A little piece of Japan—along with the country's star attraction—has come to Arizona for the first two weeks of February.
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball have set up camp at the Padres facility in Peoria, Ariz., with exhibition games against Korean professional teams scheduled for the second week of their stay. In what's believed to be the first time an NPB team has held spring training in the United States in more than 30 years, the Fighters have brought nearly 100 players and coaches to Arizona.
Yet the majority of the attention from the hundreds of fans and mostly Japanese media observing the workouts is on one man. Shohei Ohtani, the 21-year-old sometimes referred to as "The Fastball Prince," is already a rock star wherever he goes. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound righthander is one of the most talented pitchers in the world after three seasons with the Fighters as well as appearances in November's Premier 12 tournament and the Japan All-Star Series against Major League Baseball stars in 2014.
Not only is Ohtani a dominant pitcher, he's also spent time in the Fighters outfield. If major league teams ever get their wish and Ohtani makes the jump to MLB, he would almost certainly have to give up being a two-way player, but that doesn't concern him at this point.
"I can't make that decision right now," Ohtani said through a team interpreter. "I'm going to try to be a two-way player … That's all I can say for now."
Ohtani nearly broke precedent in Japan when he considered signing with an MLB team out of high school. Instead, Ohtani will remain with the Fighters for the early part of his career. The opportunity to be a two-way player in Japan helped sway Ohtani in his decision.
In his NBP career, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani has slashed .245/.300/.429 with 18 home runs in 510 at-bats. During batting practice this week Ohtani showed a smooth swing with good extension from the left side, driving balls with excellent carry. Balls that didn't look like they were hit that hard were easily clearing the fence in both gaps.
Yet it's Ohtani's electric right arm that has generated so much buzz in the scouting community. His pitching metrics have consistently improved each year, winning 15 games last season with a 2.24 ERA while fanning 196 batters in 160 2/3 innings. His fastball regularly registers in the upper-90s and has been recorded as high as 101 mph, tying the Japanese record set by former major leaguer Marc Kroon.
The fastball is the jewel of Ohtani's five-pitch repertoire. He most often complements the heater with a slider and splitter (what he calls his forkball) that reaches the low 90s, along with a changeup and curveball.
In his two bullpen sessions this week, Ohtani showed a good, repeatable delivery from a high-three-quarters arm slot. He has a durable pitcher's frame that should be able to add strength. Ohtani said that he is working mostly on improving his basic pitching skills and mechanics.
He wears the No. 11, assigned to him when he joined the Fighters and previously worn by Rangers righthander Yu Darvish. For Ohtani, it was both an honor and a little unnerving.
"Yu Darvish is a very famous pitcher," Ohtani said. "When I came to the team I was so proud of it … I was also afraid of wearing the number. But I like it.”
The big question is when Ohtani will follow in Darvish's footsteps and jump to the majors. For that to happen, the Fighters would have to make Ohtani available through the posting system—with $20 million the maximum release fee allowed—in order for teams to negotiate with Ohtani. As a potential frontline starter, there would be a frenzy of interest from major league clubs. However, the Fighters might be reluctant to part with a young pitcher they control whose value to them may exceed the value of the posting fee they'd receive.
Ohtani indicated that a move to MLB is a possibility some day, but he knows that he's a Fighter for now and much of the process is out of his hands.
"He's clearly very gifted," new Padres manager Andy Green said. "There wouldn't be so much hype about him if he wasn't. He has a lot of talent."
He's got two weeks to see the United States and to be seen by Arizona baseball fans. Ohtani intends to make the most of his time here.
"Everything here is new to me," Ohtani said. "This is my first experience to be over here. I'm here to play baseball."
After the Fighers are done in Arizona, they will move on to Nago, Okinawa, Japan to finish spring training.
"We're honored to have the Fighters out here," said Green, who played for the team in 2007. "I have a lot of good relationships with people who were good to me when I was over there."