The Most Important Ohtani Survey Question Teams Must Answer

“This is maybe the most unique circumstance in baseball that I can recall. It is all about how you as a city, as an organization and as human beings appeal to an individual, rather than the final paycheck. In my lifetime, that’s really never been a thing.”

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto

This author certainly cannot remember a more interesting courtship in the history of free agency. Once Shohei Ohtani is officially available — he’s expected to be posted Friday or Saturday after an owner’s vote on the posting agreement — he will have 21 days to make a decision. After that, the world will wait. Teams will recruit.

That recruiting effort became more interesting over the weekend, as Ohtani’s, agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Baseball, sent something of an exam to all 30 clubs, a development first reported by The Associated Press.

Bill Shaikin provided the full list of questions for the L.A. Times.

The seven questions that could determine your favorite team’s future are as follow:

• An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter;
• Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities;
• Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities;
• Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation;
• A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization;
• Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play;
• Relevant marketplace characteristics.”

This is not a typical recruitment. It’s unlikely, for example, that the Rangers took similar questions from Doug Fister before signing him to a one-year deal over the weekend. But unless Ohtani has his heart fully set on a particular location — the Yankees are the presumed favorite because of their available bonus money, market, and tradition — the answers could be important. They are perhaps the seven most important questions a club will answer this offseason.
During my chat Monday, I polled the crowd to see which questions were suspected to be most important.

For the most part, I agree with the crowd.

No one seems to believe brick-and-mortar stadiums, gyms, and training rooms are going to matter a great deal, and almost every club has excellent facilities, at least at the major-league level. Many clubs have new spring-training homes, as well. Unless you’re representing Oakland or Tampa Bay, you should have some facilities to showcase.

Few seem to believe resources for “cultural assimilation” will be the top matter, and perhaps that’s because we’re accustomed to seeing Japanese stars accompanied by their own translators, etc. For many, the transition across the Pacific has been made rather seamlessly.

More surprisingly, few voted for “marketplace characteristics.” Perhaps that’s because everyone knows the cities that are world class or, alternatively, more modest in nature. But a number voted for detailing why the city and franchise are more desirable. Clubs will have to sell their cities, themselves, and their short- and long-term outlooks. For instance, I’m sure the Rangers will tout their experience and success with Yu Darvish’s transition and Texas’s lack of a state income tax. The Giants (and A’s) can note the significant Asian-American population in the Bay Area. The Yankees can paint a picture of Ohtani becoming part of a 21st century baseball dynasty.

The most important question, according to the crowd (Monday’s chat crowd), is detailing the plan for “integrating Shohei into the organization.” And this is, of course, a fascinating question. In the Ohtani-related posts at FanGraphs, there appears to be no uniform idea on the best way to do this.

To begin with, I’m assuming Ohtani wants assurances that he will not begin the season with, say, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders to stall his service time. And Ohtani, who has stated his desire to pitch and bat, is probably also curious about how much playing time clubs will promise him, how they plan on leveraging his talents. I’m working under the assumption that Ohtani wants the most innings and at-bats possible. This is what conceivably gives the AL teams an edge, though I’m sure many NL teams would promise him regular at-bats and even a corner-outfield spot when he’s not pitching.

Still, a creative NL team could try and sell Ohtani on being used unconventionally — say, as a corner outfielder who doubles as a super reliever and who has his talents leveraged to produce as much value as possible. (I’m hoping CAA will share all 30 completed questionnaires with the public.)

This question was somewhat related to the fourth-highest vote-getter: evaluating Ohtani’s “talent” as a pitcher and hitter. Perhaps Ohtani is attempting to weed out teams that are suspicious about his ability to hit and also pitch. Teams would probably be wise to inflate their view of Ohtani as a hitter, though Clay Davenport’s translations do suggest Ohtani will hit.

But the question that I found most interesting on the questionnaire was related to “player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities.”

I have to imagine that Ohtani is coming over at age 23 — forgoing the larger payday he’d have received by waiting two years — in part because he’s concerned with legacy and career achievement, which is of course tied to health and development. This is a player who dealt with injury last year and could perhaps be influenced by a club that can make a convincing case it has an edge in keeping pitchers healthy.

While it’s difficult to distribute credit for health or injury between the player, training staff, and baseball decision-makers, one finds that the Brewers, Cubs, Pirates, and Tigers were the clubs best at avoiding value lost to injury last season, according to Roster Resource’s “Roster Effect Rating”.

The Cubs jump out as the one large-market contender on the healthy end of the spectrum.

I don’t suspect the Pirates to be selected by Ohtani, although Pittsburgh does have a recent track record of keeping players on the field well above the industry average. The White Sox have a reputation of keeping pitchers healthy and productive, too, though they weren’t as proficient in that regard last season. The 10-day DL makes evaluating by DL stints, already imperfect due the way its utilized as a roster manipulation tool, more difficult, as teams like the Dodgers have begun to use the DL more aggressively to create flexibility.

Perhaps Ohtani is more interested in seeing which club’s views on training and maintenance most align with his own, and this is an area where doing homework on the player might help. The Twins were the healthiest AL playoff team a year ago according to the Roster Resource metric. Perhaps they could use that as a recruiting tool along with a promise to recruit Darvish. The Indians were second and are credited with having an excellent player-development process.

Teams can sell their preventative health measures and results. It’s perhaps this question where they can be most creative in making a case for something that is not available, to a degree, publicly. We know the size of markets and the strengths of farm systems and 25-man rosters. We know less about player development and training practices and philosophies.

What we learn from the questionnaire is that this is not going to be a decision based on one factor. We already knew Ohtani had considerations beyond money, and I suspect longevity and legacy are two of greatest drivers in this process.

So it’s the club that he feels might be best at putting him on the field the most often — and in keeping him on the field through good health — that will have an edge, perhaps a hidden advantage.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

The Mets may have trouble selling him on their ability to keep young pitchers healthy…

Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

But on the other hand, Matt Harvey may be quite willing to help Ohtani assimilate into NYC nightlife.

4 years ago

Comment of the offseason! Bravo.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago
Reply to  janparker5646

Comment of the offseason! Bravo.

4 years ago

You gentlemen are doing the lord’s work.