Since the days when we first heard about "the Japanese Babe Ruth," Shohei Ohtani has made even that lofty comparison obsolete, obliterating every expectation we could have reasonably had for him. No one, not even The Babe, has done what Ohtani has done in the big leagues as the first two-way baseball star of the contemporary era.
This winter, baseball's ultimate unicorn is set to hit the open market. Speculation about what kind of deal Ohtani might come away with has been wild, every bit as fantastic as the whispers we heard emanating from the Pacific Rim a half-decade ago, about this mysterious guy who had the audacity to want to be a full-time hitter and pitcher in MLB -- at the same time.
Last offseason, Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge received the largest free agent contract in baseball history -- nine years, $360 million. The question about what kind of contract Ohtani will ultimately receive is both related to and slightly different from what kind of on-field value he has produced. That's because it's entirely possible that no team can really pay Ohtani's real market value. He's that good and, certainly, that unique.
Nevertheless, we asked ESPN's Bradford Doolittle to explore this question of Ohtani's true value, the ways in which he has built it and what it all might mean when teams come calling during the highly anticipated hot stove season.
Calculating His Base Value
No player has been more productive than Ohtani over the past three seasons (the time most relevant to his market value), and no one is close. As a two-way, hitter-pitcher combo of unprecedented ability, Ohtani is able to compile value almost as if he were two different players, occupying two simultaneous roster spots at once. Underlying those general components of baseball are discrete skills, the things that make a great hitter what he is and make a great pitcher an ace.
To see how good Ohtani is at these underlying components, we separated them out individually, using those past three seasons as a benchmark. For hitting skills, we looked at hitting for average, getting on base, hitting for power and baserunning. For pitching skills, we examined Ohtani's three main pitches individually, combining the remainder into one category.
The run estimates of each of these skills have been modeled to fit the underlying metrics that feed into his WAR calculation. Once we convert the runs to WAR, we can see where he ranks by percentile against other big leaguers in that skill, and we convert that production into a valuation based on an $8 million per win standard.
Those calculations help determine the baseline valuation Ohtani will carry into free agency.
Avg. Annual Value
Over the last 3 years
= 1 win = $8m
Risk & Potential for injury
Of course, a number that lofty is no guarantee. Ohtani famously missed the pitching part of the 2019 and 2020 seasons because of injury, including Tommy John surgery. There is an injury risk with his next deal -- and the history of long-term, high-value free agent contracts given to pitchers is dicey at best.
Since returning full time in 2021, though, Ohtani has ranked 10th in plate appearances and 31st in innings pitched. That's an unparalleled record of durability fueled by Ohtani's legendary work ethic -- but not even he is immune to the risk.
Still, consider what would happen if Ohtani did have to stop pitching after this season. That's a lot of lost production, but his team would still end up with one of the five best hitters in baseball, someone any organization would break the bank to pay in free agency. Also, don't forget Ohtani is one of the fastest players in the majors. If he were to cease pitching, he'd most likely pick up value on the bases, and he has a proven track record in Japan as an outstanding defender.
In WAR calculations, he'd generate much more positional value than he does now, as strictly a designated hitter.
The bottom line is that no contract at the level of what Ohtani is going to get is without risk. But the floor of production for him is much higher than it is for other free agents, simply because of the unmatched variety of skills with which Ohtani can contribute at an elite level.
Projecting Future Worth
So, even if Ohtani could do only one of the things he does well, his baseline values would make him worthy of being one of the game's highest-paid players. For now, at least, he does both. Together, they create a baseline estimated valuation of $76 million for on-field production. With recent superstar contracts reaching 10 years, even for players as old as Ohtani at 29, the numbers get mind-boggling: Over a 10-year contract, assuming flat production, that's $760 million. Over 12 years, it's nearly a billion dollars.
projected value of $912m
using baseline estimation
extended over 12 years
Of course, that isn't what Ohtani will realistically command in free agency. When ESPN's Kiley McDaniel polled MLB executives about Ohtani's worth, the guesses were varied, and though a contract of a 10- to 12-year duration was a popular choice, the per-season payouts would be considerably less than $76 million.
