Tigers prepare two-way doubletalk

After watching video of Tigers first-draft pick Junya Nishi batting and pitching, one has to be curious what Hanshin’s plans are for him. Since last year, people were talking about the 18-year-old as a possible two-way player.

My scouting report on Nishi is HERE.

Yano opens the door and then closes it

In November, the Nikkan Sports reported Tigers manager Akihiro Yano brought the matter up when he first visited the youngster. Yano reportedly said, “You can’t have a two-way player like Ohtani in the Central League (where pitchers bat). Do your best as a pitcher, then we’ll see about further uses.”

What that means, of course, is the chance of Hanshin coming up with an innovative plan for a power hitter who can pitch is basically zero.

If your plan is that a) “there can’t be a two-way player like Ohtani in the CL” because the league has no DH, and b) “we’ll see after he masters pitching,” you are basically relegating his batting talent to the dustbin.

That is the way an MLB team would have handled Ohtani the amateur before he became Ohtani the two-way pro star: master pitching first. But when he became a star, all those scouts who said “No major league team will risk that arm by letting him hit” were forced to accept that was not true.

Three National League clubs, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers all had plans in place to give Ohtani 350-plus at-bats while pitching in the rotation. Perhaps they didn’t know what Yano KNOWS, that you can’t have a two-way player without a DH.

The differences between Nishi and Ohtani

To be fair, Ohtani differs from Nishi, a fellow right-handed pitcher, in three distinct ways:

  • Ohtani bats left-handed
  • Ohtani is bigger and threw harder when he was Nishi’s age.
  • Ohtani’s delivery was smoother
  • Ohtani had less command of his secondary pitches

In 2017, Ohtani said he was a better hitter because he pitched and vice versa, Asked if he could provide a rationale for that, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler answered a year ago that Ohtani’s left-handed swing is a perfect counterbalance to the torque exerted on his trunk as a right-handed pitcher.

When Ohtani threw his first pro bullpen with the Fighters, one club executive thought his future was in the batter’s box since his breaking pitches were awful. But guys who throw 100 mph are rare. Nishi isn’t that guy.

Nishi may have more command — except with his curve — but his arm deceleration still looks much more violent. His pitching motion makes it look as if he is exerting himself all out on every pitch. Because of that, it may well be that his upside as a hitter is even better.

In the end, the Tigers will choose the way they think maximizes his skills. But by not checking the “develop batting” box from the start, that decision has likely already been made.

The player development view

“You need to keep working on skills or you lose them. They degrade and you just can’t call them back later. It doesn’t work like that,” said Bobby L. Scales, II, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league field coordinator and former director of player development for the Angels.

Scales, who played in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes, knows from experience that right-handed batters who learn to switch hit often fail to practice their natural swings enough and lose much of their ability to hit left-handed pitchers.

“Why would anyone not have him keep working on his batting?” Scales asked by telephone on Wednesday. “He’s been a batter and a pitcher all his life. Why stop now?”

“I know Japanese teams tend to be risk-averse but if you don’t know what you’re missing. You will never know what might have been.”

Risk aversion

Scales also talked about how sports, like art and language, display a society’s culture. Japanese baseball people often say their game is less about winning than it is about not losing.

When one thinks about it, this makes Japan’s preoccupation with hitting and defense and small ball. No player on the field can contribute as much to a losing cause as the pitcher. A fielder can miss a few plays and the pitcher can get over it. The team’s best hitter can strike out four times with the bases loaded and the team can still win. But if the pitcher throws fat pitches with the bases loaded, your team is in deep trouble.

If that’s true, anyone with the potential to be a quality pitcher is going to be a position player. Nishi’s fastball sits at 90 miles per hour and he has a good slider, change and splitter. If your focus is on having guys who won’t cost you games, those are more valuable skills than the power needed to drive the ball over the fence.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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