Shohei Ohtani and the Cultural Depth of Amateur Baseball in Japan

Japan’s starter Shohei Otani pitches against South Korea during the first inning of their semifinal game at the Premier12 world baseball tournament at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Toru Takahashi)

Feature Photo: Shohei Ohtani, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters (Source: Kyodo News Agency)

Shohei Ohtani, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters (NPB) – Source: Kyodo News Agency

When I first laid eyes on Japanese uber-prospect Shohei Ohtani in 2012, the thought of a baby giraffe came to mind; the phrase ‘all arms and legs’ was a vast understatement when describing the kid’s frame in 2012. He threw gas, no doubt (hitting 99 mph twice for me in early 2012 as an 18-year-old high school senior), but was still very obviously growing into his body. He had also been dealing with some nagging lower-half issues, with a sore groin and hamstring being two of the reported ailments that had kept him from a consistent pitching schedule. So while the arm strength was there, he lacked coordination and consistent mechanics; he dropped low on his backside and was working uphill, keeping him from utilizing the impressive angle that his towering 6-foot-5 inch frame afforded him. His delivery was deliberate with some stiffness, and it required a large amount of effort to produce the velocity he was quickly becoming known for. You can see for yourself here, while he was pitching in the 2012 Koshien Tournament.

His secondary, or lack thereof, was another issue in 2012. Everything slowed down on the breaking balls, and he was clearly aiming each attempt and not producing the snap and action that you would think would be there given his arm strength. This combination, while tantalizing, led me to believe that the high-effort delivery, and lack of an effective secondary offering, would ultimately lead to him to settling in the bullpen at the upper levels of pro ball. Junichi Tazawa (RHP, Red Sox) had dominated as a starter in the Industrial Leagues, but despite his command, and having two solid secondary offerings, his ‘efforty’ motion ultimately led to him establishing himself as a far more effective back-end-of-the-pen-guy. After being very close to the Tazawa progression, my first thoughts on Ohtani were along the same lines.

There had been rumblings of Otani wanting to leave for the United States after high school throughout the summer of 2012, so when he officially announced his desire to bypass the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) in October it came as no big surprise. Of course as a scout I was thrilled to see a top-end amateur talent attempting to make the jump; however anyone close to baseball in Japan knows that there is a LOT more to the decision. So while Otani was without a doubt a prospect worthy of significant investment, was he “the” guy to buck the system and skip the NPB draft altogether? I wasn’t so sure.

The Heavy Weight of Nationalistic Expectations to Play in the NPB

Japan’s starter Shohei Ohtani pitches against South Korea during the first inning of their semifinal game at the Premier12 world baseball tournament at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. (Source: Kyodo News Agency)

In order to really understand what Shohei Ohtani was up against when he announced his intention to sign with an MLB club and skip the NPB draft, you have to first comprehend the nationalistic expectations these star prospects bear at each level of the Japanese amateur game. While top draft prospects in the Industrial Leagues (corporate clubs teams; The Red Sox’ Tazawa played for ENEOS before signing) and prospects at the college level are highly valued, no level is more aggressively protected by the Japanese baseball industry, and Japanese public opinion, than top-ranking high school draft prospects. Much like in the U.S., Japanese fans are obsessed with youthful talent making an impact at the top professional level; so if the best player(s) of a given draft crop leaves, it has a big impact on the NPB both on and off the field. NPB teams are all corporate owned and are, for lack of a better term, advertising vehicles for their parent companies. So a youthful, high-impact player who is a potential fan favorite is quite a valuable marketing tool for the club. To an extent these players are burdened by obligation to the league, but that’s not meant to imply that it is slave labor – it’s a pretty damn good gig. Players are paid very well (by normal salary standards), are extremely popular and will wind up having a job of some sort for life with their team or an affiliate company. So when MLB comes calling for a top high school talent like Ohtani, the NPB’s protectionist tendencies kick in big time. There is huge pushback when the notion even is mentioned. Amateur coaches, family members, the media–everyone agrees that that the top players showcase their talent in Japan first, and then maybe, if they avoid injury and/or overwork, they can be posted, or depart as free agents for the major leagues. It’s a real-world case study of the Japanese loyalty to ‘process’ hard at work.

