How good would a baseball team be if they had Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout?
Probably pretty good. Despite being riddled with injuries this season, Kershaw is still undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball, averaging 10.8 strikeouts per inning and an otherworldly 1.73 ERA in 135 innings pitched. Trout is no slouch either, wrapping up yet another MVP-caliber season and hitting .304/.435/.556 with 27 home runs and 26 stolen bases. Those two might not be enough on their own to carry a team to the playoffs, but it would certainly be pretty close.
Time for another question: What if Kershaw and Trout was the same player? Meaning for four days, you get a player who mashes like Trout can, and on the fifth day that player is the anchor of the rotation.
That would be pretty cool, right? It would be like a modern-day Babe Ruth, to some degree. Ruth hit 29 home runs and won nine games with a 2.97 ERA in 1919, the only year he truly played both positions.
One last question, I promise. What if I told you that player exists today?
He’s not in the majors yet, but Shohei Otani is wrapping up one of the most prolific baseball seasons of all-time in his home country of Japan.
Hardcore baseball fans had likely heard of Otani a few years back, after he burst onto the Nippon Professional Baseball scene in 2013 as an 18-year-old pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Otani is widely regarded as the best pitcher Japan has ever produced and has lived up to the hype, going 37-13 in his four seasons in NPB.
Otani’s success on the mound is largely due to his electric fastball that has been clocked at 102 miles per hour. The triple-digit fastball is the fastest in the history of the NPB, and the 102 mph pitch helped him break his own record of 101.2 mph that he has touched multiple times this season. This season, Otani is 8-4 with a 2.12 ERA and 151 strikeouts in just 123 innings pitched, missing a few starts due to a blister on his throwing hand.
Normally if a pitcher were unable to throw, he couldn’t really help his team on the field. For Otani, this just meant some time to focus on hitting.
Serving as the team’s designated hitter, Otani has hit .318/.415/.593 in 302 at bats with 91 strikeouts and 52 walks. Though he does not have enough at bats to qualify for the batting title, he ranks in the top 10 in the Pacific League (like MLB’s American or National League) in home runs with 22. To put it in perspective, Madison Bumgarner, widely regarded as one of the MLB’s best hitting pitchers, is hitting .152/.244/.304 this season, with three home runs.
What Otani has done this season is simply unprecedented. There has never been a player who has combined an electric arm and pitching ability with consistent power and contact at the plate at this level. Otani makes the NPB, a very good league by any measure, seem like the Little League program in Small Town USA. If video games let pitchers hit everyday or hitters pitch every fifth day, it wouldn’t even be possible to put up numbers like these. This is simply unheard of.
Otani is under the Fighters’ control until 2019, so there’s a good chance it’s a few years before we see his talents stateside, although he is rumored to possibly have an “opt-out” clause of sorts, allowing him to be posted when he wants to, possibly before 2019. When he is posted, Otani will be the most coveted Japanese player ever up for grabs. Major league teams will throw their wallets at the Fighters just to earn rights to talk to him, and will likely sign him to a hefty contract.
Unfortunately, this contract will probably only be for one facet of his game. As great of a hitter as he is, if he does come to the MLB, it will likely be for his skills on the mound. Japan has produced its fair share of MLB talent, ranging from studs like Yu Darvish to duds like Daisuke Matsuzaka. Despite this, Japan has never produced a pitching talent quite like Otani.
In a country consistently low on power arms and usually focused more on command than speed, Otani is the rare blend of both with 41 walks in his 123 innings this year. On top of his fastball, Otani boasts a plus splitter and curveball with a loopy change-of-pace slider. Otani’s three high-quality pitches (fastball, splitter and curveball) combined with near-flawless mechanics and elite athleticism immediately give him the clout of possibly being the best player to ever come over to the United States either before his prime or during it.
Until Otani does make his way to the MLB, he will continue to be closely followed by fans and scouts thousands of miles away. With a golden arm and superb batting skills, Otani should continue to post gaudy numbers on both sides of the ball for the considerable future.
When he decides to come stateside, it will be interesting to see where he ends up. Make no mistake, Otani’s two-way talent is real, and whether he chooses to come stateside or not and chooses to either pitch, hit or maybe both, it will be a sight to see. But for now, baseball fans need to keep an eye on Otani, and enjoy his world-class skills with both the bat and with his arm.