Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The most interesting man in baseball

On Sunday [in October 2016] in Sapporo, Japan, in front of 41,000-plus fans, Shohei Otani, the best starting pitcher in Japanese baseball, did something that would have broken the baseball internet had it happened here. He got a save.

It was Otani’s first career save, but that undersells its significance. This save, which sealed the semifinals of the “Climax Series” — Japan’s perfect term for the playoffs — sent Otani’s team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, to the Japan Series, a seven-game showdown between the winners of the Central League and the winners of the Pacific League. In his one inning of work, Otani retired three consecutive hitters from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the two-time defending Japan Series champions. In the process, he threw two fastballs 165 kilometers per hour — 103 miles per hour, to those of us still spurning the metric system. That broke the NPB record of 164 he’d set in September, which broke the previous record of 163 he’d set in June.

In the same outing, he also threw 89 mph sliders and a 94 mph forkball...

Please hold your applause: It gets much more impressive than that. Four days earlier, Otani had started the first game of the series and thrown seven scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and two walks to the team with the Pacific League’s highest on-base percentage. Not bad, but we’ve seen MLB aces masquerading as closers as recently as last week. What sets Otani apart even more than his arm is his hitting.

Before he came in to close, Otani had already made four trips to the plate as Hokkaido’s designated hitter. He also started at DH in the three games he didn’t pitch. And he took his turns at bat in Game 1, as he often did on days he pitched during the regular season, even though the Fighters have to surrender their DH for him to pitch and hit. ...

Otani’s 2016 performance produced the most climax-worthy stats page since late-career Barry Bonds. In 140 innings, he struck out 174 and allowed only four home runs, finishing with a 1.86 ERA — an improvement on his 2015 performance, when he’d been one of the top three contenders for the Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young. While he was at it, he hit .322/.416/.588 in 382 plate appearances, launching 22 home runs. And to top things off, he won the Home Run Derby.

Essentially, this season Otani boasted Noah Syndergaard’s stuff, Clayton Kershaw’s ERA and strikeout rate, and David Ortiz’s OPS. And just to show that there was no hole in his game, he stole seven bases in nine attempts.
--Ben Lindergh, The Ringer, on a sports fantasy come to life