For Ex-Big Leaguers in Japan, Ohtani A Special But Not Invincible Talent
The recruitment of Shohei Otani has reached a fever pitch.
Every rumor and emerging detail, no matter how minute, is treated as headline news. Hopeful fan bases have begun changing their Twitter handles to include Ohtani’s name. Teams are making specific—and largely unprecedented—maneuvers for international bonus pool space for the sole purpose of sweetening their offers to him.
Ohtani, the 102-mph throwing, 500-foot home run hitting, 23-year-old Japanese wunderkind has been hailed as the best player in the world, a modern reincarnation of Babe Ruth and the possible savior of downtrodden franchises.
It’s quite the reputation, and one that has prompted the question “How good is Ohtani, really, and how much of it is hype?”
One demographic is uniquely suited to answer that: Ex-major leaguers who played against Ohtani in Japan.
“I see the appeal,” said Dennis Sarfate, a reliever who pitched parts of four seasons in the majors and won Japan's Pacific League MVP award in 2017. “I’ve said it from day one, this guy is going to be a superstar, and he is that good.”
Those with major league experience who have faced Ohtani widely see a player who is major league caliber and a special talent, but also one who has flaws and weaknesses in his game, like everybody else.
Stefen Romero, an outfielder who played parts of three seasons for the Mariners before joining Orix in the Pacific League for 2017, was one of the few to actually face Ohtani on the mound this year. Ohtani made only five starts due to an ankle injury that required surgery in October.
When Romero faced Ohtani, he struck out swinging.
“I fouled off some good fastballs, 98-100 (mph),” Romero said, “and he just threw a devastating forkball in the dirt.
“He’s not your everyday Japanese player. He’s 6-foot-5, 6-6 and he’s huge. When you see him on the mound it’s just so smooth and effortless and it just comes out….He doesn’t throw 100 all the time. Throughout the game he’ll be like 93-94, and then when he wants to he’ll go 100, 100, 100.”
Ohtani’s premium velocity has long been a main selling point. However, from a hitter’s perspective, it’s not Ohtani’s fastball that necessarily separates him.
“His fastball is hittable,” Romero said. “I feel like it’s hittable to American players because it’s straight, there’s not a lot of movement. It’s hard, but it is straight. It’s more of like an overhand, three-quarter arm slot so it’s not too difficult to pick up. But it’s his offspeed pitches that he can throw for strikes and have the same arm slot and arm speed with that will get you in trouble. His forkball, it looks just like a fastball but it drops two feet straight down. It starts at your thigh and looks just like a 100-mph fastball and then it just drops two feet into the dirt. His offspeed stuff is pretty legit.”
Ohtani’s complete arsenal, officially, is a fastball, slider, forkball, changeup and curveball. Those who faced him note he really only throws this fastball, slider and forkball, with the other two offerings rarely used.
All three of Ohtani’s main offerings—fastball, slider and forkball—draw plus or better grades from evaluators. At the same time, like many other 23-year-olds, he still has progress to make with his consistency and sequencing.
“Sometimes he thinks too much,” Sarfate said. “It’s like ‘Hey, you throw 100, stop throwing offspeed.’ I mean I’ve seen him throw as many as seven breaking balls in a row.
“He doesn’t have great command,” added Sarfate, who has played against Ohtani in Japan since 2013. “Everyone thinks his command is good, but I’ve seen him walk three, four guys in a row and it’s because he gets out of sync because he throws so many breaking balls…. If he got a catcher that was around for a while and they could actually guide him through it, I think he would eventually be really good.”
So, is Ohtani ready to step in and be an ace-caliber starting pitcher from day one? Not quite, in the eyes of the ex-big leaguers who faced him, although they acknowledge he may get there eventually.
“If you compare him to like a (Yu) Darvish right now, I don’t think he’s there yet,” said former White Sox and Pirates infielder Brent Morel, who played parts of six seasons in the majors before moving to Orix the last two years. “Watching those guys pitch, they just have more of a repertoire, and it seems like a better command of what they’re doing. Obviously he’s younger, maybe skilled more, it’s just kind of honing that in and being more consistent. But it’s definitely there.”
