Will two-way player Shohei Otani be Japan's next MLB export?

L.A. just got a difference-maker, Shohei Ohtani, at a fraction of the price. The Angels still have holes to fill, but now they have even more incentive to fill them. Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

After pitchers Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer each suffered injuries while batting earlier this season, some -- including Scherzer himself -- suggested that the National League would be better served if pitchers didn't hit and the designated hitter were used in both leagues. "Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs, or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper?" Scherzer wondered.

How about a pitcher who can swing for the fences? San Francisco Giants ace and reigning World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner -- who has two career grand slams and homered four times last season -- is one such dual threat.

So is Shohei Otani. If you haven't heard about the 20-year-old Japanese sensation, you will soon. He plays for the Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball, the highest level of baseball in Japan, but he has designs on playing major league baseball. His current team could "post" him in three or four years and allow him to sign with an MLB franchise.

Otani for is 20-4 with a 2.71 career ERA and 274 strikeouts in 259 innings over two-plus seasons in the NPB. He throws a 100 mph fastball -- and he looked almost effortless while hitting that speed multiple times in this video from the 2014 All-Star Game. When he is in the lineup as a DH or outfielder, Otani hits with equal power. He has hit .251 with 15 home runs in 443 career at-bats.

"Nobody else is doing this right now," Otani said after starting for Samurai Japan against a team of MLB All-Stars in November -- and fanning seven of those major leaguers in a 3-1 loss. "Actually, I feel a strong attraction to do both. I like not only pitching, but I also like hitting. I am happy I got the opportunity to do."

When Otani finished high school in 2012, the Los Angeles Dodgers approached him. He told Japanese teams not to draft him because he intended to go straight to MLB. But the Dodgers saw Otani's MLB future as a pitcher, while Nippon Ham -- the only Japanese club that didn't cede to Otani's wish not to be drafted -- offered him the chance to pitch and hit. So he chose to play for Fighters after they drafted him and gave him the same number (11) that Rangers ace Yu Darvish wore for the team until 2011.

"I had been both hitting and pitching for a long time, but I thought I had to pick one before I was drafted,'' he said. "I never thought I could do both [as a pro]. But my team came up with an idea where I could try to do both, which made me very excited.''

Rather than pitch every five days or so, pitchers in Japan generally start once a week. So Otani will start a game for Nippon, take the next day off to work on some aerobic exercises, then DH or play in the outfield the next three or four games. Then he will take the day off before his next scheduled start and repeat the weekly routine.

Otani knows some scouts think that he would be better off focusing on one aspect of the game -- pitching or hitting. But he says he doesn't pay attention to such opinions.

"I don't think I can convince them to understand what I am doing,'' he said. "I'm just doing this because I like it. Simply, I want to. [When I was drafted] my team gave me options, and the team has supported me. If I pitch well and hit well, it just makes me happy. I am not trying [to] convince them.''

Plus, he's doing pretty damn well at both. He is 6-0 with an 0.86 ERA -- and two home runs -- through 40 games this season.


When he heard about Otani's dual role, former big leaguer Brooks Kieschnick said, "That's my dream job!"

After starring as a pitcher and hitter for the University of Texas, Kieschnick was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, who used him as an outfielder. Kieschnick moved between organizations before signing with Milwaukee, where he pitched, DH'ed and played some outfield in 2003, becoming the first player to both pitch and play another position since Willie Smith did so with the Tigers, Angels, Indians and Cubs in the 1960s. "I loved taking batting practice so much that it wasn't like it was work for me,'' Kieschnick said. "It was fun for me. I enjoyed doing both. I just enjoyed being on the field.''

Kieschnick pitched 42 games in relief in 2003, going 1-1 with a 5.26 ERA. He also played the outfield three games, DH'ed four games and pinch-hit 24 times, batting .300 with seven home run in 70 plate appearances. In 2004, he was 1-1 with a 3.77 ERA while hitting .270 with one home run in 2004. The Brewers released him with just days to go in spring training 2005.

"I didn't have the greatest spring training [that year],'' Kieschnick said, "but I heard they had a couple of young Rule V guys who were throwing 95 miles per hour. I said, 'I can't do that, but can they come off the bench to hit a game-winning home run for you?'''

Kieschnick could. He twice hit game-tying home runs as a pinch hitter, as did Micah Owings, who also pitched and pinch hit occasionally for the Diamondbacks, Reds and Padres from 2007-11.

As enlarged bullpens decrease bench depth, you would think that versatile players such as Otani or Kieschnick would be welcome additions to any team. But two factors are working against them. One, playing both means a player can't focus on a single position. More importantly, the injury risk increases, as Wainwright learned when he ended his season by tearing his Achilles tendon in the batter's box.

