Culturally, it’s the biggest free agency splash in North American sports since LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in “The Decision” in 2010. Monetarily, it’s much bigger than that. And competitively, it’s a potential trump card in baseball’s perpetual arms race between the league’s highest-spending clubs.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and unprecedented pitcher-designated hitter combination Shohei Ohtani have an agreement for a reported 10 years and $700m. When completed, the deal will be the largest by total and annual value in American sports history. The 29-year-old announced his decision to join the Dodgers, leaving the crosstown Los Angeles Angels, on Saturday. The club had not yet acknowledged the pact on Sunday – most likely waiting for the result of a physical exam, which is relevant because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament that will prevent Ohtani from pitching until at least the 2025 season. But the deal will settle eventually, Ohtani will move from Anaheim to Chavez Ravine. When he completes his move, one of the league’s best teams will add its best and most marketable star.
Ohtani’s vintage of brilliant play has no precedent. He is the best combination of hitting and pitching that baseball has ever seen, even better than the legendary Babe Ruth, who pitched well for a few years but quickly gave it up to focus on his bat full-time. Ohtani’s UCL injury means the Dodgers will have to wait to realize his production as one of the game’s best hurlers. But when he takes the mound, he should be an anchor in the heart of the team’s pitching staff: Over the past three years, he’s posted a 2.84 earned-run average (ninth-best among qualified players) and struck out better than 11 hitters per nine innings. Ohtani boasts a vicious 97mph fastball and slow, sweeping curveball. Hitters have struggled to conquer either.
The Japanese star will get to work as a hitter straight away, however. When Ohtani won American League MVP honors for the second time in 2023, he shined mostly brightly at the plate. Ohtani hit 44 home runs and would have likely cleared 50 if an injury hadn’t ended his season at the start of September. (He left the yard on 31.2% of his flyballs; no one else reached even 28%.) Ohtani destroys the ball, and unlike many sluggers, he does so to all fields and without racking up huge strikeout numbers in the process. He will immediately give the Dodgers the finest designated hitter in the game. In that capacity (if not as a pitcher), Ohtani will enjoy playing half his games in Dodger Stadium, which is the second-friendliest ballpark in baseball for home run-mashers like him.
The payoff on the field for the Dodgers is obvious, but they will see a substantial business return from signing Ohtani as well. MLB clubs guard their books voraciously, but they are not in the business of spending money without the expectation of making it back. The Dodgers have determined that $70m a year for Ohtani is not too rich, likely, because they expect an enormous uptick in everything from ticket sales to merchandise to television ratings. (Ohtani’s status as an international star undoubtedly supports their theory.) The Dodgers understand that extraordinary baseball players are not an expense but an investment, and as Ohtani racks up games in their uniform, the club will reap an immense return. That return will be particularly lucrative in Japan, where he is the country’s most famous athlete, if not the most famous person, period. On Sunday, fans in his homeland lined up to buy special editions of newspapers announcing the move. The population of Japan is close eto 125 million – that’s a lot of potential Dodgers jersey sales.
Ohtani’s move will pay off for baseball lovers outside Japan: they’ll finally get to watch a brilliant player in meaningful late-season games. The great baseball tragedy – or travesty, really – of the past six years is that the Angels did not make a single postseason appearance while they had both Ohtani and future first-ballot Hall of Fame center fielder Mike Trout. Those failures clearly left an impression on Ohtani, who agreed to significant salary deferrals to allow the Dodgers to spend on a competitive team around him while accruing lower penalties under MLB’s revenue-sharing protocols. The Dodgers are annual playoff participants – they’ve won the National League West 10 times in 11 years – and, even before adding Ohtani, showed no sign of missing out any time soon. They’ll slot him into a lineup that already includes megastars in outfielder Mookie Betts and first baseman Freddie Freeman. At a conservative estimate, the Dodgers now have three of the best 10 hitters in the world.
Though they won the World Series in a pandemic-addled 2020 season, the Dodgers have otherwise made a tradition of spectacularly flaming out of the postseason. There are no guarantees that things will work out in October, even with Ohtani joining Freeman and Betts to form one of the most terrifying lineup cores in baseball history. But adding Ohtani is an announcement to the rest of the sport that the Dodgers intend to keep hammering away until they more frequently convert their 100-win regular seasons into playoff successes. When they finally do, Ohtani’s presence means everyone will be watching.