Nothing highlights the importance of amateur baseball in Japan better than the Koshein Tournament that takes place every August in Osaka. For decades the Koshien Tournament has been the jewel in Japan’s baseball crown. The structure and popularity of high school baseball in Japan actually predates the professional leagues. It aligns more closely with the cultural depth of sumo wrestling and the samurai – or football in Texas – than it does with the average American fan’s image of high school baseball. For two weeks in August, the country pauses its relentless work schedule; fans line up outside the stadium sometimes at 3 or 4am, and offices nationwide prop up TVs to watch the games. Hundreds of students sing and cheer nonstop during their teams’ games, and the atmosphere resembles that of an Auburn/Alabama football game. After each of the games cameras zoom in on the tears streaming down the faces of the defeated, while they scoop up handfuls of infield dirt to take home as a souvenir.

Baseball purists in Japan continue to see the high school level as the sweetest form of baseball glory possible. There is not a position anywhere in the country that holds a level of celebrity comparable to that of the ace of a high school team that wins the Koshien Tournament. The obscene amount of pitches and innings 17-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka threw in the epic 1998 tournament has been well publicized (four complete games leading up to the semi-finals, with the fourth being a 17-inning 250-pitch affair; a one-inning save in the semi-final game; and then a no-hitter the next day in the final–that’s 54 innings and 535 pitches in a little over a week), and while he had success in the NPB and MLB, it was his hard-earned legacy as an amateur that really allowed him to transcend fame in Japan.

So given the multi-tiered value these young talents have in Japan, MLB scouts and front offices have long seen amateur players in Japan as untouchable. Even if a team wanted to step over the supposed “gentleman’s agreement” and go after a top high school or college player, the player and family are often unwilling to weather the backlash such a move would incur. Many scouts have tried to develop routes and pathways to the players, only to get blocked by the coaches, who often serve as de-facto agents and family advisors.

Ohtani was Not the First High-Profile Prospect to Attempt to Break Japanese Tradition 

One would think that dropping a pile of money in front of some of these kids would change their tune a bit; however the cultural pressures they face for operating outside of tradition are intense and ultimately it comes down to a difference in cultural DNA. Yusei Kikuchi (LHP, Seibu Lions) nearly broke ranks in 2009 when he announced his desire to leave Japan straight out of high school. Kikuchi was considered to be a top pick in that year’s NPB draft, and the announcement created more than a few waves. It was rumored at the time that teams like Texas, San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta were willing to go to $5-to-7 million as a signing bonus, alluding that Kikuchi was comparable to a top MLB draft pick. MLB scouts, myself included, flocked to his high school for sit-downs to gauge his bonus demands and sell him on each of our teams’ development plans. Kikuchi is a smart kid, one of the more astute 18-year-olds that I’d ever spoken to. He had pointed questions about his development track, and he had quite obviously done his homework on Cleveland’s minor league system. He proved his sincerity on finding the right fit in the opening seconds of my meeting when he said that he planned to choose a team BEFORE talking money. As familiar as I was with the culture, I was prepared for this; but the approach stands in stark contrast to what MLB teams are used to dealing with internationally. To this day I believe that Kikuchi really wanted to sign in the US. However, there was significant negative pressure within Japanese baseball circles and hints that if he were to leave Japan, the NPB would take things a step further than they had with the Tazawa Rule (a two-year ban from Japanese baseball for any drafted player that leaves to sign outside Japan) that was implemented as a result of Junichi Tazawa bypassing the NPB draft to sign in Boston the year prior.

As a scout for Cleveland at the time, I was torn on the concept of taking amateur players out of Japan. It was easy to see the value in the top Japanese amateurs and what made them even more appealing was the limited number of other MLB teams willing to go after them. Furthermore, there were no official regulations stopping us from signing whomever we wanted, only the handshake agreement between the NPB and MLB. At the same time however, I understood the stance taken by Japanese baseball and their unwillingness to let young stars depart early. Love for the game has been alive and well in Japan, and it spans generations with all levels continually putting a solid product on the field. No doubt they’ve had their finger in the dike for a long time now, and they want to protect a thriving game and key component of their culture.