“He’s not Masahiro Tanaka,” Sarfate said. “Tanaka faced us in 2013 when I was with Seibu. He was definitely far more advanced than what Ohtani is, but he was also a little bit older. If you had said Tanaka (would compete for Cy Youngs right away), I would’ve said absolutely. The guy commands three pitches down in the zone, he’s consistent every time he takes the mound; there’s no way Ohtani comes in his first year over and contends for the Cy Young.
“He is better than most guys I see pitch as a fourth or fifth starter. He can definitely go there and pitch in the big leagues and you can let him have his ups and downs. If he just worked on pitching, I think then he could be a Cy Young winner.”
And there lies the dilemma Ohtani’s suitors face. Ohtani wants to hit and has a long track record of success hitting in Japan, and teams making recruiting pitches to him have been forced to get creative to find ways to get him meaningful at-bats while also pitching. Whether that means days playing the outfield, serving as a designated hitter or some combination of the two, it’s a schedule and workload that will not be easy.
The reason they are willing to do so is Ohtani’s lefthanded power. It can be jaw dropping to watch, even for ex-big leaguers who have seen Giancarlo Stanton, Nelson Cruz and other big-time sluggers put on massive power displays.
“First time I saw him take batting practice was unreal,” Romero said. “He was just hitting the ball with ease. His power is ridiculous. Brandon Laird, who is on his team, came up to me and was like ‘Hey, watch Ohtani’s BP,’ because they’re in the same hitting group. So I was like all right. He was just hitting balls opposite field 20 rows up at their stadium, and their stadium at Sapporo is a pretty legit sized stadium. It’s not small by any means, and he’s just oppo 20 rows deep, center field 20 rows deep, and then pull side he’s going like 40 rows, almost on top of the concourse. I’m like, ‘That’s just ridiculous.’”
But whether or not Ohtani will be able to get to that power against big league pitching is an open debate.
Sarfate, for example, has been able to keep Ohtani in check over the five seasons he’s faced him.
“I think I faced him 11 times and I think I gave up a single and triple, and the single was actually a squiggler down the third-base line that he beat out.” Sarfate said. “He’s got decent plate awareness, the only problem I see him having issues with early on—and he can make the adjustment—is fastballs in. Japanese guys tend to stay away from him, I think it’s a lot of respect and they don’t want to throw a fastball in and break his arm or hit him in the elbow. I think he’s aware of that, that no one pitches him in. I pitch him in and have had good success going in.
“Big league pitchers aren’t afraid to go in, they don’t care who you are. And that’s going to be his one adjustment he’s going to have to make.”
Morel, from his vantage point playing the infield, sees the same potential shortcoming on fastballs in.
“He just has unbelievable pop to the opposite field, center field (but) it didn’t seem like he pulled too many balls unless they were offspeed,” Morel said. “I think he’ll get pounded in like any young hitter going to the big leagues. He’ll have to make the adjustment. He was so big and strong he didn’t have to worry about it too much over there. I’m not saying he can’t make the adjustment, he just hasn’t had to yet.”
Which leads to the main question. Can Ohtani, for all his significant raw talent, buck 100 years of MLB history and excel as both an elite hitter and elite pitcher at the same time?
“What he’s doing is absolutely amazing, I’m glad he’s going to try it and teams are going to give him an opportunity to do it,” Sarfate said. “I think, my opinion, eventually he’s going to have to make a choice. He’s going to either say I’m a full-time hitter or a full-time pitcher. I don’t think he’s going to be able to do both. If he just picks one, I think he can be amazing and take off and be a 40-40 guy or he can be a Cy Young winner. But he’s gotta pick one.”
Others agreed that Ohtani’s ultimate success will be in one over the other, not both.
“His success in MLB will be as a pitcher more than a hitter,” Romero said. “I feel that way and a lot of other guys who are American players I’ve talked to who are in Japan and have played him for a few years do too.”
Still, even with areas of his game that require development, Ohtani remains a premium pitcher with a rare skillset. In the eyes of all who faced him, he has elite potential.
“He was a little inconsistent with offspeed I feel like when I faced him, but it was still three plus pitches and I think he’ll have pretty good success in the big leagues just because he has that,” Morel said. “Hard enough fastball where you have to commit to it and a really good forkball. I think for him it’s just kind of using that slider a little sharper. It can be very effective for him at times.
“If you’re a starter who can throw 100 with multiple pitches, there’s not too many guys in the world who can do that.”
“I say he’s the best player on the planet,” Sarfate said. “I labeled his flaws, but his pro sides outweigh his cons.”