Aging curves are hit or miss, especially with an outlier like Ohtani. Considering Ohtani's past productivity, here is our take on how aging would affect his on-field production and, in turn, how you might calculate his fair-market contract value. We used the baseline values shown above and "aged" Ohtani's production over an assumed 12-year deal.
Potential loss of value
Granted, there is more than a little optimism in these numbers. They assume Ohtani will remain a full-time hitter and pitcher over the duration of his contract, and the standard curve suggests a smooth aging pattern that almost certainly will not happen.
Nevertheless, if anyone can achieve a run of success of this sort, it is Ohtani. And if he were to play out his career in this fashion, there would be a new consensus answer to this question: Who is the greatest baseball player ever?
Free Agent Comparisons
Ohtani's unique combination of traits makes him a unicorn in terms of historical free agent comparables. Still, we can look at some deals that the most similar hitters and pitchers have signed in recent seasons.
calculating the low end
By matching each free agent since 2018 against Ohtani the hitter and Ohtani the pitcher, we can rank them by similarity. The similarity scores are based on a weighted average of each player's WAR over the three seasons before free agency; the more recent seasons carry more weight.
By averaging out those deals and combining them, we can imagine what a hypothetical Ohtani contract could look like. Adding the average contract for similar hitters -- $162 million -- and the average contract for similar pitchers -- $141.5 million -- we get $303.5 million.
Most similar free agents
calculating the high end
However, we know that Ohtani will not be viewed as an average free agent, regardless of the precedent of past contracts or which player pool he is compared to. Instead, let's base our calculations off the max deals on these lists -- the 11-year, $300 million deal Trea Turner got from the Phillies after the 2022 season as a position player, and the nine-year, $324 million deal Gerrit Cole got from the Yankees after the 2019 season as a pitcher.
If we combined those two deals, we're looking at $624 million -- over 11 years, that's an average annual value of $56.7 million.
These estimates assume that Ohtani will pursue the greatest total contract value he can get over the longest period of time. In reality, Ohtani's next contract could take on many different shapes. He could opt for a higher annual payout over a shorter duration in hopes of reentering free agency in a few years. It's also possible he is willing to take a longer deal but at a lower AAV to lessen the tax-threshold implications for his next team. His deal likely will include some combination of player options, team options and mutual options.
Where Could He Go?
There is a strong possibility that the numbers on whatever pact Ohtani ultimately signs will be unlike any we've ever seen. The team that splurges will be paying not just for Ohtani's hitting, pitching and running but also his marketability -- and there's a good chance that team will be well rewarded. Ohtani is headed for a record contract, which is appropriate for baseball's most unique player, one who has already transcended those old comparisons to Babe Ruth.
So where will Ohtani land? Based on a poll of MLB executives, agents and insiders conducted earlier this year, and the latest buzz around baseball, here are six of his many potential suitors to watch.
Los Angeles Angels
2023 Payroll: $221m
Los Angeles Dodgers
2023 Payroll: $236m
San Francisco Giants
2023 Payroll: $196m
2023 Payroll: $153m
New York Mets
2023 Payroll: $346m
2023 Payroll: $189m
Los Angeles Angels: They kept Ohtani at the trade deadline with the hope of re-signing him, but few free agents return to the same team.
Los Angeles Dodgers: They were quiet this past offseason for a reason. Imagine a big three of Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Ohtani.
San Francisco Giants: They pursued Judge last year, have lots of room to increase payroll and need a franchise player.
Seattle Mariners: Reportedly the runners-up for Ohtani in 2018, their future looks brighter than the Angels'. But will they offer enough?
New York Mets: After trading Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the Mets need a pitcher. And a DH. And they have Steve Cohen's checkbook.
Chicago Cubs: They're a big-market team that's ready to win -- they might be the sleeper team in the Ohtani sweepstakes.
contract record ($360m/9yrs)