Age: 21 (Born July 5th, 1994)
Bats L, Throws R 6'4" 203 lb
FB 95-99, t101
SL 81-85, t90
SNK? charted here in 2013
CH? per BA's Badler in 2016
The most exciting prospect in baseball may not be the pitcher throwing lightning bolts in Harrisburg, nor the speedy Cuban stealing every bag in sight for Salem.
To find the most jaw-dropping young player outside of MLB, we'll have to turn our eyes to the Nippon Ham Fighters of NPB - where a unique 21-year-old talent is displaying his skills on both sides of the ball.
Shohei Otani's name first surfaced in the States in 2012, when at 18 he seemed set on becoming one of the rare Japanese players to 'challenge the system' and skip NPB altogether in favor of an MLB contract.
Against his wishes, the Fighters drafted Otani that season and ended up convincing him to begin his pro career at home. The rumor mill has generated some interesting twists here: one, their agreement allows Otani to be in the lineup as a two-way player roughly three times per week, with off-days immediately before and after his starts on the mound.
Two, it's been speculated that another concession made to Otani was a handshake agreement to allow him to be posted to MLB when he wishes - a de facto opt-out clause.
For now, let's postpone the question of *when* and instead use the resources available to scout Otani up and see if we can get a bead on how impactful of a player he can be.
Otani's bread-n-butter is a high 90's fastball that recently topped out at 101 - breaking NPB's all-time speed record on an admittedly questionable gun in the Tokyo Dome.
Otani commands the heater well to all quadrants and holds the velocity deep into games. The pitch explodes with uncommon late life, and I noticed he's especially adept throwing it high to put hitters away, where it appears to have rising or two-seam action in some cases.
The high cheese plays well off Otani's other main weapon, a high 80's splitter that he can both locate for strikes and bury as a worm-killer. His split often features ample arm-side tumble and it's effective to hitters of both sides. Otani plays with the eye level of his 'forkball' so much that it is, in effect, also his changeup. I suspected he might actually throw a change or mysterious shuuto but the close-ups I got (video resources at bottom) all showed fastball-split grips.
Otani also mixes in a low 80's slider that can be inconsistent but flashes plus. The pitch is less like the hard-breaking slider we know in America and more a change-of-pace, slurvy concoction that Otani will use to freeze batters. He's also dabbled with cutters and if he can continue to improve his feel for both, the glove-side movement they offer will serve as the ideal complement to his primary sinking stuff.
Recent reports indicate Otani's curve may have jumped ahead of the slider in both usage and effectiveness. The Japanese ace throws a tight 11-5 snapper that, unfairly, is another potential plus offering in his pocket. Mainly sitting in the mid-to-high 70's, Otani can cruelly dial the deuce down to the high-60's to give it an eephus effect.
Otani is advanced across the board in his mechanics, delivery, and athleticism. Dan at BTB threw down a thorough dissection of his flawless motion back in February. I have nothing to add here except that if you think the title of this post is bold, get a load of what ol' Dan surmised at the top of his piece.
In Shohei Otani we appear to have an ace pitcher that was created in a laboratory. The four-pitch mix is obscene in nature, his command and sequencing are precociously present, and he's said to be a high-character grinder that loves to compete.
I'm absolutely ready to group Otani in with Giolito and Urias as the best pitching prospects in the game. Is there anything else to discuss?
Otani is a true two-way player, and before you cast aspersions and invoke obscenities such as Brooks Kieschnick or Trey Ball, he's flipped the script with the stick and now ranks among the most dangerous bats in NPB.
He simply loves to hit, and sources on the ground in Japan indicate his desire to be in the lineup could be a factor in his moving stateside.
It was surprising to me that the Fighters gave their prized ace another chance on offense after bottoming out with a .202/.252/.376 line in 2015. Otani has responded with a robust .337/.427/.673 effort in part-time duty, numbers that - if he qualified - would rank 2nd in AVG and 1st in OPS in Japan's Pacific League. The icing on the cake is he's doubled his walk rate and cut his K-rate nearly in half from last year. The Fighters have sought to get him in the lineup more, and he recently became the first pitcher in Japan's history to start the game and hit in the DH role.
It's possible that Otani's breakout with the bat is just shockwaves within a 100-AB sample size, but he does appear to have the tools to succeed against MLB pitching if and when he arrives. He's got a quick left-handed stroke and mini-leg lift that smacked to me of Brady Anderson, except Otani's shown an ability to spray the ball to both gaps and has flashed above-average raw power at times.
I was unable to find any credible reports on his outfield defense. Baseball Reference shows Otani hasn't played defense for the Fighters in two years, inferring that when he's in the lineup it's at DH only. However, there could have been a drop-off in the NPB data B-Ref receives and Otani has indeed been in the outfield mix. At the very least we know he has the athleticism and arm to be passable in RF.
It's questionable whether an MLB team would have the stones to let a prized asset play both ways in the Show. Perhaps a mid-market team will step up and accommodate Otani's offensive desires with this kind of talent being so rare in free agency. Or maybe a deal with an NL team where he can back himself in the lineup - and contribute in a bench role - is the compromise that'll need to be made.
Hot Take Corner
On Otani's timetable, there are too many wildcards to feel good about even fathoming a guess. The Fighters control his rights until 2019, but some experts think he could be posted as soon as this offseason or the next considering his obvious desire to compete at the highest level. To make things murkier, the MLB/NPB posting system could be re-worked this winter during Collective Bargaining talks.
Today's HTC will be a short one, because Otani passes the eye test with flying colors. His triple-digit gas is unquestioned and rare, the offspeed stuff is coming along, and the split-changepiece he has going would likely rank among the game's most devastating.
Some outlets have gone the analytic route in determining where Otani's value could lie, where others have taken a deep mechanical dive in coming to the matching conclusion that he's the game's best pitching prospect.
I'll merely remind that the tape doesn't lie, and his advanced arsenal will be cookin' right away, no seasoning necessary. Otani absolutely should be mentioned with Giolito, Urias, and Alex Reyes in the elite group of young arms in our game. We may have to wait a year or three to see it, but I'd fully expect MLB teams to share the sentiment in what would be a bidding frenzy for baseball's Next Big Thing.
Video and scouting resources
Otani facing MLB hitters in the 2014 Japan All-Star Series
Otani in 2015 Premier 12 Tournament vs. South Korea
Otani in 2016 NPB regular season
A 12-minute compilation of filth throughout the years. All videos uploaded by YouTube user ace kuroda.