What should we make of Shintaro Fujinami’s Cactus League debut?

There probably couldn’t have been more hype for the fourth game of spring training.

A’s and Angels’ PR staffs had to assemble an auxiliary press box in Mesa, Arizona, on Tuesday as two of Japan’s biggest baseball stories collided once again. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see Shohei Ohtani bat against Shintaro Fujinami in his spring MLB debut, but the two former rivals pitched against each other at Hohokam Park.

Starters are still building up this early in camp and just limited to two innings at this point, but a whole lot happened during Fuji’s six outs Tuesday. We got glimpses of the filthy stuff, but we also saw him struggle with his command. In the end, Fuji has to be happy with the two scoreless innings he tossed in the big spring spotlight.

Fujinami was once regarded as a better pitching prospect than Ohtani. Their rivalry dates back to at least 2012, when the two faced off in Japan’s famed Koshien tournament that is a nationwide attraction. Think March Madness, but high school baseball.

During that 2012 meeting, Ohtani took Fuji deep, but Fujinami pitched a complete game to earn the victory.

They both were drafted into NPB in 2013 and Fuji actually enjoyed more early-career success, making the All-Star team his first four seasons as a pro. 2016 ended up being an inflection point of sorts, as Fujinami entered a prolonged bout with his control and Ohtani became a legit two-way superstar before joining the Los Angeles Angels in 2018. Fuji spent the last few seasons shuttling back and forth between the majors and minors in Japan. After finding his command last season, Fujinami got posted by the Hanshin Tigers and signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract with the A’s to take the leap to MLB.

While we should temper our expectations for Fujinami this season – he hasn’t pitched more than 107.1 innings since 2018 – his stuff was undeniable on Tuesday. He consistently hit 97-98 mph with his fastball while flashing a devastating splitter, en route to three strikeouts.

That’s not to say the afternoon wasn’t without drama. Fuji walked the bases loaded to begin the second inning before having a chat at the mound to calm down. He responded by getting a strikeout and an inning-ending double play to escape the day with no runs to his name. 

“I felt really good in the first inning, but I was trying to do too much in the second,” Fujinami said through interpreter Issei Kamada, via “I kind of lost my command. But in the middle of the [second inning] I got the feel back.”

His final line? 2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 3 K. Ohtani’s line went 2.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 2 K in the 11-5 Angels victory.

In a nutshell, this might be what we can expect from Fujinami. He’s capable of being a shutdown pitcher but also prone to losing the grasp of the game quickly. So long as Fujinami can keep his walk-to-strikeout ratio above 3 – it was 3.19 last year – he should be an effective weapon.

Fujinami has told reporters a realistic goal for him this season would be to pitch 140 innings. The biggest question, beyond his control, remains his availability, but Oakland manager Mark Kotsay said earlier in spring that a six-man rotation wouldn’t be out of the question. Perhaps Ohtani can go to a once-a-week type of schedule to manage his workload, but Oakland surely would love to have his electric stuff on the mound as much as possible.

Hopefully for Fuji, his next start will be a lot less nervy and there will be a lot less hoopla around the event. But he navigated out of what could have been a terrible, no, good, bad debut with that sweet 6-3 DP. The three strikeouts and three walks is also telling, but he’s gotta get that ratio up.