Shohei Ohtani choosing Angels says a lot about the power of Major League Baseball -- and Mike Trout

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Monday, December 11, 2017

We might never know why Shohei Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels. He might not know exactly why, but even if he does, he spent his press conference Saturday being frustratingly vague about it. "A connection," he said, and left it at that. Asked later to explain, he replied, in Japanese, "It's hard to explain." And left that at that.

Most of his answers were brief, sometimes quippish, but there was one answer that seemed to carry a lot of meaning. It doesn't tell us why he chose the Angels, necessarily. But it says a lot about Major League Baseball, and what its most valuable asset is as an industry.

"In Japan," the questioner asked, "and also in the United States, sometimes you're referred to as the Japanese Babe Ruth. What are your thoughts on that?"

"I'm honored to be compared to Babe Ruth, but in no way do I think I'm at his level," Ohtani said, through a translator. "Today is actually the real starting point for me."

Today is actually the real starting point for me.

If you were the commissioner of Major League Baseball, what would you say the league's most valuable asset is? Maybe its billion-dollar broadcast contracts, guaranteeing huge revenues even in recessions? Or its 30 stadiums, creating a virtual impenetrable barrier against an upstart baseball league challenging its monopoly? Its anti-trust exemption, or the pages of free marketing it gets in every day's sports section?

Those are part of it. But the answer, I think, is something along the lines of gravity.

Gravity, of course, is that "force of attraction that exists between any two masses, any two bodies, any two particles." It's relentlessly strong, right? It would exhaust you to climb 25 flights of stairs -- to fight the earth's gravity for a mere 15 minutes -- while it just effortlessly sits there holding down all the world's objects 24/7/365. What a thing, gravity. Gravity isn't just important to earth; the earth, as an entity, is nothing but a gravitational construct.

Major League Baseball has gravity, and the force of attraction is not so much the broadcast deals or the ballparks as it is the players. It isn't that Major League Baseball has the majority of the best players in the world. It's that it has all of the best players in the world -- at least the best few dozen, and maybe the best 100. You might argue statistically that Nippon Baseball is (making numbers up here) 90 percent as good as the majors, and that Triple-A is 80 percent as good, and KBO 75 percent and the Pacific Association 30 percent, but all those numbers would really be good for is putting Nippon and Triple-A and KBO in context with each other. There is no comparison between any of them and the majors. Those leagues are incredibly fun, honorable, and stocked with fantastic ballplayers, but the majors are where every great player -- almost literally every single one -- eventually goes, and has for decades.

For Major League Baseball, this gravity is an asset in somewhat cynical ways -- it's why the league can implement wage-suppressing draft and international-bonus systems without worrying that any of those young players are going to go play somewhere else. But it's also an asset for purer reasons than that. It's the reason we watch, and why, when we do watch, there's no tickle in the back of our minds wondering whether there might be some better baseball players playing somewhere else. We know there aren't. If there were, the world's best players wouldn't all funnel into the majors.

Today is actually the real starting point for me, Ohtani said. If you are an elite baseball player, you can never truly be tested without playing Major League Baseball against major league players. At least, that's what Ohtani seemed to say Saturday, and it's what he seemed to say when he made the decision to sign this winter instead of waiting two more years.

You might have read in the past few months that Ohtani cost himself "hundreds of millions of dollars" by coming to the United States this year. That's not really hyperbole: Because of baseball's international signing rules, he couldn't get a signing bonus more than, roughly, the $2.3 million the Angels will give him; he won't get paid more than the major league minimum this year or next; and he won't get paid his full market value until he hits free agency in six years, when he's quite possibly already past his physical prime. At any point in those six years he could get hurt or run into some other career-altering obstacle, so he carries the risk all the way through those six years. But if he'd waited just two years he could have come as an unrestricted free agent, and most likely scored a contract guaranteeing him $200 million or more. (In the meantime, he'd have been paid more in Japan than he will make in his first years with the Angels.) My own estimate is he probably cost himself around $90 million, and with a lot more risk.

In other words, Ohtani actually created a real-world valuation of what it means to play in the majors, against the very, very best players in the world. The value of it is not less than $90 million. And, keep in mind, he would have come to the majors in two years anyway. But waiting for that opportunity was the risk he wasn't willing to take. Risking his first nine-figure fortune for an extra four years, sure. Risking his chance to play in the majors, at not just the highest level but the only truly high level, no way. He has reached the top of Maslow's pyramid, and the only path to self-actualization for a great baseball player in the year 2017 goes through the majors. This, I would argue, is Major League Baseball's greatest asset.

Great baseball players exert gravity on other baseball players. The very best exert the strongest gravity, to the point of near irresistibility. I believe that, if baseball salaries were taxed at 99.9 percent, and baseball players had to have second jobs to pay for their baseball habits, and the games were televised on tape-delay at 3 a.m. on the Ocho, all the league's rosters would lose about four players. Ohtani is my latest evidence.

It still doesn't answer why Ohtani chose the Angels, but maybe it hints at it. The Angels didn't obviously have a lot to attract Ohtani. They're not the World Series favorites, and it's not entirely clear they're even a very good team, in the short term. They aren't a team with a particularly rich history or international reputation, or a team that will max-out his fame and marketability. The Angels seem eager to use him as a two-way player, but it's sort of an awkward fit, with a prohibitively stuffed outfield and an extremely highly paid and injury-prone DH who will now have to survive first base. And their manager is one of the strongest -- some have said stubborn -- leaders in the game, which means Ohtani's leverage to dictate his role is probably weaker now than it would have been in any other organization. (For now, that's not a problem, because Mike Scioscia seems to be in agreement. But ... )

And yet "he felt a strong connection," his agent said. The Angels "felt a unique connectivity," the team said. Maybe he was, indeed, simply charmed by a very persuasive and motivated general manager. But, in the absence of a better, clearer explanation, the attractive force of Mike Trout -- the very best player in the world -- is a satisfying one. Trout called him up. Trout told him he wanted to play with him. "I took those words to heart and I'm here," Ohtani said Saturday. I don't know if Trout's the reason Ohtani signed with the Angels, but I'd bet almost anything he wouldn't have signed with the Angels if Trout were on a different team.

He said his goal was to be the "top" player in the world. Maybe there's no better way to prove it than by doing it right alongside the incumbent top player in the world, Mike Trout. Of course, when it comes to value added, Trout's got quite a head start: Not just the 9-WAR seasons he routinely produces but, arguably, the superstar free agent his gravity might have just attracted.

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