Shohei Ohtani had more on the line as he tried to become the first Japanese born player and first two-way player to win Monday’s Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver.
Ohtani is also starting on the mound for the American League and is the top hitter in their batting order for Tuesday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game. And nobody’s ever done that.
“I’m expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days,” Ohtani said through his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara during a Monday media conference. “But there are a lot of people who want to watch it. I want to make those guys happy, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
The prize money was also an incentive. Finishing first in the Derby will net a cool $1 million—or one-third of Ohtani’s $3 million salary this season to star as a pitcher and slugging hitter for the Los Angeles Angels.
His 33 homers lead MLB and are the most ever in the majors for a Japanese slugger, passing the 31 hit by Hideki Matsui for the New York Yankees in 2004. But Ohtani fell short in the Derby losing a first-round three swing, swing off to Washington’s Juan Soto.
The seven-figure prize money was won again by New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who defeated Trey Mancini in the final round and also nearly doubled his own salary in the process—again.
The prize money, negotiated between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, was increased two years ago when Alonso won the derby on the way to setting a rookie record with 53 homers during the 2019 season.
Alonso won the Derby the last time the All-Star Game was played at Progressive Field in Cleveland and had his $550,000 salary nearly doubled while earning the Major League minimum that season.
He was back in it along with the eight competitors Monday night with one goal: to beat Ohtani.
“Why else would I participate if I’m not trying to win?” Alonso said prior to the event. He made good on his prediction.
Meanwhile, baseball’s minimum salary has crept up to $570,500 in the final year of the Basic Agreement, which is currently in collective bargaining and expires Dec. 1.
The disparity of what young stars are earning under the current financial system is one of the major topics of contention.
Alonso is earning $676,775 in his third season just before arbitration. In a strange twist of fate, that is a far below the $1,193,248.20 former Met Bobby Bonilla earns every year on July 1 in deferred money for 25 years through 2035.
The system ties a young player to his team for three years before three years of arbitration. He becomes an unrestricted free agent after six seasons.
Alonso and Ohtani are poster boys for the unbalanced nature of that system.
“Yes, absolutely, this an important issue,” Alonso said. “Getting money into the guys' hands is great. It’s great for guys to get paid. Right now I’m not focused on the details. I’m just going to enjoy the All-Star festivities. But when it comes down to it, when it comes to crunch time, I’ll be really diving in and focused trying to do the best I can to grow the game in a positive way.”
Ohtani is the best bargain in baseball, considering the impact he’s finally having on the game after his early years pockmarked by surgeries to his elbow and knee. Because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, he missed about two-and-half of his first three seasons as a pitcher and has made only 25 starts.
“I wasn’t healthy the last couple of years, and I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” Ohtani said. “It was pretty frustrating.”
Ohtani earned the minimum or just above it for his first three seasons after signing a contract with a $2.315 million bonus upon leaving Japan in time for the 2018 season. This past spring, the Angels bought out two seasons of arbitration at $8.5 million—$3 million for this season and $5.5 million for next season.
It’s a steal.
“A contract is a contract,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Once you sign it you have to honor it.”
Money still found its way to the now 27-year-old Ohtani. He earns at least $10 million annually in endorsements in Japan and that only stands to escalate as his stature grows here in the U.S, where he is already tops in endorsement income.
The Angels paid a lot more—$20 million in a posting fee to the Nippon Ham-Fighters—than the $12,269,259 they will have paid Ohtani through the 2022 season.
He’ll have another arbitration year in 2023 before he reaches free agency in 2024.
By then, the system may have changed. There are two easy fixes, according to players: Raising the minimum wage to an amount of money commensurate with the games finances. The average salary for a Major League player in 2021 is $4.17 million.
The other is shortening the three-year period a player is tied to a specific team, allowing that player to reach free agency earlier than six seasons.
If analytics are telling general managers and owners that investing in free agents older than 30 is not a good value, the union reasons, paying younger players more when they are at max value is a necessary compromise.
“Bringing earlier compensation in line with the value of those [younger] players is an important one,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the union, told Sportico earlier this year. “Bringing a higher level of our service-based system [is another]. Those are the big moving pieces.”
Meanwhile, MLB tweaked All-Star Game rules so Ohtani could both pitch and hit. He was voted on the team by fans as the AL’s DH and voted onto the squad by the players as one of the AL’s five starting pitchers.
That’s another first. When Babe Ruth regularly pitched and played the outfield for the Boston Red Sox in 1919, the All-Star Game wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. The first MLB midsummer classic was in 1933, and by then Ruth was on his way to hitting 714 homers as a fulltime right-fielder for the Yankees.
Ruth only started four games as a pitcher and made another as a reliever in 15 years in New York.
AL manager Kevin Cash, of the Tampa Bay Rays, said he “begged” MLB for a rule change to squeeze Ohtani in as both a pitcher and DH. All-Star rules now stipulate that both teams use the DH and pitchers don’t hit.
But according to Cash, Ohtani can continue to DH after his removal as a pitcher and then he can be replaced by another DH. He’ll lead off the game Monday before even taking the mound.
“I took that to heart,” Cash said. “We all respect what he did for our game this year. It’s what the fans want to see. It’s personally what I want to see. He’s a generational talent.”
But being paid like an ordinary one.