LOS ANGELES — His accomplishments remain the stuff of fantasy. The awe espoused by his colleagues continues unabated. The love from his industry remains unconditional.
But reality is closing in on Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani, baseball’s greatest two-way player in a century, will take the Dodger Stadium field Tuesday night for his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance with his stature in the game secure. He once again qualified for the game as a two-way player, although workload concerns and a desire to start on the mound Friday for his Los Angeles Angels will relegate him to, ahem, only leading off for the American League.
After that, he will return to an Angels team that is 39-53, 20 ½ games out of first place, with a fallow farm system and a pair of players – franchise linchpin Mike Trout and oft-injured third baseman Anthony Rendon – already making more than $36 million a year.
They’ll gather to try again next year. Then, Ohtani can become a free agent.
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And suddenly, baseball will have a task on its hands that’s advanced from cheeky parlor game to a half-billion dollar game of poker:
How does one quantify all that Shohei Ohtani does? And how exactly do you compensate the game’s greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth?
“Could you just do a double contract? Is that what you do?” asks New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, whose nine-year, $324 million contract is baseball's largest for a pitcher.
“I guess it’s great we don’t have a salary cap if that’s the situation we get into.”
Particularly when Ohtani continues proving there’s no limit to what he can do.
'The player is intimidating'
Ohtani won 2021 AL MVP honors by hitting 46 home runs, posting a .965 OPS, striking out 156 batters in 130 1/3 innings and posting a 3.18 ERA that was 41% better than the league average. He may never match Ruth’s 714 home runs, but it’s increasingly safe to say Ohtani is doing the two-way thing better than anyone. Ruth, after all, was done as a pitcher at age 24, only once hitting more than 11 home runs in a season he pitched.
Beyond Ruth, a typical Ohtani year is a journey into baseball’s record book, past and present.
He steamed into this All-Star break with a different identity than the 2021 version, this time displaying greater dominance as a pitcher. He has won the last six games he started, striking out 58 and posting a 0.45 ERA over five weeks – all while smacking eight homers and posting a .964 OPS.
Ohtani has struck out at least 10 in four straight starts. Only Nolan Ryan has bettered that in Angels history.
Prefer a more modern metric? His 119-mph double in April is the hardest-hit ball by a left-handed hitter in Statcast’s eight-year history. Yes, he’s the lefty equivalent of Giancarlo Stanton.
“It’s almost like he’s two different players in a singular body,” says New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso.
Yet he’s just one 28-year-old man, whose value ostensibly could be quantified by modern metrics. Good ol’ Wins Above Replacement, as measured by Baseball-Reference, says Ohtani has been worth exactly 20 WAR over his five seasons, with his MVP year worth 9 WAR (4.9 hitting, 4.1 pitching).
Still, there’s no quantifying his presence, for teammates or opponents.
“There’s an aspect where it’s not just the production because the actual player is intimidating,” says the Yankees’ Cole. “So, even if he’s cold at the plate, you don’t mess with him. Even if he’s had a couple bad outings, he’s still coming at you with a hundo and a split. And then he’s going to drop a bomb on you if he leads off. It is tough to quantify.
“But I’m not interested in quantifying it. I’m just interested in enjoying it when it’s not against the Yankees.”
Those who see his act with regularity note how Ohtani’s ability to take care of his body is without peer, his discipline with diet, workouts and sleep keeping him finely honed. His catcher, Max Stassi, marvels at Ohtani’s staying power – did we mention he stole 26 bases in 2021? – given the physical rigors.
And it never seems to get old.
“We’re playing in Boston earlier this year,” Stassi recalls, “10th inning, he was on first, (scores), we win and then we had a 1 o’clock game the next day. Pitches seven shutout innings and I think his last pitch to Trevor Story was 98 mph.
“For him to pitch and hit and run and steal bases while he’s pitching – it’s like, ‘Hey man, slow down! Your pitch count!’”
Soon, life off the field will speed up for him.
'As much as he wants?'
Ohtani surprised the industry when he departed Japan, eschewed the lavish recruitment efforts from more notable franchises and signed with the Angels. He cited a comfort level with the club and the area that endures.
“I’ve been here for almost five years, and while I don’t go out a lot, when I do, fans recognize me and say hi,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “It does feel like home to me.”
But the Angels cannot afford him the chance to contend, and soon may not be able to afford him, period.
The club’s $245 million signing of Rendon came after a 2019 season in which Ohtani did not pitch while recovering from Tommy John surgery and hit 18 home runs while getting on base at a .343 clip. Nice year, even if it wasn’t a break-the-bank display.
Ohtani also was just 24 years old.
He got back on the mound for two games in pandemic-shortened 2020 before roaring into his baseball prime a year later. Meanwhile, Rendon has had season-ending hip and wrist surgeries. Trout missed most of 2021 with a calf injury and won’t play Tuesday night because of ribcage inflammation.
The team still can’t pitch. It switched GMs last year. It switched managers this year, and then lost 24 of its next 36.
So. With a match made in Anaheim growing increasingly unlikely – and Ohtani would hit the market one year before Juan Soto – who wants this guy? And how much, exactly, does he get paid?
“I’m going to try to stay out of the man’s pocket,” says Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson. “But you gotta pay for everything. Ain’t nothing free.”
Says Trout: “I couldn’t even give you a number. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He could win the Cy Young or the MVP.”
Ohtani will come with far more than just the production. His status as an international star represents its own potential revenue stream for a club. His increasingly prominent place in the game’s history – statistically, orally – will bring its own perks.
“How we talk about Babe Ruth is how people will talk about Shohei Ohtani, a hundred years from now,” says Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman. “We can write how amazing he is, but I don’t think that’s enough for what he’s doing and what he deals with every single day outside of just being a baseball player. He has so much going on.”
Ohtani, indeed, is different, and to this day remains grateful that MLB provided him the canvas to showcase his two-way prowess.
“I just can’t thank everybody enough for accepting me doing the two-way thing, which wasn’t normal at the time, but everyone embraced it, including MLB and all the American fans,” he said Tuesday.
Ohtani is making $5.5 million this season, the last year of a two-year deal that covered his first and second arbitration-eligible seasons. Given the numbers he put up in the deal’s first year, it likely saved the Angels millions this year.
It won’t be so team-friendly in 2023, when Ohtani will bring to his final year of arbitration the most unique case in the system’s history, and likely doubles his salary.
After that? Good luck finding a range – $300 million? $400 million? Half of what Cole and Soto are worth, combined? – that’s appropriate. The industry is just now starting to anticipate the stakes.
“The value of one roster spot, frontline starter, middle-of-the-order bat, unbelievable teammate, unbelievable person,” the Angels’ Stassi says before offering a projection.
“As much as he wants, I guess?”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shohei Ohtani contract: What is two-way star worth? Free agency nears