Otani cutting his teeth in Japan but MLB beckons

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2014 12:11 AM

By Junko Fujita

SAPPORO Japan (Reuters) - Shohei Otani has made waves in Japan by throwing strikes and smashing home runs for the Nippon Ham Fighters, but the 'Double Sworded Samurai' may have to give up one of his weapons if he is to realize his dream of making it big in Major League Baseball.

In his second season with the Fighters, the lanky right hander won a team-best 11 games with two shutouts, throwing 160 kph (100mph) fastballs and recording a 2.61 earned run average.

The 20-year-old's prowess with the bat has also been a boon for the Fighters.

Japanese professional baseball's only "nitoryu," which refers to someone who wields two swords, recorded a .274 batting average with 10 home runs.

However, if he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers) and Masahiro Tanaka (New York Yankees) by making it big in the United States, he may have to stick to the mound instead of home plate.

“Otani is the most wanted Japanese player by Major League Baseball teams,” Yoshi Hasegawa, director for Japan baseball at the Chicago-based global sports agency Octagon, told Reuters in Tokyo.

“(But) He is not playing to 100 percent of his ability as a pitcher because he also bats.

"His pitching potential is enormous."

Otani showed glimpses of that huge potential on Tuesday.

Starting for Samurai Japan against a team of Major League Baseball All Stars, the 20-year-old had an impressive seven strikeouts in front of his home fans at the Sapporo Dome.

It was a far from perfect outing from Otani, however, as he also gave up two runs on six hits with a pair of walks as the All Stars beat Japan 3-1 in the five-game series finale.

Japan won the series 3-2.

PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF

Like Darvish and Tanaka before him, Otani signaled his potential in the country's national high school baseball tournaments, where he was throwing 160kph fastballs for Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate prefecture, northern Japan.

Japanese clubs were drooling at the prospect of grabbing Otani at the 2012 draft but he dashed their hopes by announcing his intention to go straight to Major League Baseball.

While virtually all of Nippon Professional Baseball's clubs ceded to Otani's wish not to be drafted, only the Fighters refused to let him slip through their fingers, knowing full well he could simply refuse to sign and go to MLB anyway.

At first, Otani refused even to meet Fighters officials when they visited him in Iwate.

But they did not give up.

Eventually their persistence paid off, and they were able to present a 40-page document entitled, “The path to realizing Shohei Otani’s dream” to the pitcher and his father, a former amateur player who taught Otani the game.

The document outlined the benefits of gaining experience at home before having a crack at the big leagues, but it was the Fighters' willingness to let Otani bat as well as pitch that seemed to tip the balance in their favor.

"I never imagined I would be able to pitch and hit. The Fighters were the only team who gave me that option and it meant a lot to me,” Otani told Reuters in Kamagaya, on the outskirts of Tokyo, where the Fighters' minor league team are based.

“The Fighters took a chance on both of my abilities."

'ANOTHER SHOHEI'

In a sign of how much the Fighters believed in him, they gave him the number 11 uniform to wear, the same number Darvish wore for the team until 2011.

“The Fighters are not afraid of taking risks when they hire talent," Masato Yoshii, a former pitcher for the New York Mets who also was a pitching coach for the Fighters, told Reuters.

"And they are good at developing potential."

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama says the team are focused on unearthing gems rather than shelling out huge sums on contracts for top-level talent.

"Our team is not rich so we can't spend a lot of money on players,” Kuriyama told Reuters. “Instead we focus on spotting potential and developing it.”

Better known as a commentator than a former player until he took over the team in 2011, Kuriyama says the biggest risk for Otani is injury.

Throwing right and batting left, usually as a designated hitter, Otani wears special protection on his arms when he is hitting. He has not been struck by a pitch in an official game yet.

While Otani has burnished his reputation in the NPB, it is only a matter of time before he again sets his sights on playing in the United States.

“I wish he would stay with the team. And I wish Darvish was here, too. But that would be wrong of me,” Kuriyama said.

“We should be happy seeing players grow and getting to the next level. That's how this team will grow.

"If Shohei leaves, we will produce another Shohei."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)