Would He Or Wouldn’t He? – How Ohtani Almost Skipped the NPB Draft in 2012

Shohei Ohtani, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters (NPB) – Source: Kyodo News Agency

The story surrounding Ohtani’s almost defection in 2012 is well known in baseball circles. When he first announced he wanted to skip the NPB there was an almost immediate reaction on all sides. MLB scouts in Asia fired off emails to their front offices begging scouting directors and GM’s to fly over and see him; the NPB was outraged with the multitude of prominent coaches and executives expressing opinions of how Otani needed to prove himself in Japan before thinking about the US; sportswriters expressed concern over the demise of Japanese baseball, and used Ohtani as a case study in condemning the NPB to a future of being just another feeder system to the U.S. As far as Cleveland was concerned, it was a certainty that if the kid followed through and signed with an MLB club it would be for an amount so far beyond the Indian’s budget restrictions that it wasn’t even worth making an offer. What the Yankees would do remained a favorite media topic; however they remained silent, likely due to Brian Cashman’s hands-off stance on Japanese amateurs. The Dodgers, however, were a different story and had likely started their courting of Ohtani years prior. It was rumored that there had been a connection between the Ohtani family, Sasaki (Ohtani’s high school manager) and a Dodgers’ scout for quite some time. Other teams jumped in after Ohtani’s announcement, but rumor had it as the player either choosing L.A. or staying in Japan. As a surprise to many, myself included, the NPB teams seemed to back off despite expressing their distaste for the kid’s choice. NPB teams stood to lose their first pick without compensation if they drafted Ohtani and he then left, so the risk was significant – like the NBA or NFL, high-end NPB draft picks are expected to have an almost immediate impact on the top club.

The Nippon Ham Fighters Roll The Dice – And Their GM Sells His Plan to Ohtani to Keep Him in Japan

The Nippon Ham Fighters had been one of the NPB teams following Ohtani the closest through his high school career and that interest continued even after his announcement. Draft day came and they took the risk of drafting Ohtani with their first pick. Ohtani appeared disheartened when interviewed shortly thereafter, but expressed gratitude for the Fighters’ interest and maintained that he was leaving for the U.S. It was rumored that the Dodgers already had a deal in place, but it was requested (either by the Fighters or Otani himself) that Nippon Ham have an exclusive window to speak with him before he made his final decision. We all know what happened next.

The Fighters historically have been a very interesting organization; their GM at the time, Masao Yamada, is one of the more progressive and astute baseball minds of our generation. In a league loyal to a fault to tradition, Yamada has generally taken a much more forward-thinking approach, letting the conditions of his surroundings, and the needs of the organization, dictate the nature of his moves. He is a scout by nature and would often be found at amateur games preparing for the next draft–something rather uncommon, as the majority of NPB general managers adopt the office-executive type approach. Yamada has long held firm to the belief that drafting the best player available is usually the best strategy (note that signability issues in Japan are far more rare than in the US; if a Japanese player declares for the draft, more than 99% sign once drafted). In 2004 he drafted a gangly half-Japanese, half-Iranian pitcher named Yu Darvish (RHP, Rangers). There were concerns over Darvish’s makeup at the time that had other NPB clubs shying away, as he tended to be more outgoing and flamboyant than the typical Japanese high school recruit. With his first pick in the 2011 draft, Yamada selected right-handed starter Tomoyuki Sugano, a top-of-the-rotation talent sporting serious signability issues after having stated publicly that he only wished to play for the Yomiuri Giants, and that he would sit out a year if drafted by any other team. Sugano also happened to be the nephew of then-Giants’ celebrity manager Tatsunori Hara. Yomiuri is the main power broker in the NPB and this type of “announcement” was common when it came to players they coveted. Ultimately Sugano was true to his word–Nippon Ham lost the pick and Sugano went to the Giants the next year. So it came as no surprise that the team willing to roll the dice on Otani had the risk-tolerant Yamada at the helm.

“It’s not about selecting players we know we can sign, but rather selecting the number one player,” Yamada said, according to Nikkan Sports. “That is what the draft is about and our scouting is about.”

How exactly Yamada convinced Ohtani to stay in Japan is anyone’s guess. But knowing Yamada, his calm demeanor, preparedness, and willingness to understand those he is working with, I would guess that he sold the developmental process in Japan as more beneficial than toiling in the minor leagues and battling so many off-field unknowns right away. And who knows, that may be the right way to go; maybe it makes more sense to develop in the relative comfort of home with eyes on being posted early. That said, not all players are afforded the kind of audience Ohtani received when he was expressing his wishes.

