Ohtani will be next rising star from Japan

Two-way player for Nippon Ham features 100-mph heater

February 10th, 2016

PHOENIX -- Shohei Ohtani is the next heralded player coming out of Japan. He's a 6-foot-4 right-hander for the Nippon Ham Fighters with a 100-mph fastball and four other pitches that dance like darts around the plate.

And, oh yeah, at 21, Ohtani is so productive with the bat that his Nippon Professional Baseball team utilizes him as a designated hitter in many of the the games he doesn't start on the mound. That's a first in Japan, where pitchers start only once a week. And it's rarely happened in Major League Baseball, either.

In an exclusive interview with MLB.com this week, Ohtani, who could play in the U.S. as early as 2017, was asked a simple question: Hitter or pitcher?

"I don't really have a preference," Ohtani said with a laugh through his interpreter.

No wonder. Last season, Ohtani was 15-5 with a 2.24 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 160 2/3 innings. Two years ago, he added 10 homers, 31 RBIs and a .274 batting average to his 11-4 record and 2.61 ERA.

Ohtani has been on display all week at the Peoria Sports Complex, where the Fighters have been conducting Spring Training. They have a lend-lease arrangement with the Padres, and they've been playing Korea's Lotte Giants in exhibition games every other day.

On Monday, Ohtani was the DH and batted third. A left-handed hitter, he showed great poise at the plate, lining a two-strike pitch for a single between the shortstop and third baseman into what Tony Gwynn used to call the 5.5 hole.

On Wednesday, Ohtani started, pitched two innings, allowed a base hit and struck out four, including the side in the second inning. Interestingly enough, he didn't hit.

The start was attended by about 50 Major League scouts in a crowded section directly behind the plate. Dan Evans and Ed Lynch of the Blue Jays and Randy Smith of the Padres were among the admirers, many of whom have been following Ohtani religiously during the season in Japan.

The Japanese media was also out in full force, with cameras and digital audio players recording Ohtani's every word and movement. Much like Hideki Matsui in his heyday, Ohtani accommodates the Japanese media daily. And then he graciously found time to speak to a national reporter from this website.

Ohtani has an easy and friendly disposition. No matter what his predilections are, he's aware that with his live right arm and developing tools he will probably go to the Major Leagues as a pitcher, following in the footsteps of countrymen Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.

"That has always been my dream. To play in the Major Leagues," Ohtani said. "One way or the other."

As a high school player who pitched and played the outfield, Ohtani wanted to make the rare jump into MLB at that point and asked that none of the Japanese League teams draft him. The Fighters chose to ignore that request, and by the rules, Ohtani was not able to sign out of high school in the U.S.

But the folks at Nippon Ham -- which plays its games in Hokkaido, a far northern island in the Japanese chain -- made Ohtani an offer he couldn't refuse. He could pitch and play the field. He knows he may not have that choice when he goes to the Major Leagues.

"It's something I don't have any control of," Ohtani said. "It's something the team that wants me picks. If they want me as a pitcher, I'll go as a pitcher. If they want me as a hitter, I'll go as a hitter. It's really not up to me."

At Ohtani's age and under the recently revised posting rules between NPB and MLB, the Fighters could post him from Nov. 1 to March 1 after any season, giving him the right to sign with one of the 30 Major League teams.

The Fighters would earn up to a $20 million posting fee if Ohtani signs, but he doesn't think that's going to happen anytime soon. Unfettered free agency for Japanese players doesn't commence until any of them have played nine NPB seasons. Ohtani is going into his fourth season.

"There's a lot of ways of going into the Major Leagues," he said. "I would have to ask the Fighters. That would lead to leaving something for the Fighters."

So how many years from now does Ohtani intend to ask the Fighters to post him?

"When I feel like I've done everything here," he said. "I think that would be the time when I would go to my team."

Until then, the Fighters plan to continue using Ohtani as a two-way player. Last year, he suffered from a calf injury and that limited his use as a DH. Ohtani slumped to .202, with five homers and 17 RBIs in 119 plate appearances, down from 234 in 2014. He's a .245 lifetime hitter, 29-9 in 59 pitching appearances.

This year, the plan is to rest Ohtani on the day after he pitches and let him prepare to throw only on the day prior to his next start. For the games in between, he will DH. Ohtani has been used sparingly in left and right field the past three seasons, but that will be rare in 2015. The Fighters are trying to avoid any more nagging injuries, a club spokesman said.

Ohtani said he enjoys preparing to hit and pitch.

"On the days I think I'm going to DH, I take batting practice," he said. "Some days I might throw in some BP after I pitch. But never on the day before I pitch."

Major League scouts are looking at Ohtani as a pitcher, a few said, asking that their names not be attached to any comments. But they also like his flexibility, body type, attitude and approach at the plate.

The next big thing coming out of Japan breaks into a big smile when he's told all that. Ohtani is obviously quite happy doing both.