While Aaron Judge’s next contract will dominate the baseball world in the coming months, there’s a much more complicated conversation soon coming to a MLB hot stove near you: the financial future of Angels’ SP/DH Shohei Ohtani.
The 2021 American League MVP posted 26 doubles, 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, and a 158 OPS+ in 155 games last year. Oh and by the way, he also added a 3.18 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 156 strikeouts in 130 innings pitched to go along with it.
At the time of this piece, Ohtani is on pace to finish 2022 with 27 doubles, 39 home runs, 102 RBIs, and an OPS+ in the 140s. On the mound, his rest of season projections view him as a 3.45 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, with 157 strikeouts. While the total package of 2022 may not match or exceed that of last season, it’s still one heck of a two year resume to bring to the negotiating table.
Is there a chance Ohtani’s 2021 season was a peak? It’s certainly possible. Will the almost 28 year old’s ability to stay near the top of the league on both sides of the field continue to diminish from here out? Maybe. MLB simply doesn’t have a comparable player in the modern game to compare him to. He’s walking down his own path right now, which makes deciding on, and subsequently valuing him, for the next 5-8 years, all the much more difficult.
Shohei is under contract for 2022 at a $5.5M salary, and holds another year of arbitration eligibility for 2023 - we’ll get to the latter in just a minute.
Will the Angels make the soon to be 28-year-old an offer he can’t refuse? Is Ohtani dead set on following the likes of Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, and many others into the open free agent market before signing new?
For now, free agency appears to be the plan, which then leads to another question: How long will the Angels hang on for dear life? The Nationals kept Bryce Harper until the very end, capturing a compensatory draft pick (that was later forfeited with the signing of Patrick Corbin). The Astros held onto Gerrit Cole until the very end, as did the Dodgers with Corey Seager, and the Braves with Freddie Freeman - to name a few recent scenarios.
The Red Sox famously moved on from Mookie Betts just prior to the final year of his arbitration, as did the Guardians with SS Francisco Lindor, and the Orioles with SS/3B Manny Machado
The obvious differences here? Teams with legitimate contention chances are perfectly fine keeping their stars for as long as possible, and punting on any sort of blockbuster prospect trade return. Winning cures all.
Well the Angels haven’t done a lot of winning, and the 2022 season doesn’t appear to be any different in this regard. If the wheels completely fall off again this year, and more players are shipped out in the coming weeks, will the conversation turn away from “extension value” and toward “trade value” this fall?
The global appeal is obvious. But Ohtani is a star both in Japan & in America. One year ago this week, Forbes reported that Shohei Ohtani led all active baseball players with a $6M off-field endorsement portfolio. Ohtani had locked in accounts with the likes of Fanatics, Oakley, & Topps here in the US, while also securing partnerships with Asics, JAL Airlines, and Seiko Watch internationally. With this said, his team at CAA has been vocal about how "picky" the 27 year old is with his brand and how its promoted, meaning he's for certain leaving money on the table annually.
But will this continue? Winning cures all, and a move to a franchise with big dollars, and World Series chances will only ampligy Ohtani's ability to cash in both on and off the diamond.
The Extra Roster Spot
As of June 19th, MLB has (finally) adopted a roster limitation rule, stating that teams can now carry a maximum of 13 pitchers on their active roster at any time. The rule was initiated to stop teams from loading up on bullpen arms down the stretch, furthering the chance to elongate games with specific matchup changes.
An “Ohtani Clause” was implemented when the rule was created, stating that players who dual as a batter/pitcher with this kind of frequency will not count against the 13 pitcher list. This allows the Angels to carry an extra arm on a regular basis (though it doesn’t appear to be winning them many more ball games).
The Injury Conversation
Ohtani missed a month in his 2018 rookie year due to a sprained UCL in his elbow. The setback limited him to just 10 pitching starts that year, and led to surgery in 2019 that kept him off the mound entirely that following season.
With that said, Ohtani has been reliable as an everyday hitting option, making 800 plate appearances in his first two seasons, and over 600 last year. He’s on pace for nearly 700 in 2022 barring an unexpected absence.
