Why We Should Stop Acting Like We Know What Shohei Ohtani Wants

Shohei Ohtani’s path to major league baseball is like Shrödinger’s cat. It’s not both dead and alive, but it’s everything and nothing with the designation at the whim of whom is interpreting it. While not all reasonable arguments, an case can be made that he could sign with any given major league team. Any team can afford him, it’s just a matter of whether or not they best fit his decision criteria. We’ve seen this borne out in the media — mainstream and otherwise — as writers have taken the little that we know about Ohtani’s decision and melded in to whatever fits their given argument. Sure, there have been a few common teams that have been advocated as favourites, but if you were to read five different articles predicting where Ohtani will end up, you could get five different teams.

When it comes to Shohei Ohtani, we’re all Jon Snow.

It’s funny then that everyone seems to implicitly understand this, but sunsequently ignores it. An article by Anthony Castrovince at Sports on Earth inspired this thought. He ranked every MLB team by their likelihood to sign Ohtani, but then finished it off by saying, “nobody knows what Ohtani has in mind.” He’s not alone in this. In an article on MLB.com, Jon Paul Morosi lists the top eight contenders for Ohtani, as determined by nothing other than conventional wisdom and unnamed MLB.com sources. However, he led off that article by asking an MLB executive to rank the contenders, to which the executive shrugged and said, “there’s no way of knowing what he will choose to do.”

The executive is right.

All that Shohei Ohtani has provided is the questionnaire that he sent across to teams. Here are the main points via CBS Sports:

  • An evaluation of Ohtani’s pitching and hitting ability
  • An explanation of the team’s player development, medical training and player performance philosophies
  • Spring training, minor-league and major-league facilities
  • Details for Ohtani’s cultural assimilation
  • How the team plans to integrate Ohtani into its organization
  • Why the city/franchise is a desirable place to play along with any other relevant “marketplace” characteristics

From an analysis perspective, this questionnaire presents quite the problem and brings the ‘conventional wisdom’ in to question. Why? As noted before, any team can craft their argument such that their city fits precisely in with what Ohtani is looking for in this memo. Notably, he hasn’t added any caveats around money, winning, or anything else that North American media has deemed relevant to his decision.

Why The Bonus Money May Not Matter

A lot has been made about the available bonus pools each MLB team has to work with while attempting to sign Shohei Ohtani. In the Morosi piece referenced above, he lists the Yankees, Rangers, and Twins as a few of the primary contenders for Ohtani’s services. One of the primary justifications behind that designation is the fact that those are the only three teams that can offer the Japanese star a bonus of more than $3 million. While money — on a total and AAV basis — is traditionally a primary factor for most free agents, it doesn’t seem to concern Shohei Ohtani.

If we’re to assume that he’s the real deal, then he could easily top $200 million following his hitting free agency at age 29. Over the course of his career then, the $3 million difference between what the aforementioned trio of teams can offer him and the $10,000 that Cleveland and Colorado can offer him will amount to less than two percent of his earnings. Deciding based on that small a total would be like Marco Estrada spurning the Blue Jays over a $195,000 difference between what he wanted and got from the Blue Jays in an extension this offseason.

This may be a different story if, like a Latin American prospect, Ohtani were unproven and without any other income, but he’s fine in both departments. Not only has Ohtani made millions already in Japan, but a $3 million difference in bonus offerings pales in comparison to the endorsement dollars he’ll likely receive in Japan no matter where he ultimately ends up signing. Other writers have surmised that the extent to which a city has a large Japanese population may matter here, but I’d argue that he’ll probably still get the same amount of endorsement dollars from Japan no matter where he plays. In the long run, being in a city where he can establish his brand may help him get North American endorsement dollars, but that seems unlikely at the outset.

Lastly, Shohei Ohtani is thinking long term: this is one thing that he actually has indicated to us. In his questionnaire, he asks that teams evaluate him and pitch him on their development plans for him. In the long run, the difference between landing with a team with the right development plan and one with the wrong one could cost him tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, it’s much harder to make money when you’re injured or don’t adjust to the league.

