In case you haven’t noticed, we here at Lookout Landing have caught a bad case of Ohtani Fever lately. This is really all John Trupin’s fault, who has been singing his own version of Ohtani’s song in the LL slack for the better part of this season and just the other day wrote up this summary of Dipoto’s activity in Japan, which you should go and read if you haven’t already. Since that article was published yesterday, this story has developed in a couple of important, if not entirely surprising, ways:
- We have actual evidence that Dipoto was in attendance at Ohtani’s last start, on Tuesday. I spotted him in the crowd of scouts (over 20) right towards the end of Ohtani’s outing, and then our friends at Graveyard Baseball tracked down this screenshot:
Side note: I stayed up very, very late to watch the broadcast of this game and get a look at Ohtani. There was an ad with children dressed as sausages dancing around, terrifyingly interspersed with a close-up shot of an actual sausage being speared. I’m still not sure if it was maybe a product of sleep-deprived delirium.
- Part of the mystery surrounding Ohtani has lifted, as Jeff Passan reports Ohtani will be heading stateside in 2018:
Shohei Otani will be posted this winter and play Major League Baseball next season, per multiple Japanese reports. https://t.co/0CVz5GGZdz— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 13, 2017
In a series of tweets, Passan points out that Ohtani’s free agency will be one of the most interesting in recent baseball history. As a refresher, thanks to new international cap rules, the under-25 Ohtani will be restricted to only the money a team has in their international bonus pool. By electing to come to MLB two years early, he’s potentially turning his back on hundreds of millions of dollars. The max Ohtani can get is somewhere around 8 million, and plenty of teams have already spent out of their international bonus pools. While it’s tempting to dismiss teams like the Dodgers, who are under penalty and can’t spend any more than 300k on any single signing, it’s unlikely that a man who’s willing to walk away from a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of money is going to be swayed by the difference between 300k, 500k, one million or even three million. I know, I know, 300k vs. a million? Tra-la-la, what’s the difference hand me another stack of hundreds to line the birdcage with, but as Arrested Development so wisely noted in “Mr. Wendal”, “two dollars means a snack to me, but it means a big deal to you.”
Consider this: Ohtani is already making millions, has endorsement deals across Japan, and yet lives on the ~thousand dollars his parents send him each month out of his earnings. When he’s named the Nippon Ham Fighters Player of the Game—the prize for which is a sack of rice, or a bag of fish, or a package of the eponymous sausages—he takes it happily back to the team dorm where he lives, grateful to be saved both the money for dinner and a trip to the grocery store. (Fans wait outside the dorm at all hours of the day, hopeful to capture a glimpse of the young star.) “It’s not about the money,” the typical free agent athlete statement starts, before immediately being canceled out by: “but I have to do what’s best for my family.” But in this case, because of factors largely beyond Ohtani’s control, it literally cannot be about the money. [John has pointed out that the idea of honor and respect figures largely in Japanese culture, and there’s a good argument to be made that a team spending profligately on multiple non-Ohtani resources might be read as a sign of disrespect, or of not being serious about trying to acquire his services. However, this is a complex web of factors; the Padres, for example, have spent heavily internationally, but have also invested time in recruiting Japanese front office executives.]
So then, what is it about? Imagine that you work at a company, at a job that you love. There are two companies that service your industry, and your company is the smaller, less well-regarded of the two. You’re proud of the work you do and your coworkers, and you’ve done well, earning the company’s top honors. But you can’t help but wonder how you’d do at the other, bigger company. Would you still be the best?
It’s this question that is driving Ohtani to pass up the safety and lucre of staying in Japan for an additional two years. He wants to know how he, the best player in Japan, stacks up against the best players in baseball. In his dorm at night, having declined his teammates’ invitations for socializing (Ohtani does not drink and excuses himself from situations where alcohol is involved), he pulls up video of Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper and tries to imagine himself facing them. Or as them.
However, if Ohtani wants to be teammates with Kershaw or Harper, or have the pleasure of facing them regularly, he will have to give up part of his MLB dream. Ohtani has expressed a desire to play as a two-way athlete, like he’s currently doing in Japan, where he starts on Sundays, and then DHs a few times during the week. After sustaining an ankle injury playing the outfield that forced him to miss the WBC this year, as well as coping with a thigh strain that’s kept him out this year, Ohtani has been relegated to a DH role. It’s possible he could play outfield in the US—it’s not a question of his ability, Ohtani has speed and a strong arm—but that would be a pretty significant injury risk for a player who brings so much value as a front-end starter. If Ohtani is serious about wanting to be a two-way player, an AL team would give him the opportunity to do that more than once every five days.
Ultimately, the team that signs Ohtani will be the one that he sees as the best fit for what he wants to accomplish: to test his mettle against the best players in baseball, and hopefully to do that as both a pitcher and a hitter. When Ohtani graduated high school, he announced his intention to go straight to MLB, going so far as telling Japanese teams not to draft him. The Nippon Ham Fighters did anyway, because Ham Fighters do what they want, and presented him with a book: The story of Shohei Ohtani. The book outlined why staying in Japan for a couple of years and developing as a two-way player would be most beneficial to Ohtani, who was swayed: he stayed. Whatever team wishes to acquire Ohtani’s services has to be able to offer him a similar book, to script a future that is desirable to him and show him a clear pathway to making those dreams come true. For once, it really isn’t about the money.