Over 18,000 men have played Major League Baseball. Of those, 54 were born in Japan and came to the United States in order to compete at the highest level of baseball in the world. Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to play in the majors back in 1964, and Hideo Nomo started the wave of Japanese players in 1995. Since then, Japan has been well represented across all 30 teams. Ichiro Suzuki is the most notable Japanese-born player, making his debut in 2001. Ichiro became the 30th member of the 3,000 hit club in September and will likely find himself in the Hall of Fame when his career ends.
There is no denying there are a lot of talented baseball players currently playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, Japan’s equivalent to Major League Baseball. One of those players is Shohei Otani, a right-handed pitcher and left-handed designated hitter playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
A three-time NPB all star, Otani finished in the top three for both the MVP award and Sawamura Award, the equivalent of the Cy Young Award, during 2015. Behind Otani’s career year in 2016, the Ham Fighters won their third Japan Series Championship since their inception in 1946. He also won the NPB Home Run Derby in 2016 and threw 31 pitches from 98-101 miles per hour in a single game, which is Noah Syndergaard like.
As a talented high school player in 2012, Otani had offers to play in MLB out of high school, but opted to stay in Japan. The now-22-year-old has raised a lot of questions after rumors of him being posted have circulated, meaning major-league teams could bid for the right to negotiate a contract with him.
Otani has taken not only the NPB by storm, but also the entire baseball world. He has drawn comparisons to Babe Ruth; yes Babe Ruth, with his amazing dual-threat ability. During his four-year career, Otani has put together a slash line of .275/.347/.491, alongside 40 home runs and 135 RBI through 338 games played. But unlike Ruth, Otani is more known for his pitching ability.
The right-hander has tallied a record of 39-13, with a 2.49 ERA, 1.066 WHIP and 595 strikeouts across 517.2 career innings. Oh yeah, and he set the record for the fastest pitch in the history of the NPB, hitting a staggering 165 kilometers per hour, or 102.5 miles per hour, during the 2016 season.
Otani has tremendous power at the plate, routinely hitting moonshot home runs that clear the bleachers in right field. But if he would come to MLB, he would most likely be converted to a pitcher only, but might get some spot pinch hit at bats or even a DH start.
Otani has three plus pitches, with a fourth that he breaks out every now and again. His fastball sits routinely in the upper 90s, touching triple digits often. He also dons a forkball in the upper 80s and a hard, sharp slider in the low 80s. He also throws a curveball on occasion, which throws hitters off but that he isn’t that confident in.
Otani has been put into the discussion for the best pitcher on the planet, and rightfully so. But can he be successful in Major League Baseball? There is no questioning his talent or his ability on the baseball field, it’s just finding where he could play. Otani has the stuff to be a successful pitcher in the major leagues — it’s just finding the right fit for him.
Otani has said that he wants to play professional baseball in America at some point during his life, and after the upcoming World Baseball Classic, that time might come soon. With the whole world watching, Otani can make a name for himself, and make some money in the process. After the World Baseball Classic in March, Otani will likely have a major-league offer in front of him, and will finally get to see just how good this kid can be.