In a dream matchup for scouts, one of Japan’s rising young stars stole the show against arguably the top current pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Facing Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda today, 19-year-old Nippon-Ham Fighters righthander Shohei Otani held the Carp to one run over five innings, striking out 10 with no walks while hitting 99 mph. Otani’s fastball was overpowering, sitting at 94-98 mph and hitting the upper end of that range consistently. His lone run allowed came on a hanging slider to Brad Eldred, who crushed Otani’s mistake for a home run.
Otani, who’s 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, overmatched hitters with his fastball, though his 84-88 mph splitter was a solid pitch at times. He also throws a 78-81 mph slider and a curveball that he manipulates speeds on, ranging anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Otani would have pitched longer, but he sprained his ankle sliding into home to score a run in the bottom of the fifth (he’s also an outfielder batting .283/.343/.457 in 102 plate appearances), which ended his outing. On the season, Otani has a 3.13 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 17 walks in 54 2/3 innings.
While Otani flirted with the idea of signing with a Major League Baseball team out of high school, he instead signed with the Fighters as a first-round pick in 2012. He’s still likely several years away from ever being made available through the posting system, but scouts are keeping a close eye on him and 20-year-old righthander Shintaro Fujinami, the two best young pitchers in Japan.
Maeda opened the game with four scoreless innings, but things unraveled for him in the fifth inning, when he allowed five runs and left the game at the end of the frame. Maeda showed solid velocity, sitting at 90-94 mph, though a lot of scouts project him as a back-end starter because they don’t see a reliable out pitch he can lean on to miss bats. Maeda mixes four-seam fastballs and two-seamers, along with an 80-83 mph slider, an 83-85 mph changeup and an occasional slow curveball in the low-70s.
Maeda, 26, said in December that he would like to test his skills in MLB at some point in the future, which several MLB scouts believe means he’s likely headed over for the 2015 season. At 6 feet, 160 pounds, Maeda has a 2.88 ERA in 74 innings with 55 strikeouts and 17 walks. Maeda won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young) in 2010 and was named the No. 7 prospect at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.