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Rays Offseason Target: Japanese Two-Way Superstar RHP/OF Shohei Otani

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Let’s start the offseason right at the top of the wish list.

South Korea v Japan - WBSC Premier 12 Semi Final Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

The big story this winter will be the story surrounding Shohei Otani. The RHP and designated hitter for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball League is a star and will be the most coveted player available should he request to be allowed to Major League Baseball this winter.

Otani is a 23-year old star on both sides of the ball. He’s been referred to as Japan’s Babe Ruth, and could be a potential impact player on literally any club he joins.

What has Shohei Otani done on the mound in the NPB?

Otani gets the headline for an otherworldly fastball that has reached 102 mph and regularly lives in the high 90s. His off-speed pitches include a high 70s curveball, mid 80s slider, and mid to upper 80s splitter. 2080 baseball has a full breakdown of his repertoire.

Otani has been a star on the mound ever since his second year in the league and first full year in 2014 at the age of 19. He’s made 81 starts and thrown 534.0 innings with a 2.56 ERA.

Otani is the most hyped pitcher to potentially leave the island. Japanese pitchers have been successful in their transition to the states as a whole. The two most recent hyped young pitchers have been Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have made very successful transitions to the majors.

Darvish has made 131 starts and thrown 832.1 innings with a 3.42 ERA and 3.30 FIP in six years since coming to the states. Darvish missed the 2015 season and first half of the 2016 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Despite that absense he has put up 19.0 fWAR and 20.0 RA9 WAR.

In the four years since Tanaka joined the Yankees he’s 105 starts and thrown 668.1 innings with a 3.56 ERA and 3.75 FIP. He has put up 12.7 fWAR and 13.5 RA9 WAR.

Otani, Darvish, and Tanaka’s final 3 seasons in Japan

Player GS IP K% BB% WHIP ERA
Player GS IP K% BB% WHIP ERA
Shohei Otani 46 317 31.30% 8.50% 0.96 2.15
Yu Darvish 76 616 27.80% 5.30% 0.91 1.63
Masahiro Tanaka 76 611.1 24.90% 3.30% 0.94 1.44

To add some context to the numbers Darvish and Tanaka both came stateside after their age 24 seasons whereas Otani just finished his age 22 season. Darvish seasons cover the 2009-2011 seasons and Tanaka’s covers the 2011 to 2013 seasons.

Offense in the NPB suffered through an offensive drought in the 2011 and 2012 seasons where run scoring went down to averaging around 3.40 runs per game due to an approximately 40% drop in homeruns across the league. In 2013 there was a new ball conspiracy where the run scoring went up to just above 4.00 runs per game and the homeruns returned. Eventually the commissioner admitted to a new baseball being the cause. The homers and run scoring have stayed consistent since 2013.

All of the pitchers were dominant. Tanaka gets the most strikeouts and also walks the most. Throughout the time period covered the league average strikeout has been roughly 16% and walk rate around 8%. The biggest difference is in innings and starts.

This year Otani has missed a lot of time on the mound. It started with a strain in his thigh that caused him to miss the World Baseball Classic. He was still able to DH for most of the season, but was limited to 16.1 innings in four starts.

Even removing this season Otani has never thrown more than 160.2 innings while Darvish and Tanaka had multiple 200+ inning seasons before playing in MLB.

What has Shohei Otani done with the bat?

We really don’t know how well hitting stats will translate to the states. Ichiro Suzuki and Nori Aoki are the only two currently players in the majors who originally played in the NPB. Otani’s batting profile couldn’t be further from either.

Shohei Otani, The Hitter

Season PA K% BB% HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Season PA K% BB% HR BA OBP SLG OPS
2013 204 31.4% 5.9% 3 .238 .284 .376 .660
2014 234 20.5% 9.0% 10 .274 .338 .505 .842
2015 119 36.1% 6.7% 5 .202 .252 .376 .628
2016 382 25.7% 14.1% 22 .322 .416 .588 1.004
2017 223 26.9% 10.8% 8 .340 .413 .557 .969
Total 1162 26.9% 10.2% 48 .287 .360 .503 .863

Otani’s 2013 and 2015 seasons were disappointing at the plate, but his last two years have been incredible. Otani is the furthest thing from a contact hitter with a 26.9% career strikeout rate and that is in line with his past two seasons. He gets his fair share of walks.

I am one of the first to be accepting of a high strikeout total as long as the overall production is worth it. The question is how much does that strikeout total increase when facing MLB pitchers who averaged over 21% strikeout rate this year compared to the 16% rate in Japan.

He has power, and hit 30 homers in 605 plate appearances the last two years with an ISO above .200.

What are the rules should Shohei Otani be allowed to come to MLB?

The biggest rule change in the newest CBA that affects Otani is the fact that a player has to be 25 with five or more years of experience in a recognized foreign league.

In the last CBA the age limit was 23 and would allow him to negotiate any contract he wanted after the team paid a $20MM posting fee. Teams still have to pay the $20MM posting fee, but he can only be signed to a minor league deal and the signing bonus will count against their international free agent bonus pool with a $6MM cap.

Otani would be subject to the standard three years of league minimum pay and three years of arbitration with no guaranteed money outside of the bonus.

Teams skirt the rules all the time in the IFA market, but should Otani be posted there will be a lot of scrutiny surrounding the signing process. Teams aren’t allowed to promise anything such as guaranteeing he’s on the MLB roster on day one or a contract extension once he’s signed.

Conclusion

Teams are going to try everything they can for the highest profile and potentially biggest impact signing that could be available this winter. Almost every team has had very high ranking front office personnel see him live and will show a lot of interest.

At the end of the day, it’s every team’s opportunity to go and get him. The Rays should be all in on making the attempt.