Sadly, elbow surgeries to starting pitchers have become nearly as commonplace as peanut butter with jelly. However, the recovery rates from these injuries have made remarkable strides, with many candidates often finding more success at the MLB level after reconstructive operation.
It would be unfair to classify Shohei as “injury prone” right now. But a discussion about how his risk for injury going forward may be greater than all other MLB players is fair, based on the usage rate his dual-position role offers.
Will teams be afraid to go as long term on this contract than they would with a traditional one position player?
Finding Ohtani’s Market Value
Any previous rules used to statistically value a player’s market need to be ripped up and started anew for Ohtani. He’s not just a part time pitcher who hits most days, or a strong bat who can give a team a few innings on the mound as needed: he’s a full time position player, and a full time pitcher.
So, in order to properly evaluate Ohtani, we believe he should be assessed as each, separately and entirely.
Ohtani the Pitcher
With 2021 being his first full season on the mound (12 starts from 2018-2020), we’ll utilize statistics from 2021 & 2022 thus far for this calculation.
For comparables, we’ve included players with similar production in the two years leading up to their major paydays: Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer, & Yu Darvish. Why these pitchers specifically?
While it’s easy to assume that Ohtani’s stature in the game simply means he’s the best of the best at everything he’s doing, the statistics over the past 1.5 seasons say otherwise.Players like Gerrit Cole & Max Scherzer have recently signed contracts that live in the neighborhood of where many assume Ohtani will soon live, but statistically, they have produced far higher than what Shohei has been able to offer on the mound. These four pitchers provide a better snapshot comparison to what Ohtani the pitcher has been since 2020.
Ohtani stands ahead of the pack here in a majority of categories, with time missed & innings per start being his Achilles heel to date. Running this through the algorithm (money/stats/age) spits out a 7 year, $206M contract - for Ohtani the pitcher.
Ohtani the Hitter
Again using 2021 + current 2022 statistics, we’ll now assess Shohei Ohtani as a batter, stacking up his recent production against the likes of Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, George Springer, & recently extended Jose Ramirez - all close comps statistically speaking.
There’s a lot to like here from a total package setting, but Ohtani is behind in quite a bit of these notable categories. Harper’s two-year production probably aligns best with Shohei right now, and Ohtani gets a big bump from his ability to swipe a base every few games, but we had difficulty finding a “sweet spot” of proper comparables for the kind of player he is.
When running these metrics through the algorithm, Ohtani the Hitter projects to an 8 year, $202M contract.
Okay So Now What?
In most cases, our work would be done here. We have a number, we publish that number, and it becomes our “calculated projection” for said player. But it’s not that black and white with Shohei Ohtani. We’ve identified four paths these contract negotiations may take - each with a projected contract figure to boot.
#1 Agent’s Take: He’s a Dual Player - Take it or Leave It
The simplest starting point is the argument every agent in the world would make: Here’s our player, we expect him to be this forever, pay him accordingly.
He’s a $29.5M pitcher, and a $25.2M hitter, and he does both full-time, so that makes him a $54.7M baseball player. He’ll be 29 years old, and thus commands a minimum 8 year contract.
8 years, $437,600,000 ($54.7M AAV)
Crazy, right? This would be the largest total value contract in MLB history by more than $11M (Trout, $426.5M), with the highest average salary in MLB history by more than $11M (Scherzer, $43.3M).
But let’s think about it this way. Shohei Ohtani projects to strike out 239 batters per 162 games. He also projects to hit 44 home runs and steal 24 bags over those 162 games. How much would a free agent who strikes out 239 batters a year be worth to a contending team, $30M? How much would a 44 HR/24 SB free agent position player be worth to a contending team, $30M?
#2 Logic’s Take: He’s a Dual Player Now - But Not Forever
Let’s build in a little bit of logic to our “agent’s take”, by assuming that Shohei Ohtani will not be a full-time pitcher for the next 8-10 years. For purposes of this piece, we’ll project that he can maintain this type of dual player status for 5 more seasons, which in itself feels aggressive.
