Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch for the Los Angeles Angels again for the remainder of this 60-game season because of a right arm injury, but that hasn’t decreased his market value either in the U.S. or his home country of Japan.
Because of the strength of his brand, the Japanese-born and raised baseball player is earning more than $10 million in endorsements, dwarfing his $700,000 Major League contract, prorated to $259,259 for this COVID-abbreviated season. As a third-year player, Ohtani will be eligible for arbitration the next three seasons before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
Ohtani’s the rare two-way player: a left-handed hitter with home run power, and a right-handed pitcher, who at the height of his prowess, could throw five pitches at up to 98 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy.
“I would say we haven’t seen any dissipation in his popularity because of the injuries,” said Jim Small, the senior vice president of Major League Baseball International. “You look at it in terms of ratings and popularity, but you also look at his endorsement deals, and none of that has really changed.”
Ohtani has endorsement agreements with Japan Airlines, the Seiko Watch Corp., Mitsubishi Financial Group and Asics athletic shoes and apparel through MLB, which has to assign the right for him to appear in his Angels uniform.
He’s also a brand ambassador without those rights in Japan for Tokyo Nisikawa—an air mattress company—Savas Protein Powder, Aquarius Sports Drinks, Oakley Sports Sunglasses and Descente, a sports apparel company.
Each of those deals are worth in the $1 million to $2 million range, creating a total on par with other Nippon Professional Baseball star players, who’ve made the jump to MLB in recent decades: future National Baseball Hall of Fame hitting star Ichiro Suzuki, power hitter Hideki Matsui and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Despite his own modest predilections, it’s obvious that Ohtani is still a huge marketing presence on both continents, particularly in Japan where he’s on the level of Matsui, the former Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees star who once had his visage painted on the side of JAL planes.
“I was never that popular over there to begin with,” Ohtani, now 26, said recently through his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I don’t know what to tell you. Japan is going through a hard time with the whole pandemic. They have other things to worry about besides me.”
To the contrary, Ohtani signed as an 18-year-old with the Nippon-Ham Fighters as one of the most heralded high school players in Japanese baseball history. Ohtani told the team not to draft him unless he could pitch and hit. They agreed, and Ohtani excelled in both categories, reaching his apex in 2016 as a pitcher with a 10-4 record, 1.86 ERA, 174 strikeouts and 45 walks in 140 innings. That same year, he hit 22 homers with 67 RBIs and a 1.004 OPS, which combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
At that point, he became the darling of Major League scouts, who swarmed Japan League ballparks to watch his every move.
“It was great. It was one of the highlights of my career,” said Dan Evans, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who was a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays in those halcyon Ohtani days. “I’m one of the few guys who thought all along—and still think—he can be a two-way guy.”
Ohtani came to the U.S. in 2018 with all the hype of the next Babe Ruth, the Bambino, who regularly pitched and hit for the Boston Red Sox before the New York Yankees bought his rights for $100,000 and turned him into a fulltime right fielder before the 1920 season.
Young pitchers notoriously overthrow in Japan. Ohtani made only five starts for the Fighters in 2017 because of ankle and elbow injuries. But the Angels, knowing he already had a Grade 1 tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, still gladly won the bidding process to sign him that offseason, paying the Fighters a $20 million posting fee, Ohtani a $2.315 million bonus and a $545,000 salary, the MLB minimum at the time.
It was a bargain by any stretch of the imagination, considering the Yankees in 2014 signed Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka for the same $20 million fee and a seven-year, $155 million deal under vastly different posting procedures. On account of Ohtani’s lucrative endorsement deals in Japan, he said he didn’t really need the money from an MLB team when he came over, shunning the Yanks and opting for lifestyle instead.
But because of elbow, ankle and knee surgery, plus his most recent injury to his elbow and forearm, he’s only made 13 pitching starts since he joined the Angels—three since June 6, 2018, when the UCL almost completely shred, leading to Tommy John surgery four months later.
He’s still an accomplished designated hitter with 44 homers, 133 RBIs, a .281/.347/.530 slash line and .877 OPS in 850 plate appearances over two, plus seasons.
Ohtani didn’t pitch at all in 2019, recovering from the elbow procedure, and he missed the final two weeks of the season after undergoing surgery to correct a congenital problem in his left knee. The three-month recovery time for the knee procedure also set back his rehabilitation from the Tommy John surgery. He wasn’t targeted to pitch this year until June, and that was before the coronavirus stopped MLB in its tracks for four months in March.
“I think that going into the season there was kind of a pent-up demand to see him play,” said Small, who as MLB’s head of operations in Asia was based in Japan for many years before moving back to the U.S.
But after two poor starts, in which Ohtani couldn’t get out of the second inning, allowing seven earned runs on three hits and eight walks, he was shut down again as a pitcher, this time because of a strained flexor mass in his right arm.
“I think people are disappointed,” Small added. “I think the baseball fans are disappointed that they’re not going to see him pitch perhaps for some time. But that hasn’t diminished his popularity.”
Whether the Angels eventually decide to stop using him as a pitcher is the most pressing question. He’s now played for three Major League managers, and his current one, Joe Maddon, said the matter of Ohtani’s future hasn’t been internally discussed. But the Angels made it clear at the time they signed him that his major value was as a pitcher, not a hitter.
“I want to see him continue to pitch. I hope the next time through, the arm is going to be able to hold up,” Maddon said. “I’m all for it. But it’s one of those things the athlete is going to have a lot of say in and how he feels about it.”
Ohtani is as clear now about what he wants to do as he was when he was 18. He’s been hitting again since the latest injury and this week hit two homers and drove in three runs during the first seven games back.
“If it comes down to them telling me to focus on one thing I will listen, but ideally I’d like to leave the window open for me to do both,” he said.
Meanwhile, though the injuries may have caused his value as a player to diminish, his market value as a brand certainly hasn’t.