The most interesting player in baseball has not played a game in America. This young free agent will be the cornerstone player for any team, but will be one of the poorest-paid players in Major League Baseball. Such is the peculiar case of the Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani.
Shohei Ohtani is unusual for two reasons. First, he is attempting to be the first player since Ruth to both pitch and hit in MLB. He possesses towering power, exceptional speed on the base paths and a 100-mph fastball. Scouts generally believe he can be an ace pitcher and a strikeout-prone but homerun-hitting, middle-of-the-order hitter.
That makes Ohtani a singularity. There are no two-way players in Major League Baseball. There are pitchers like Madison Bumgarner who are OK at hitting. And there are hitters like Christian Bethancourt and Ichiro Suzuki, who can pitch a little. No one can or has consistently done both in modern history.
Pitching and hitting are two specific motions with little technical crossover. There are simply so few people in the world good enough to hit or pitch at a professional level that finding someone who can do both is extremely unlikely.
There are a few people like Rick Ankiel, who went from pitching to hitting, but never a player doing both simultaneously. Doing both for a 162-game season would be tiring and potentially dangerous — there is a reason pitchers have a four-day break in between starts — as pitching takes a toll on your arm and legs.
However, in Ohtani’s last full season in Japan, he managed to hit .322 while pitching to a miniscule 1.86 ERA. If there is anyone in the world who can break the traditional pitcher/hitter mold, it might be Mr. Ohtani.
Every team in baseball would love to have Ohtani on their roster. Every team needs a front-line starting pitcher and slugger. On most occasions when you have such a coveted free agent, a bidding war starts with only the richest teams — the Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, Red Sox, etc. — actually having a chance at signing the player. However, here is where Ohtani becomes even more interesting — everyone can afford him.
Ohtani is an unusual man. If he had waited another two years before coming over to the United States, he would only be 25-years-old and would not face any contractual restrictions. Based on past contracts, he would be looking at roughly a 7-year, $160 million contract. By coming over now, his max signing bonus is $3.75 million and he will then earn a relatively meager $500k/year for six years. To sign Ohtani, a team will also have to pay $20 million to his club, the Nippon Ham Fighters. Every team in baseball can afford $24 million, which creates competition for his services.
Money does not seem to be a motivating factor, as he is leaving millions on the table for the sake of competing at the highest level. Despite making several million a year in Japan, Ohtani reportedly lives on a stipend from his parents, sleeps in team dorms and does not drink. This further gives Ohtani interesting leverage — he can force teams to pitch themselves to him.
The most unusual player in the world is starting a case competition for his services. It’s now a competition, and teams like the Dodgers and Yankees can no longer bully the market into submission. Ohtani has even given each team a questionnaire to fill out, seeking details on the state of their facilities, how they plan to utilize him and their plan for future success.
Ohtani is a difficult man to read. In the case of other prominent free agents, the Yankees, for instance, would tout their storied history, fabulous wealth for a future contract extension and the roaring New York nightlife. But who knows how much Shohei cares about these things?
The leading team right now might be the Seattle Mariners who are geographically the closest to Japan and have a history of Japanese players on the team. However, with all 32 teams aggressively attempting to woo this enigma, it truly is anyone’s ballgame. Only time will tell whether Ohtani will successfully become a true two-way baseball player, the modern-day Babe Ruth.
It already is certain, though, that history will remember the peculiar case of Shohei Ohtani.