingy hotels, poor pay, empty ballparks, subpar food. Others say Yamada and the Fighters prepared an extensive dossier detailing the difficulties facing young Japanese athletes abroad—from the culture shock to the lack of Japanese females to date—while detailing a plan for developing his talents titled: “The path to realizing Shohei Otani’s dream.”
But most believe the key was Yamada—renowned for his ability to relate to people and navigate difficult scenarios—sitting down for a heart-to-heart with the 18-year-old. There was a decent argument to be made. If Otani stayed in Japan and played for the Fighters, he could skip the grind of the U.S. minor leagues and spend his developmental years in the NPB, while cashing in on the litany of endorsements that were sure to come his way and living a privileged life as a national hero. If he fulfilled his potential, he could drive up the price he’d command from MLB teams, much like Masahiro Tanaka, who dominated the NPB for a few seasons before signing a seven-year, $155-million deal with the New York Yankees at 24.
Plus, and this is perhaps the most important factor, the Fighters made a commitment to allow Otani to both pitch and hit, something that was—and still is—extremely important to him. Whatever Yamada’s strategy was, it worked. Otani shocked the country and signed with the Fighters. Although his entry-level salary of 15 million yen (roughly $131,000 USD) wasn’t exceptional, he reportedly also received a 100-million yen signing bonus and 50 million yen in incentives, adding about $1.3 million to his agreement. He was also given former Fighters star Yu Darvish’s No. 11, a considerable sign of respect.
Otani cracked the Fighters’ opening day roster as an 18-year-old, starting in right field—he went 2-for-4 and drove in a run. The Fighters managed Otani’s arm carefully that first season but he quickly earned his team’s trust as a hitter, often batting fifth and sometimes leadoff, a coveted position in the Japanese game. Meanwhile, scouts like DeFreitas who had been following him since high school checked back in and noticed Otani was developing at an exceptional rate. “It was like night and day,” DeFreitas says. “He’d smoothed out his mechanics; he was repeating his delivery; he’d developed his breaking ball; his lower half was a lot stronger; he carried himself much better on the mound. It was like he had matured two years in 10 months.”
And it continued from there. Every year, Otani returned to the Fighters with new wrinkles to his game after an off-season of diligent work. In 2014, he vastly improved his breaking pitches and put up a 2.61 ERA in 24 starts, while hitting 10 home runs with an .842 OPS in 234 plate appearances. In 2015, he took a step back as a hitter but had his strongest season yet on the mound, with a league-best 2.24 ERA in 22 starts. In 2016, after adding 20 pounds of muscle during a winter spent working out with Darvish, Otani had his season for the ages. He led the NPB in both ERA and FIP, boasting a league-low contact percentage. He was so productive at the plate that on the days he pitched the Fighters would opt to play without a designated hitter so Otani could still bat at the top of their lineup. In the second half of the season, he started receiving the Barry Bonds treatment with opposition pitchers refusing to throw him anything to hit (Only 35 per cent of the pitches Otani saw in 2016 were in the strike zone, the fourth-lowest rate in the NPB). He carried the Fighters to a Pacific League championship and Japan Series title. He even won the home run derby.
“I would say he’s easily the best player I’ve ever seen,” says Nagatsuka, who has been covering the NPB for 13 years and watching it longer. “Every time you watch Otani, he makes you think he might do something you have never seen. You can’t compare him to Darvish, Ichiro, Nomo—whoever. It’s not fair to compare him to these guys. Because Otani does stuff nobody else does.”
Otani might be one of the most exceptional baseball players of his time, but he’s similar to his peers in one important pursuit: a long, uninterrupted sleep. He loves nothing more. Getting up early is for the birds, and Otani is decidedly not among them, especially on that cold, sunny day in Kamagaya this January, when he slept until a team official reluctantly knocked on his door a little after 10 a.m. Otani fell out of bed, threw on a navy blue tracksuit, strapped up a pair of black-and-neon-yellow Asics with “Shohei” stitched into their velcro braces, and hopped on an elevator heading down from the modest Fighters dormitory where he lives.
