Where Ohtani Would Make the Most Impact

“The best for the group comes when everyone in the group does what’s best for himself and the group.”

–American mathematician John Nash

Shohei Ohtani is fascinating for a number of reasons. We start with the dual talent, of course.

While injury limited him to just five starts as a pitcher in 2017, he struck out 29 and allowed only 13 hits in 25.1 innings — as a 22-year-old. He produced a .332/.403/.540 slash line in 230 plate appearances. In 2016, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA over 20 starts in the NPB. He struck out 174 and walked 45 in 140 innings. He also OPS’d 1.004 with 22 home runs in 323 at-bats in 104 games.

He was named the league’s best pitcher and best DH.

While Clay Davenport’s deadly accurate statistical translations don’t appear to be available for 2017 NPB play, Davenport’s 2016 translations are available to the public.

For Ohtani, they’re quite good. Consider his 2016 (age-21) numbers translated to MLB performance as a pitcher: 137.1 innings, 107 hits, 46 earned runs, 45 walks, and 140 strikeouts (9.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/K). And as hitter: 324 at-bats, 14 home runs, 34 walks, 89 strikeouts and a .306/.367/.512 slash line.

His volume of work as a pitcher has been conservative, but perhaps around 400 plate appearances would be Ohtani’s ceiling as a DH and/or outfielder.

The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote last year that Ohtani led the NPB with 10.4 WAR in 2016: 5.8 wins as a pitcher, 4.6 as a hitter. Just your run-of-the-mill, 10-win player.

Yes, your enthusiasm is warranted.

It’s his unique talent and unique circumstance that make Ohtani so interesting. Because of his age, he must sign a minor-league contract and is subject to the MLB’s new, more rigid bonus-pool restrictions. While the constraints make under-the-table dealings possible — who is to stop Ohtani from signing a massive contract extension early in his career? — Ohtani doesn’t appear to be motivated by maximizing his contract value.

Assuming that the Ohtani case clears some final hurdles and he’s able to play in the majors in 2018, his recruitment will be fascinating. While the Rangers, Twins, and Yankees have the most international pool money, clubs will have to make a case that goes beyond dollars.

From the AP:

The Rangers can agree to a maximum $3,535,000 signing bonus from their pool that covers July 2 through next June 15, according to figures compiled by Major League Baseball and obtained by The Associated Press. New York can pay $3.25 million and the Twins $3,245,000.

Just three other teams can give him a seven-figure signing bonus: Pittsburgh ($2,266,750), Miami ($1.74 million) and Seattle ($1,570,500)….

Twelve teams are capped at $300,000 as penalties for exceeding their signing bonus pool under baseball’s previous collective bargaining agreement, which did not have a cap: Atlanta, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.

There’s one question about which everyone is curious: where will Ohtani play?

But there’s another, perhaps more interesting question to ask — namely, where ought Ohtani to play?

A player, of course, must look out for his own interests first and foremost. But this is where I believe the quote by John Nash at the top of his post is relevant: because Ohtani is such an interesting and maybe even transcendent talent, perhaps he also ought to think about what is good for the group and himself.

And in this case, the group includes Major League Baseball and everyone who has an interest in it.

Many have cited the Yankees as the favorite to lure Ohtani. The Yankees benefit, of course, from the game’s largest market, offering the most visibility and endorsement potential. They possess not only a storied tradition and history but also the second-most pool money after the Rangers. So the incentives are immediate.

One could argue that, if Ohtani becomes one of the game’s brightest stars, what’s best for him and the game (think TV ratings) is for him to sign with the Yankees. Nothing could be more compelling than, say, Ohtani and Bryce Harper on the same Yankees club. On the other hand, much like the Dodgers, the Yankees are probably going to be playing in quite a few Octobers in the near- and longer-term future with or without Ohtani. They’ve already built an impressive young core and are expected to be big players in free agency next offseason. New York is going to be good. They’ll draw an audience with or without Ohtani.

Who could Ohtani really help while also helping himself? For the answer, look to the AL West.

To maximize his dual-threat skills, Ohtani best fits in the American League, which offers the DH. (Sorry, National League teams.) No team is really paying for the glove, and there’s an increased risk of injury for Ohtani if he’s forced to play the field.

So what teams could Ohtani really help? And what markets would likely appeal to Ohtani in terms of visibility and marketing potential?

