The next Babe Ruth is named Shohei Otani
Have you ever regretted not being able to see a player like Babe Ruth in the flesh? Well, in Japan, you can.
Hokkaido is the home of not only the best-named sports team in the world, the Nippon-Ham Fighters(!), but also the most exciting baseball player in the world. On any given day, if you catch a game at the Sapporo Dome, you’re liable to see a young player belt a homer. That, in and of itself, isn’t so odd. You may even overhear a fan nearby mention that this player is one of the best hitters in the league— and you might make note of the name on the back of his jersey: “Otani.”
What is unique is that if you were to go to another game the very next night, you might sit down in your seat, bento box in hand, and notice that the pitcher on the mound is having a great day, striking out opponents left and right. This, again, isn’t so odd, since this talented pitcher is hurling the ball at 102 miles per hour. And then you see that the name on the back of his jersey is a familiar one: “Otani.” But surely this Otani, one of the best pitchers in Japan, can’t be the same guy you saw hammering the ball last night? But he is.
Shohei Otani was born on July 5, 1994. He grew up playing baseball and really began to gain attention when, in the 2012 Summer Koshien (the national Japanese high school baseball tournament), a teenaged Otani wowed crowds with his 99-miles-per-hour fastball. Major League scouts showed interest and there was a high chance that Otani would bypass the NPB entirely, but, having been promised the chance to both hit and pitch by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, he chose to sign with Hokkaido after being selected by them in the first round in 2012.
This proved to be a wise decision. Otani was named an all-star after his rookie season and has gotten better every year. By his second season he was among the top 10 pitchers in Japan as well as being one of the top 20 hitters. In 2015 he was named to the Pacific League Top 9 (being the best pitcher in the Pacific League) even though he struggled at the plate.
In 2016, however, everything clicked. Not only was he arguably the best pitcher in Japan but he was also, quite possibly, its best hitter. He led the Pacific League in slugging and OPS, as well as ERA and SO per 9 innings (achievements not even The Babe was able to pull off). He also helped lead his team, the Nippon- Ham Fighters, to their first Japan Series win in 10 years. His performance this year has led to speculation that he might be signed to a $300-million contract should he make it over to the Major Leagues (an amount of money that only one other player has ever received).
But even after the championship, the individual accolades and Major League speculation, Otani’s season wasn’t done. He’s been called on to play for Samurai Japan, the Japanese national baseball team, and in an exhibition game against the Netherlands, he actually hit a baseball through the roof at the Tokyo Dome. This wasn’t in batting practice and this wasn’t a huge pop-up, but a ball that Otani simply crushed. This is such a rare occurrence that the umpiring crew didn’t actually know what to do and it took them a few minutes of conferencing to give Otani a ground rule double on a ball that would have, in any open- air stadium, been a massive home run. Otani, after being told to head to second base, merely shrugged his shoulders and chuckled. He knew he’d have another homer soon enough.
Players who pull double-duty
You don’t often see players pitching and playing in the field during the same season—Otani, who last year threw 140 innings while also taking over 380 at-bats, is a true rarity. The last player to come even close to what Otani did in the majors was Brooks Kieschnick, who pitched 43 innings while coming to the plate 63 times as a relief pitcher and utility out elder for the Brewers in 2004.
For an actual starting pitcher who was also called upon to hit, the clock has to be turned back to 1953 when Johnny Lindell threw 199 innings for the Pirates and Phillies while also coming to bat 133 times, though mostly while pitching or as a pinch hitter. To get a true Otani, one has to go back to 1919 when Babe Ruth was still with the Red Sox. He batted over 400 times and played mostly left field while still throwing over 100 innings.
Without a doubt, Otani is the kind of player you won’t see for another hundred years.
D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.