Itoi was drafted as a pitcher in 2003 by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters through a now defunct system that allowed players with experience beyond high school to declare their desire to play for a certain team, whereupon that team could then select that player without having to use an actual draft pick. For the first two years of his pro career, Itoi appeared in 36 minor league games and pitched to a 4.86 ERA. The decision to covert Itoi to an outfielder was made in 2006 by Shigeru Takada, the General Manager of the Fighters at the time, who cited Itoi’s speed and batting sense as indicators that he would make a better position player than pitcher. 10 years later, we can definitively say Takada made the right call.
Itoi made his NPB debut during a brief stretch in September of 2007, but it wasn’t until the 2009 season that he became a full-time player. In his first full season in the Fighters’ outfield, he had an OPS of .901, 40 doubles, 15 home runs, and 24 stolen bases. Not bad for a former pitcher. He would follow that up with more of the same for the Fighters over the next three years, averaging about 12 home runs and 26 stolen bases from 2010-2012. Following the end of the 2012 season, Itoi expressed a desire to be posted so he could pursue an MLB career. Instead, Nippon Ham traded him to the Orix Buffaloes. The trade had little effect on his ability to produce, as his first year for the Buffaloes saw him set a career high in home runs and stolen bases with 17 and 33, respectively, while maintaining a .300 average and playing nearly flawless defense (1 error in 141 games). Like many Asian hitters, Itoi uses a leg kick for timing and balance, but he does an excellent job at staying back on pitches and making contact, and his BB/K ratio in 2015 was an exceptional 72/78.
Now 34 (he’ll turn 35 in July), while Itoi may be on the back-end of his career, he could certainly serve as an asset for a Major League team. The power and speed combo is still there, and through only 55 games in 2016, Itoi already has 8 home runs and 17 stolen bases (with only 1 caught stealing). He has been a member of Japan’s World Baseball Classic team in 2013 and the National Team for the MLB All-Star series last year, so he has had some experience playing against MLB players. Orix is unlikely to post Itoi, but with international free agency only about a year or so away, Itoi could be looking at finishing his career in MLB.