Okay—quick pause. Yes, Otani, a multi-millionaire and one of the most recognizable celebrities in Japan, lives in a dorm not unlike the one you inhabited during university. It’s not uncommon for NPB players under the age of 25 to live in team residences and even generational talents like Otani are not exempt from such treatment. In-season, Otani stays at the Fighters major-league facilities in Hokkaido and out-of-season he sleeps at the complex in Kamagaya. If he wants to leave the dorm, he must first secure permission, either directly from his manager, Hideki Kuriyama, or from another team official if Kuriyama isn’t around. This doesn’t happen often, as Otani dislikes the attention he receives in public and has everything he wants at the Fighters complex—food, a gym, rehab facilities, entertainment. He says instead of going out, he fills his free time reading about training and nutrition or watching films about sports, such as his favourites: Rudy and Remember the Titans. He’s never been witnessed enjoying Japanese nightlife despite the entire media beat dedicated to covering his every move. (Reporters tailed him to the airport when he recently renewed his passport.) He doesn’t even have a driver’s license. “If he was up to anything, people would find out,” Coskrey says. “There’s been no scandals, no controversy. He’s just as normal a kid as you can possibly be—humble, mild-mannered, down to earth, even-keeled.”
Anyway, back to that cold, sunny day in Kamagaya: Otani strode through the Fighters complex and into the massive, turf-floored warehouse where the team trains during the winter. There’s a full-size infield complete with a mound and backstop, several batting cages, a three-rubber bullpen, and everything else a ballplayer could ever need. Otani nodded hello to some teammates, dealt with his daily media responsibilities, and sped off for a quick massage. From there, he grabbed his glove and walked across the street, past hundreds of fans screaming his name, to the ballpark where the Fighters minor leaguers play their games. The temperature was barely above freezing as Otani worked through a throwing routine under the steady gaze of three Fighters coaches for nearly an hour. When he was satisfied with the work, he made the walk back past all those fans and into a small equipment room where he shot the breeze with teammates and collected two black bats and a pair of white batting gloves. Time for BP.
Back in the warehouse, Otani took 20 minutes of flips from a coach before advancing to an hour of proper pitches from the mound. Otani has a quiet, smooth swing with a firm leg kick, and even in batting practice it was impossible not to marvel at his raw power as he drove pitches to all fields. After, he helped collect all the balls he’d crushed and then walked over to a full-length mirror where he worked diligently on his swing sans ball—adjusting his hips a little here, straightening his back a little there.
Remember, it’s the off-season. Otani doesn’t have to do any of this. All that work took a solid four hours and he hadn’t even hit the weight room for his daily routine. Otani’s grown fascinated with weight training and nutrition over the past couple of years, and those who see him every day rave about the development in his physique. He credits his increased lower-body strength for his 2016 power breakout at the plate and on the mound, where he beat his own NPB speed record with a 102.5 mph fastball. On Darvish’s advice, Otani now trains for explosiveness and power rather than sheer bulk and is focusing more than ever on flexibility and mobility. In the kitchen, he’s cut sugar out of his diet, introduced oatmeal and moved to brown rice from white. “I’ve learned a lot about the kinds of food I eat and the timing of when I eat,” Otani says. “It’s challenging, but it’s very important. Every year I learn more interesting things. I’ve put on weight and I feel more power in everything I do.”
When he’s finished his afternoon workout, Otani heads straight back to the dorms. Maybe he’ll hang out with teammates, maybe he’ll play video games or continue working on his steadily improving English. And then he’ll go to bed, sleep for a long while and wake up to do it all over again. “It’s pretty incredible,” says a team manager who works closely with Otani. “He works out all day, then he goes back and reads about better ways to work out.”
Otani says he doesn’t really know what drives him or what he’s chasing with so much effort—only that he hasn’t caught it yet. “Last season when we won,” he says, “I didn’t feel satisfied at all.” He also doesn’t think he’s anywhere near as good a ballplayer as he could one day be, and that, remarkably, he believes his velocity is still increasing: “I think over the next few years I’m going to grow up a lot. I think my fastball is going to get faster and my control is going to get better. I don’t know how fast it can be. But I think I can improve my mechanics. I threw 165 [km/h] last year. I think maybe I can throw 168. If I hit 168, 170 [nearly 106 mph], I’m going to be very happy. It’s going to be very enjoyable.”
Despite behavior indicating otherwise, Otani is human. And all humans have flaws, right? “You really have to nitpick,” DeFreitas says. “But there are a couple small things. His command in the zone could use some work.” Otani’s stuff is so exceptional that he can get away with most of his mistakes in the NPB. If he leaves a fastball out over the plate, he’ll generally overwhelm the hitter with it. But if he makes those same location errors in MLB, he might not get the pitches back.