Why The History of Japanese Success May Not Matter

Following the money point, the history of Japanese success in a given city has been brought up as a potentially strong factor in Ohtani’s decision. It’s the reason why the Mariners are considered to be strong contenders and one of the reasons why the Dodgers and Rangers are considered to be favourites. The writers who draw on this point predicate it on Ohtani’s praise of Ichiro and Darvish, arguably Japan’s best hitter and pitcher in major league baseball history. Of course, in addition to those two, teams like the Mariners, Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox have integrated many other Japanese players as well…just some less successfully than others *cough* Red Sox *cough* *cough* Dice-K *cough. However, in an interview that Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com conducted with Ohtani in February, Shohei plays down this angle. When questioned about whether it’d be better for he and Darvish to be on different teams, he responded by saying that, “being on the same team would be great, but being on separate teams would also be great, because I would get to face him.”

Additionally, there are plenty more teams than the national media notes that have signed and integrated Japanese ballplayers. In addition to the Mariners, Dodgers, and Rangers, the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Mets, Cardinals, Padres, Rays, Cubs, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Brewers have all had success with signing players from Japan. Of note, the Padres have reportedly leveraged this angle by bringing some of their former Japanese stars in to the organization. Ichiro as a Mariner and Darvish as a Ranger stand out most prominently in people’s minds, but those teams just happen to have signed two of the best, most recent Japanese ballplayers; they’re not unique.

And finally, there’s also this:


Why Letting Him Be a Two Way Player May Not Matter

In the same Morosi interviewed referenced earlier, Ohtani plays down the idea that hitting and pitching is a priority for him in the major leagues.

When asked, “when you come to MLB, how important is it for you to continue both hitting and pitching?”

He responded by saying that, “I’m not really sure how the American managers and scouts would rate my hitting compared to the way I’m rated in Japan. I would like to do both if I can.”

And when prodded again with the question: “how exciting is it for you that you can come here and change the way Americans think about baseball?”

Ohtani stayed the same course, saying that, “It’s not up to me to decide if this is a successful decision, it’s up to the fans and the analysts. If they can accept me as a two-way player, that is an exciting thought.”

Shohei Ohtani does acknowledge here that the thought of being Japan’s Babe Ruth is ‘an exciting thought’ and he’s iterated in other interviews that he enjoys both hitting and pitching. But is it a necessity? Ohtani leaves that up for interpretation.


Why The Present Winning Ways May Not Matter

This isn’t a traditional free agent deal: Ohtani isn’t signing on for three of post age 30 seasons. Instead, he’s signing on for the most important developmental period and prime of his career. He’ll presumably be with the team that he signs with for six — or possibly even seven — years. That’s a lot of time. Teams like the Dodgers and Yankees look like they’ll be competitive for years to come, but Ohtani could be looking to how other teams look to be developing long term. He’s indicated that he’s thinking long term in other instances, so we shouldn’t necessarily assume that he’ll be hopping on with the Yankees or either of the World Series finalists just yet.


What Does Matter

Contrary to what we’d assume based on how the majority of other free agents make team decisions, Ohtani hasn’t affirmed that money or immediate team success are primary factors in his decision. There are allusions to his enjoying being a two-way player and admiration of certain Japanese stars, but neither were keys in the Morosi interview. The only through line between everything that we’ve seen from Ohtani is that he’s driven and he wants to put himself in the best place to succeed in the majors.

To quote the Morosi interview yet again, this is what Shohei Ohtani said regarding his most important factors in choosing an MLB team: “the people on the team and in charge of the team is what matters most. I need to have a feeling of wanting to play for them.” Those factors are reiterated in the questionnaire as he inquired on the team’s evaluation of him, their training philosophies and facilities, and their plans for him.

Shoehei Ohtani may lose out on more than $100 million because he wanted to prove himself in the world’s top baseball league before he turned 25. Clearly, our standard rules for free agent destination analysis don’t apply here and we need to stop acting like they do. The extent to which a team has spent time and resources courting Ohtani will certainly aid them in their efforts to pitch him, but, if we’re to believe Ohtani himself, he’ll land with the team that with the best philosophical and developmental match.

As Ohtani himself says, “everyone will have the same shot.” Well, everyone except for the Phillies.

Lead Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY

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