The Next Masahiro Tanaka, Part II
About five weeks ago I wrote a piece about the next possible impact pitchers we might see come out of Japan’s NPB to join MLB. At the time, I wrote that there won’t be another Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish to come out of Japan for at least the next three off-seasons, and I then went on to discuss the best NPB pitchers we might see join MLB in 2015, namely Kenta Maeda and Chihiro Kaneko.
While I certainly stick by my statement that we won’t see another pitcher of the Tanaka/Darvish caliber come out of Japan in the near future, I realize my earlier piece didn’t actually identify “the next Masahiro Tanaka,” i.e., the next Japanese pitcher who could develop into a best-anywhere pitcher (assuming that Hideki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma, who Maeda and Kaneko could potentially match, do not quite qualify).
The one pitcher currently pitching in NPB that could be the next Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish is Shohei Otani. Otani is a 19 year old (turns 20 on July 5th) right-hander who pitches for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Yu Darvish’s old team.
Despite his tender age, Otani is currently 6-1 this season with a 2.61 ERA and a pitching line of 69 innings pitched, 61 hits, four homers and 19 walks allowed and 76 strikeouts. By way of comparison, in their age 19 seasons in NPB, Yu Darvish went 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA and a pitching line of 149.2 IP, 128 hits, 12 HRs and 64 BBS allowed and 115 Ks; and Masahiro Tanaka went 9-7 with a 3.49 ERA and a pitching line of 172.2 IP, 171 hits, nine HRs and 54 BBs allowed and 159 Ks. In other words, Otani is actually ahead of Darvish and Tanaka at the same age.
There’s more to love about Otani. He’s currently listed as 6’4″ and 198 lbs, which is basically Yu Darvish’s body at this age.
Otani also throws extremely hard. In his last start a day or two ago, his fastball topped off at 160 km/hr (99.4 mph) for the third game in a row. It was also the first time he hit 160 km/hr twice in the same game. More shades of Yu Darvish.
Otani isn’t exactly unknown to MLB’s those-in-the-know. When he came out of high school in 2012, he was heavily recruited by MLB teams, including the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers — basically, the teams most able to scout and pay for the best possible Asian talent. Otani even announced at the time that he would sign with an MLB team rather than an NPB team.
However, NPB (and probably most of Japan) put a tremendous amount of pressure on him to sign with an NPB team, basically threatening that he’d never be able to play for an NPB team at any time in the future unless he signed with one out of high school. The Fighters drafted him and signed him after a month-long negotiation, but I suspect the threats and social pressure, more than an enormous signing bonus, got him to sign. For what it’s worth, Otani selected Darvish’s old number, No. 11, for his uniform.
Darvish spent 6.5 seasons in NPB, and Tanaka spent seven, so we can reasonably expect Otani to hit MLB no sooner than 2020, assuming he develops along a Darvish/Tanaka trajectory. That’s a long time and pretty much the only reason not to get excited about Otani’s future major league debut at this point — there’s still plenty of time for him to blow out his young arm.
In my next post, I’ll identify a few other fine young NPB pitchers we might someday see in MLB.