As a hitter, scouts will tell you Otani has a small hole in his swing on the inside of the plate right above his belt buckle. He’s long-levered and likes to hold his hands out and away from his body before he loads his swing, which could give him some trouble pulling his bat in to get to tough inside pitches. “And there were times he would get out in front and have some trouble with balls on the outer-third, like a right-handed change-up or splitter,” DeFreitas says. “But he’s a smart enough player where I think he will probably begin recognizing and making these adjustments on his own. He’s shown an ability to make adjustments at an elite level already.”
It’s also fair to argue that Otani’s numbers will be impacted if and when he transitions from NPB to the majors. North American baseballs are slightly bigger with less pronounced seams, which generally leads to a slight adjustment period for Japanese pitchers. Also, most consider the NPB’s quality of competition to be a little better than triple-A. The MLB has deeper rosters, featuring harder-throwing pitchers and hitters who are more accustomed to high-90s velocity. The Japanese game is also played a bit differently, with less of a reliance on slugging and more focus on small-ball strategy. Otani pitches uber-aggressively in the NPB, but he may have to learn to attack the edges more often if he moves overseas.
Still, it’s impossible to deny Otani’s tools. He throws a major league-ready splitter that looks like his dominant fastball out of his hand and comes at the batter on the same plane before bottoming out as it nears the plate at 86-91 mph. There’s also an 11-5 curveball he snaps off at 75-79 mph against both left- and right-handed hitters, which produces some of the ugliest swings you’ll see. And he throws a tight slider at 85-88 mph that he uses sparingly, which makes it all the more surprising. Otani has reportedly worked on a change-up as well after learning a grip from former MLB closer Trevor Hoffman during a trip to Arizona for Fighters spring training last year. He’s yet to perfect it and rarely throws it in games, but if he successfully added a fifth pitch, Otani would be downright unfair.
And then there’s his raw power at the plate. “He could come over to the U.S. and be a home run threat, no question,” DeFreitas says. “And his approach is good. I’d say it’s advanced for his age. He takes his walks.” There’s no platoon advantage to be had, as Otani clubbed seven of his 22 home runs last year against left-handed pitching, hitting .375 against southpaws in 96 at-bats. And while he absolutely feasted against fastballs, he also handled breaking pitches better than the average NPB hitter in 2016. That’s why pitchers wouldn’t give him anything to hit in the second half—they couldn’t find a way to get him out.
Oh, one more thing. Scouts say there is a final, underrated aspect to Otani’s game: speed. Last year he was clocked running from the left-handed batter’s box to first base in 3.89 seconds, a pace that would put him among the fastest runners in MLB.
“I haven’t been scouting long enough to say a guy’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent—but he’s up there,” DeFreitas says. “It’s the type of things you see from guys like A-Rod and Jeter and Griffey—those guys who are just so good, so young. You don’t see this level of athleticism, work ethic and aptitude come along often.”
Would any MLB team be bold enough to let Otani play both ways? Turns out, it’s not out of the question. Two National League executives contacted this December said their clubs would give Otani an opportunity to both pitch and hit until it proved untenable. In 2014, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Robert Whiting of Japan’s Yukan Fuji News that he’d go a step further and let Otani play the outfield if he wanted to. “That’s how far we’d go,” Cashman said. “Hey, if that’s what he wants? It’s hard to argue if he won’t sign otherwise.” At December’s MLB winter meetings, Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski was asked about Otani and told reporters: “Do I think a player could be a two-way player? Yeah, it could happen.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a sample available when it comes to Otani testing himself against major leaguers—and he’ll miss the 2017 World Baseball Classic with an ankle injury, which doesn’t help. But it has happened a couple times. The first was in 2014, when a squad of MLBers travelled to Tokyo to play a five-game series against the Japanese national team. Otani pitched a clean inning of relief in the opener and then started the fifth game of the series against a line-up that featured all-stars Jose Altuve, Yasiel Puig, Evan Longoria, Salvador Perez and Ben Zobrist. The 20-year-old Otani opened the game by striking out the side and ended up with seven punch-outs in his four innings, including two by Puig who had just finished OPSing .863 in the majors that season. Red Sox bench boss John Farrell, who managed the MLB team in Japan, was blown away: “He’s got a tremendous career and future ahead of him.”
