After weeks of others speculating about his future, Shohei Otani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ captivating two-way superstar, finally had his say.
It’s not money pulling him toward the major leagues, nor the pursuit of renown. The 23-year-old star simply wants to become the best baseball player in the world, and he’s ready to kick the pursuit of his goal into high gear by moving to MLB this offseason via the posting system.
“There are still so many things I’m lacking, and I want to put myself in an environment where I can improve,” Otani told a packed house at the Japan National Press Club on Saturday morning, a day after the Fighters announced they intended to honor his wishes and post him.
“Hopefully I can go to a club that suits my way of thinking.”
He didn’t give any indication of which club he thinks that might be, and still hopes to learn more about all of them.
As for trying to succeed as a two-way player in the major leagues, the way he’s done for the past five seasons in NPB, Otani said he would have to first discuss the possibility with MLB clubs.
“I don’t know if I’ll be given the chance to be able to do it, so first of all, I’ll have to listen to what they say,” Otani said. “It was the same when I joined the Fighters. You can’t go after something like that unless you’re in the right circumstance. It’s not just about what I want to do.
“The one thing I can say is, when I graduated from high school, there were very few people who supported it. Now there are a lot more, including manager (Hideki) Kuriyama, who do. So I’d like to do my best for the sake of those people, but I would also first like to listen to what they (an MLB team) say.”
While Otani could be able to move under the old posting system, he’ll still fall under the auspices of the new MLB collective bargaining agreement, since he’s under the age of 25.
So he can only agree to a minor league contract subject to MLB’s signing bonus pools. If he joins an MLB roster he would get the minimum of about $545,000. The Texas Rangers can offer the largest signing bonus, with a pool of $3,535,000.
Saturday’s news conference took place on Nov. 11 and began at 11 a.m., perfect symmetry with the No. 11 Otani wore for the Fighters. The timing was said to be a coincidence, but things around Otani just seem to be special.
Otani wasn’t ready to set any sort of specific goal for himself, saying MLB would represent a new frontier.
“I’ll be in a new environment,” he said. “If I had stayed here next year, having played here for five years, I would have something to say. But I will be a new player and I haven’t played through a season there. I don’t think I can succeed there by just staying the same, so I would like to keep improving.
“That’s the path you have to walk in the process of becoming the best player in the world. That’s the ultimate goal for a baseball player, so I would definitely like to experience that.”
While he may not know exactly what to expect, he’s been able to glean bits of advice and information from a few sources already.
“Well, I’ve trained with (Yu) Darvish in the offseason,” Otani said. “I’ve also been playing with Kensuke Tanaka,” he added, referring to the Nippon Ham infielder who spent 2013 in the San Francisco Giants organization and appeared in 15 MLB games. “Kensuke has constantly been telling me things about the major leagues. I also got a call from (Norichika) Aoki after I decided on an agent.”
Otani revealed earlier in the week he had chosen Creative Artists Agency to represent him. The agency also represents Japanese major leaguers Aoki and Junichi Tazawa.
Otani grew up watching various Japanese players compete in MLB games on television. His own desire was sparked when the first person to scout him in high school happened to be from an MLB club. More followed, from both MLB and NPB, and the Hanamaki Higashi High School (in Iwate Prefecture) star said he would move to the U.S. directly after graduating in 2012.
The Fighters risked their first-round draft pick on him anyway. The gamble paid off when the club ultimately convinced him to stay.
In five seasons in Japan, Otani was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA in 543 innings as a pitcher, while also hitting .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBIs in 1,035 at-bats.
He proved to be a one-of-a-kind talent, one who racked up 624 strikeouts from the mound, and had a .859 on-base plus slugging percentage and, according to Deltagraphs, a .371 weighted on-base average at the plate. He also has 62 games as an outfielder under his belt.
Otani was the Pacific League MVP in 2016 and made history by being selected for the season-ending PL Best Nine team at both pitcher and designated hitter that season. He made the PL All-Star team as an outfielder in 2013, a pitcher from 2014-16, and a designated hitter in 2017, the first and last of those mostly by the will of the fans.
As a pitcher he said his most memorable NPB moment was inducing the fly ball that represented the final out of the Fighters’ pennant-clinching victory in 2016. As a hitter, it was the first time he stood in the batter’s box as a pro, on Opening Day in 2013, even though he struck out looking against Seibu Lions pitcher Takayuki Kishi.
Now, he’s ready for the next challenge. Otani pitched against MLB players during the Japan-MLB All-Star Series in 2014, but understands that was just a taste of what the majors have to offer.
“I had the chance to pitch against them on that occasion,” he said. “But I’ve never actually stood on that stage, and I can’t speculate. I can’t say anything until I actually get there.
“But I think I can carry what I’ve built up over the past five years and can channel that into confidence.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.