Shohei Ohtani Just Got Super-Duper Paid
10:33 AM EST on December 10, 2023
Comparisons have always presented a challenge where Shohei Ohtani is concerned. It's a scouting truism that it's never a good idea to make a comparison to an incomparable player, if only because the odds are against it ever being correct. I remember first hearing the phrase "good scouts don't comp Pedro" from a prospect writer friend in reference to the similarly diminutive, similarly electric teenaged pitching prospect Sixto Sánchez, who was at the time indeed being compared to Pedro Martínez. This wasn't a knock on Sánchez, who was one of the very best pitching prospects in the minors and soon to be the centerpiece of the trade that sent J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia. It's just that only one person in history has ever been Pedro Martínez, or even really very much like Pedro Martínez, and so the comparison was both doomed and unfair. Of course it hasn't worked out; Sánchez, who had already dealt with a number of injuries that hinted at how much strain his triple-digit fastball was putting his body through, made it to the bigs with the Marlins in 2020 and looked very good, and then didn't pitch again for three years after two shoulder surgeries. Baseball is cruel like that.
So you can see the problem when it comes to Ohtani, a player for whom the only meaningful comparison was literally Babe Ruth even before he played in his first big league game. During six mostly dazzling and totally purgatorial years in Anaheim, Ohtani somehow defied and surpassed that comparison. "In 1920, his first season exclusively as a hitter, Ruth led the American League in homers, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage," Andy McCullough and Ken Rosenthal write in The Athletic. "In 2023, while still making 23 starts with a 3.14 ERA, Ohtani led the American League in the same three categories as Ruth. He swatted 44 homers with a career-best 1.066 OPS." If the free agency value of a player like that was tough to project, it was mostly because Ohtani having spent the last three years as one of the very best pitchers and one of the very best hitters in baseball remains so difficult to comprehend. If it was challenging to figure out what the free agent market would be for this kind of player, it's because there is still no existing context for this type of player.
But while his free agency was, at Ohtani's request, something like a silent auction, a deal was always going to get done. On Saturday afternoon, after a protracted and strenuously private free agent courtship process that included college football-style plane-tracking, wild postulations about a large dinner reservation made by Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, a blustering Buster Olney meltdown, a ritual apology from MLB writer Jon Paul Morosi for a report that had Ohtani going to Toronto, and several convincing false starts, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for suitably preposterous and suitably unprecedented terms.
His 10-year, $700 million contract has no opt-outs, but is laden with significant deferrals along the lines of those in the less-massive deals that Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman have signed with the team since 2020. The math on Ohtani's deferrals is still being worked out by both the league and the MLBPA, but for the purposes of MLB's competitive balance tax Ohtani's annual salary reportedly could be as low as $50 million. This was reportedly at Ohtani's request, and would give the Dodgers some room to add to the roster while avoiding the steepest CBT penalties. The wait for Ohtani's signing more or less froze baseball's postseason; now that it can begin in earnest, the Dodgers can work to add pitching to a core that now features three past MVP winners*.
That $700 million figure is both a couple of hundred million dollars more than virtually anyone projected and very difficult to argue with. It is the biggest contract in the history of professional sports, and much bigger than any previous deal in the history of baseball. It's significantly richer than Mike Trout's record $426.5 million contract in total, and far exceeds the previous high of $43.3 million in annual value previously shared by Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. At some point, these numbers are simply too large to comprehend in either a quantitative or qualitative sense. Is Ohtani really that much more valuable than the aforementioned collection of sure-shot Hall of Famers? That's a matter of taste, and anyway not my problem. Has he been something in the neighborhood of a $35 million pitcher and a $35 million hitter over the last few years? That one's inarguable, unless you were inclined to argue upwards on either, or both.