Let’s consider the largest-market AL teams that look like playoff-bubble teams entering 2018 according to FanGraphs’ very early projected standings. These are the teams and markets where Ohtani could theoretically provide the most impact — elevating a team to the postseason — while also playing in a large enough market to offset the financial losses he’s enduring by not waiting to come over to the States. That leaves us with four clubs total, three of which reside (as mentioned) in the AL West: the Angels, Mariners, Rangers, and Blue Jays.

In the early FanGraphs projections, the Angels are projected to finish 84-78, the Blue Jays 83-79, the Mariners 82-80, and the Rangers 76-84. They each enter the season as large-market bubble teams, nor do any of the four feature an overwhelming amount of impact talent knocking on the door from their respective farm systems, according to Baseball America’s midseason top 100 rankings. Ohtani could really, really help.

Moreover, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle all rank in the top 10 in terms of total market size and in Asian-American population amongst major cities in the U.S. Toronto, meanwhile, is a diverse, cosmopolitan city that also features a large Asian-American population.

These are the large-market American League franchises where Ohtani could provide the most on-field impact, where his wins-added would make the greatest difference, and where he would also have the personal benefits of playing in a larger market.

The following are those four clubs’ combined DH and starting-pitcher WAR projections:

Mariners: 14.1 WAR

Blue Jays: 11.8 WAR

Angels: 10.3 WAR

Rangers: 5.8 WAR

All four of these clubs could really use Ohtani’s arm — and, to different degrees, his bat. Let’s examine them one by one, in reverse order of these win forecasts.

The Rangers

Texas would probably most benefit from the addition of Ohtani, but they’re further away from contention in 2018 than the three others clubs here, according to FanGraphs projections. They have the most bonus money available to offer Ohtani, which is one small argument in their favor. We also saw an Ohtani comp, Yu Darvish, succeed in the Metroplex. And consider this note from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick regarding Ohtani:

One talent evaluator advised keeping an eye on the Rangers, who signed Yu Darvish out of Japan in 2012 and have a strong scouting presence in Asia.

“Their work and overall track record in Asia has always been highly regarded,” the evaluator said. “They’re ahead of the curve on Otani.”

The Rangers have also been connected to native Texan Jake Arrieta and have a real chance to improve their 2018 outlook.

For the record, these are the most likely landing spots for Ohtani according to executives polled by Crasnick:

Yankees 7½ [votes]; Dodgers 7½; Rangers 5; Nippon Ham Fighters 4; Mariners 4; Padres 1; Cubs 1; Astros 1; Giants 1; Red Sox 1.

The Angels

The Angels would be must-see TV with Mike Trout and Ohtani on the same roster in the country’s No. 2 market. The Angels would be a great stars-and-scrubs experiment with, perhaps, two 10-win players and Andrelton Simmons. Of course, the Angels have only $150,000 available for an official bonus. Ohtani will make an impact wherever he lands, but it’s with the Angels where his impact could be maximized. It’s a place where Ohtani could single-handedly push a bubble team into the postseason field while also allowing us to see Trout in October. That’s quite a two-for-the-price-of-one deal — and to this author, it’s the most intriguing landing spot.

The Mariners

Seattle is also of interest. We saw the impact Ichiro made there, 17% of the population is Asian-American, and it is an Ohtani-James Paxton 1-2 rotation punch that could make the Mariners a fascinating team in October.

The Blue Jays

Could Toronto be a fit? The Blue Jays are a team in transition with its aging core. The Blue Jays had the oldest average position player age (30.8 years) last season. But if Ohtani were open to Toronto, the city would be an intriguing fit along with a large volume of games against AL East competition. In Toronto, Ohtani could be the face of baseball for two countries: Japan and Canada.


The Blue Jays could use a 10-win player. All three AL West clubs are seeking to close sizable gaps with the Astros in the West. And any team interested in Ohtani might also want to consider making a play for Ohtani’s countryman and friend, Darvish, to really change their fortunes.

There is perhaps no bad spot for Ohtani to land. Even if he doesn’t land with your team, he’s going to be a great addition to the sport. But it is with these four clubs where he could really elevate a club while also landing in an intriguing large market and also maximizing his skills. That’s good for Ohtani and it could also be really good for the game.

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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6 years ago

Man, if I’m the Mariners, I am more motivated than anyone to land Ohtani. Frankly, I’m motivated to make Paxton, Darvish, and Ohtani the top of my rotation. I have an aging but good lineup and a terrible rotation. I’ve had experience making Japanese players comfortable. I’m going all out. And I want to see if Ohtani can play some first base too.

I could see the Angels doing something like that too, but they’d have to stick Ohtani as DH over Pujols (or play someone at first base over Cron) and I doubt they’re going to do that (even if they should).