So now he’s a $29.5M pitcher for 5 seasons (100% of his value, and a $25.2M hitter for 8 seasons (100% of his value) which means:
8 years, $348,800,000 ($43.6M AAV)
This would be the 3rd largest total value contract in MLB history (Trout, $426.5M; Betts, $365M) and the largest average salary in MLB history (Scherzer, $43.3M).
#3 John Smoltz Take: Full-Time Now, Part-Time Later
Is there a compromised medium? Possibly. It might be incorrect to assume that 35 year old Ohtani can’t provide any production from the mound. What if his skillset was able to be utilized out of the bullpen, like John Smoltz was able to provide those great Braves teams in the twilight of his career?
So now he’s a $29.5M full-time pitcher for 5 seasons (100% of his value), a $7.3M part-time pitcher for 3 seasons (25% of his value), and a $25.2M hitter for 8 seasons (100% of his value).
8 years, $371,500,000 ($46.4M AAV)
This would be the 2nd largest total value contract in MLB history (Trout, $426.5M) and the largest average salary in MLB history (Scherzer, $43.3M).
#4 The Short & Sweet Take: Maximize the Prime
And finally, because short, high money contracts are FINALLY starting to make their way into MLB, we’ll project what a few smaller term deals could look like.
Generally the trade off to sign a player short term is to crank up the average salary. Carlos Correa probably isn’t a $35.1M shortstop in a lot of spreadsheets. But as a 3 year contract with opt-outs after each year, the Twins were comfortable going bigger on their tax just to have him for their immediate window of contention.
These types of negotiations almost always start from the player’s side, as the goal is to maximize immediate pay, with the opportunity to get back into the open market at an age that allows for it to happen again. But it doesn’t make a ton of sense to assume that for Ohtani, as the odds of him recapturing his current day value again in 3-5 years just doesn’t seem prudent. Shohei and his camp will be looking for one big swing here that encapsulates his current unicorn status, and factors in value he’ll be able to provide as a 35+ year old hitter.
Will teams be tempted to offer Shohei Ohtani an over-market-value smaller contract, especially with a short leash on his ability to pitch full-time, and the heightened risk of injury as he ages?
3 years, $180,000,000 ($60M AAV)
(From Above) How much would a free agent who strikes out 239 batters a year be worth to a contending team, $30M? How much would a 44 HR/24 SB free agent position player be worth to a contending team, $30M?
What if 3 years won’t cut it for Ohtani (it won’t). Will 5 years at a slightly higher than market value AAV get the job done?
5 years, $285,000,000 ($57M AAV)
These numbers may seem eye popping on the surface, but MLB (and all sports) are on a fast track to these price tags in the next few seasons. If the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the value of live sports to television/streaming networks is as great as ever.
NFL quarterbacks now max out at $50M per year (and climbing), NBA superstars now see over $50M per year average salaries, and top soccer/racing figures have been securing this type of money for a while now.
Max Scherzer’s free agent contract with the Mets didn’t just raise eyebrows, it raised the bar for how aggressive contending teams may have to be to secure the final one or two pieces to their championship puzzles. At the time of his signing, Gerrit Cole’s $36M per year mark was the starting pitcher ceiling. Scherzer locked in almost $7M more per year, on ? of the term.
Ohtani is the kind of player that either a) changes the immediate mindset for your team, or, b) identifies as the one big piece to push a team to the top. He’s that talented, that special, that unique. Does that mean a ridiculous overpay is required? No, but it only takes two teams to start a bidding war. Will he truly reach the numbers we’re projecting here? Obviously only time will tell, but early reports say it’s at least safe to assume he’ll be shooting to push past Max Scherzer’s $43.3M on average.
Our reservation in confidently stating that Ohtani will broach historic financial numbers is actually self-induced. Ohtani and his camp were comfortable accepting a 2 year, $8.5M contract to buyout two years of arbitration placed a confidence value on his market. This is a notion that can go both ways (an $18M qualifying offer for a $12M player now makes him an $18M player), but in Ohtani’s case it lowers his floor, which often ends up lowering the ceiling as well.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and certain individuals buck trends and blow through glass ceilings. Shohei Ohtani is certainly on track to be that kind of baseball player, but just how high, and for just how long, remains the question.