In a more relative sense, the figures are... still pretty hard to parse, honestly, but at least scan somewhat more readily. Warner Bros. Discover CEO David Zaslav made $246 million 2021 and nearly $40 million in 2022, and there's little evidence that he's even replacement-level at being David Zaslav; Elon Musk, the planet's richest and most embarrassing man, spends his time making weepy Mr. Millionaire Success memes about himself. Shohei Ohtani is, among other things and in stark contrast to both, exceptionally good at his very difficult job and widely beloved for being cool at it.
Another difference is that success in Ohtani's job is easy to see. He did not win in Anaheim, which is both not really his fault and the most powerful tribute imaginable to how profoundly that team exists within its own mild and smoggy microclimate of perpetual headache. Imagine a version of "the shimmer" from the film Annihilation, except the way in which this particular force field warps nature makes it so that five guys in the lineup are always hitting exactly .212, and then further imagine that traffic into and out of that shimmer is always very bad. There's a radio station that only plays ads for personal injury lawyers.
Despite that, and despite the fact that the Angels were never anywhere near the postseason during his time there, Ohtani became a massive global star in both the fun unquantifiable ways and the drearier and more easily quantified ones. "Forbes estimated Ohtani made at least $35 million in endorsements last season," Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic back in November. "The Angels do not disclose the additional money they made off Ohtani [but] ESPN reported the number was in 'the low tens of millions of dollars.'" Whatever team paid Ohtani would also profit massively from having done so. The Athletic's Sam Blum and Fabian Ardaya quote one MLB evaluator as saying that Ohtani's deal "pay for itself within six or seven years...even just on advertising alone. All the eyeballs from Japan. He’s like Michael Jordan to them. He’s like Taylor Swift."
Ohtani's teammates have noted that Ohtani sincerely wants to be the best baseball player ever; he has this in common with many millions of other people, but he's got a real shot at it. The executives who met with him during his secretive free agent tour mentioned that Ohtani was similarly serious about wanting to win as much as possible over the next decade of his career. "It’s refreshing," a "high-ranking Dodger source" told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci after the team met with him, "that it seems he really is putting comfort level above going after every last dollar. It doesn’t appear that he regards the best deal as the most money." That source told Verducci that Ohtani grilled the team about their player-development program and minor league system. The idea was to pick the organization that would best put him in a position to win over the course of his contract.
The Dodgers, being the Dodgers, could answer those questions without blinking or filibustering. They have won their extremely competitive division in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and won 106 games in the one season that they didn't; they have won 100 games in five of the last six full seasons, most recently in what was effectively a retrenchment campaign in 2023, and won the World Series in the non-full 2020 season. Throughout that run of success, the Dodgers have maintained one of the best farm systems and player operations programs in the game, producing both young stars and a reputation for fixing broken veterans unparalleled in the sport. Verducci notes that the team "spent the past 15 months clearing payroll space specifically to make a run at Ohtani," and then was willing to level up on its offer after rumors suggested that Ohtani was leaning towards the Toronto Blue Jays. Going into the process, it was hard to imagine a big league team that could have made a more compelling case than the Dodgers. With hindsight, it feels almost inevitable.
Verducci reported that Ohtani referred to the figures rumored around his eventual contract as "laughable" during his meeting with the Dodgers. But professional athletes, even Sunshine Superman types like Ohtani, like to win, and if his historic contract is Ohtani's biggest victory as a Major Leaguer to date, it doesn't seem likely to be the last. Ohtani won't pitch at all in 2024, as he recovers from the second surgery on his UCL since 2018, and it's hard to know what kind of pitcher he will be in the future, or for how long. But there's also the value, as yet un-calculated and incalculable, of being the coolest player in the sport; "there is only one player in a lifetime like this," a Dodgers executive told Verducci, and what a sufficiently committed team would pay for such a player is not a figure so much as it is a principle. It seems silly, or anyway futile, to try to put a dollar figure on what that's worth. If Ohtani is a closer/DH in 2026, or a full-time rightfielder in 2028, or simply a DH at any time between now and the end of the deal, he'll still be Shohei Ohtani. No one's ever done that before, either.
*Correction: I originally had something wrong in here about MVP awards on the Dodgers that is now correct.