Otani got another chance this past November, when Japan played a round of WBC tune-up games against Mexico and the Netherlands, who each carried several major leaguers. Otani didn’t pitch in the series, but he hit in all four games, going 5-for-11 with three walks, three doubles and a home run. He should have had a second home run but was awarded a ground-rule double when he hit a ball so far it punctured a hole in the Tokyo Dome roof and disappeared from view. Netherlands gave up on pitching to Otani in his final at-bat of the series and intentionally walked him. “As a hitter, he can definitely play in the MLB,” Mexico and San Francisco Giants reliever Sergio Romo told the Japan Times after the series. “He’s a complete hitter, really.”
So, when does he make the jump? With nearly every Japanese accolade he could want already safely in his possession, Otani has little left to prove in NPB. After the Fighters won it all in 2016, many believed he would promptly ask the club to post him so he could carry on his career in North America and chase an MLB contract potentially worth more than $200 million. Otani considered it, but something wasn’t right. “I didn’t feel ready to go to the MLB—not yet,” he says. “Last year we won, but I didn’t feel like a winner. I didn’t feel ready. It’s hard to explain. There are no achievements I want to have before I go. It’s a feeling. When the time comes, I’ll know I’m ready.”
Most speculate Otani will leave Japan after the 2017 season. But there are complicating factors. MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement, which came into effect this winter, states that clubs can offer an international player under the age of 25 a maximum bonus of $8.3 to $10 million, depending on the team’s revenue. The new rules also stipulate the player must be treated as an amateur, sign a minor-league deal and accrue six years of major-league service time before he can enter free agency.
It’s an unfortunately timed rule change for Otani, who turns 23 in July. Under the previous agreement, players 23 and older were treated as professionals and exempt from international spending restrictions. Now, if he wants to sign a mega deal with an MLB team as a free agent, he’ll have to wait until 2019.
But here’s the thing about Otani: money doesn’t motivate him. He’s earned millions playing ball in Japan, and by the looks of it he hasn’t spent a dime. He doesn’t own a car and he’s no connoisseur of high fashion. “Personally, I don’t care about money,” Otani says. “But this is not only my problem.”
Otani’s deeply aware his decision could affect future Japanese players who want to make a jump to MLB. “I don’t want to make a decision for me; I want to make a decision for them,” he says. “I want to be a role model.” He doesn’t want to come across as detached from Japanese baseball or as a player already looking beyond his time with the Fighters. He also doesn’t want to take a stand against the new rules or leverage his talent to lobby for a fairer deal, afraid it could hurt those who want to follow in his trail. Truly, he doesn’t want to let anybody down. The money is hardly a concern. “It’s going to be a tough decision for me—I’m going to be the first guy under the new system and new rules to go over there,” Otani says. “This is going to be for everybody who plays baseball in Japan. I can’t make a decision personally.”
For a guy who got to do an awful lot of cool things in 2016, one of Shohei Otani’s favourite moments of the year may surprise you. After the Fighters won it all, the team boarded a plane and flew 6,000 kilometres to Honolulu for a celebratory vacation. For once, there was no pressure and no spotlight. No reporters on his tail. No cameras capturing his every move. For the first time in a long time, Otani could walk down a sidewalk as an ordinary person.
“I didn’t feel my height,” Otani says. “It was so much more relaxed. I could walk around. I could do things. I can’t do that in Japan. Everywhere I go, everybody’s looking at me. I don’t enjoy it. That’s why I don’t go out—I don’t like it. In Hawaii, it was different.”
A lot will be different for Otani in the coming years. There’s no dialing back his fame in Japan, and if he does make the leap to the MLB he’ll encounter an even more intense spotlight. That’s why Otani savours those Honolulu moments. He knows they will be even more rare going forward. Similarly, perhaps baseball fans should be savouring these early moments of Otani’s career, when he shows such tremendous promise with each overpowering fastball and every pitch he drives into the seats. A ballplayer unlike any other, doing things no one’s seen since George Herman himself.
Nothing’s gone awry in the Shohei Otani story yet. No drastic injuries; no dips in performance; no public embarrassments. There’s still so much that could go wrong. But wouldn’t it be something if it all went right?
Why isn't the 'Wayne Gretzky of Women's Hockey' better known?
Angela James was women's hockey's first superstar and remains the only black player to captain Canada at the senior level. So why isn't she a household name?