"So many different things can happen when you're hitting and pitching," Kieschnick said. "If you're hitting, you can foul a ball off your ankle or break a toe. Or get hit in the hand and break it or your pitching elbow. If Otani comes over to the States, they won't let him do both -- especially if they're going to invest a lot of money in that kid.''

Teams simply don't see the risk equaling the reward.

"Especially for a starting pitcher. Those guys are going to command anywhere from $5 million to $20 million a year,'' Kieschnick said. "They don't want them out there like, 'Hey, I'm going to DH you this game,' and all of a sudden they get hit. Don't think that [GMs] aren't thinking about that.''


Babe Ruth hit his first home run 100 years ago this month, slamming a pitch into the right field bleachers at the Polo Grounds on May 6, 1915. Ruth, then only 20, not only pitched that day, but he also threw a complete game -- even though the game went 13 innings.

Ruth pitched 163 games and 1,221 innings (nearly as many innings as Mariano Rivera) during his career, and that doesn't even include his 3-0 record and 0.87 ERA in three World Series games. From 1915-19, Ruth pitched in 154 games and played outfield or pinch hit in 232 games. His combined totals during that span were an 87-45 record with a 2.16 ERA on the mound and a .309 average, 49 home runs, 201 runs, 224 RBIs and a .985 OPS at the plate. He hit six times as many home runs as he allowed.

A number of players have been capable of both pitching and hitting at the major league level since Ruth did it, but few have gotten the chance.

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield pitched and played outfield in college for the University of Minnesota, where he also played basketball. In the 1973 College World Series, Winfield went 7-for-15 with a home run; also had a 2.08 ERA, 29 strikeouts and a 1-0 shutout; and was named the tournament MVP. The Padres drafted him in the first round in 1973 and asked him where he wanted to play. Because he wanted to play every day, he chose the outfield -- and he never pitched during his 22-year career in the majors.

Winfield wanted to pitch at least once before he retired, though.

"I don't care if it's just in a mop-up situation, I'd just like to get out there and get one guy out,'' Winfield told me, when he was playing for the Twins, in 1993. "It would have to be in a couple of years. Because I can't see them sending me out there this April and then having it be: 'Dave Winfield gets hit with a line drive.'''

John Olerud had a similar story. During his sophomore season at Washington State, Olerud was 15-0 with 113 strikeouts and a 2.49 ERA. He also hit .464 with 23 home runs and 81 RBIs. The Blue Jays drafted him in 1989, and he went directly to the majors as a first baseman. He pitched some in the instructional league that fall but at the start of spring training the next year, Toronto manager Cito Gaston told the position players to go over to the main field to hit, while the pitchers were to stay on a half-field to throw.

"I knew they were interested in me mainly as a hitter, so I went over to the main field for batting practice,'' Olerud said recently. "And I figured they would call me over to the main field if they wanted me to pitch. They never called me.''

Nor did he ever pitch again. Olerud thinks a major league team would want Otani to devote himself to one position as well.

"If Otani throws 100, they would like to protect that arm and they would want to have him be on a pitching program,'' Olerud said. "They won't want him to take off-balance throws where he could hurt his arm when he's trying to get the ball in quick from the outfield.

"They really want to protect what is the best position. I think that's why they generally try to get you to specialize.''

On the other hand, if things don't work out at one position, having a fallback can extend a career.

Rick Ankiel started out as a pitcher, but when he developed severe control problems the Cardinals switched him to the outfield. He wound up hitting 76 career home runs. Jason Lane pitched at USC -- he hit a ninth-inning grand slam and was the winning pitcher in the 1998 College World Series championship game -- but started out as an outfielder with the Astros, hitting 26 home runs in 2005, (He was shown homering in the Oscar-nominated movie "Boyhood.") When his outfield career declined though, Lane switched to pitching. He is still trying to make the conversion pay off at the Padres' Triple-A El Paso affiliate.

We'll see when Nippon Ham makes Otani available to a major league team -- now that MLB has capped the posting fee for any incoming Japanese player at $20 million, there isn't a whole lot of incentive for them to do so soon -- and whether he'll have to choose one position.

In the meantime, Otani will continue to pitch. And hit. Just like Ruth once did.

"I feel I can contribute to help my team win both by hitting and pitching,'' Otani said. "There are a variety of situations I can play. Some game, I can lead my team to win by pitching, and another game, I may be able to lead the team to win by hitting. That would be fun."