Elite Ability Meets Grinding Work Ethic – Ohtani ‘s Talent Rapidly Develops in the NPB

Looking back now, it is hard to argue with the benefits of this strategy after the kind of rapid progress Ohtani has displayed in his first few professional seasons. From the very beginning, with the help of a very good Fighters’ staff, this kid zeroed in on his weaknesses and showed the kind of leaps and bounds possible when elite natural ability meets incredible work ethic and mental toughness. For me, it was night and day seeing him for the first time on a pro mound in August of 2013 compared to my views in 2012. He had made staggering improvements in his mechanics; dialing down the effort level and showing tremendous balance throughout his motion, which was allowing him to repeat his release point on a more consistent basis. No doubt he was still a work in progress; at times he would get deliberate and slow his arm on the breaking balls, but it was obvious what he was working on and it was impressive to see him doing so at the top level in Japan. In about 12 months he had developed a projectable breaking ball and was showing feel for spin. On top of that, he was now showing average command of his Splitter with hard bottom and the ability to use it to both sides of the plate. Seeing him again in 2014 and 2015, the progression continued as expected. His Ks-per-9 IP spiked, going from 6.7 in 2013 to 10.4 and then 11, respectively, while his walks-per-9 IP plummeted from 4.8 in 2013 to 3.3 in 2014 and 2.6 in 2015. In three years as a pro, he had gone from a one-pitch high school prospect to a young professional with three to four plus pitches as a 20-year-old.

Shohei Ohtani at-bat for the Nippon Ham Fighters. (Credit: Kyodo News Agency)

Much has also been made about Ohtani’s desire (and ability) to compete as a two-way player. He has a very strong frame and it appears as though his coordination has caught up with those long levers. While my looks on him swinging the bat are limited, the bat speed is real and it is easy to see the above-average raw power in BP; his 10 HRs and .842 OPS in 212 ABs in 2014 show that it can translate over to games. The bat took a step back last season, and he saw his K:BB ratio go from just over 2:1 to just over 5:1, indicating that he probably wasn’t getting much to hit and that he was likely expanding the zone more as a result. Ohtani still considers himself a two-way player and it seems like there is a serious conversation to be had when the time comes to sign with a US team. It is interesting to speculate how that would work considering the ever-present injury concerns and the size of a potential contract for a top-tier free agent starter in his early 20’s. I’m not sure how many GM’s would want to squirm through watching their #1 put up 300 ABs a year. Here are some hitting highlights to give you an idea of Ohtani’s swing.

So How Would Ohtani’s Talent Project to a Future Role in the Major Leagues?

So the bottom line is that perhaps the best overall talent Japan has produced since Ichiro Suzuki is yet to make his debut in the major leagues. Right now, Ohtani profiles as a true top-of-the-rotation starter, and possesses the mental toughness and maturity to go with the double-plus stuff. He projects to have plus command with an 80-grade fastball that explodes through the zone. His 11-to-5 curveball shows the ingredients of a future plus pitch; he shows the hard snap for putaway, but is still working on consistent feel for the spin. His slider shows three-quarters depth with occasional hard bite and should also become an above-average pitch. He has some variations with it and can use it almost like a cutter at times in on lefties. His splitter is likely going to be his best secondary going forward. It is his out pitch right now, and with less effort and better angle it gets the same sort of hard bottom that made Masahiro Tanaka’s split-finger a thing of legend in 2014. He has the present ability to use it down in the count and to both righties and lefties, so expect his feel with the pitch to continue to improve. Overall, we are looking at a guy in his early 20’s that could slot into the top of most any MLB rotation RIGHT NOW.

There have been rumors about when his eventual posting will be ever since the Fighters managed to talk him out of signing with the Dodgers in 2012. Yamada-san is a savvy executive, but he likely had to make some sort of concession to Ohtani’s desire to debut in the big leagues at a younger age than those who came to the U.S. before him. If I were an MLB executive, I would be keeping a close eye on the Fighters in the NPB standings in 2016; if they go deep in the playoffs, and Ohtani continues his development trends, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him posted this winter. If the team doesn’t win this year or if Ohtani falters, then look for him to be posted after the 2017 season once the new MLB/NPB posting agreement is negotiated.

Check out my full scouting report here.