Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Extra Innings: The Ohtani Dilemma

Ohtani is faced with a difficult question: Undergo surgery or never pitch again.

extra innings-henry blickenstaff

After a long summer spent thinking about baseball (among other, less important things), it’s only right to start off this year by talking about the first man that comes to mind when talking about baseball these days: Shohei Ohtani. 

The word ”unique” doesn’t do Ohtani justice. He is the first full-time two-way player since Babe Ruth himself, who only did both for two seasons. Ohtani’s been one of the best hitters in baseball this season, slashing .306/.413/.658 and posting a 1.070 on-base plus slugging. His slugging percentage and OPS are the best in baseball, as are his 44 home runs. As for his work on the mound, he has pitched to a 3.14 earned run average with 167 strikeouts in 132 innings this season. Add it together and you have a league-best 10.1 wins above replacement.

Either one of those stat lines by itself would be enough to merit a large payday in free agency, which Ohtani will enter at the end of the 2023 campaign. But put them together in the same package, and you have the ingredients for a record-breaking contract, projected to be worth upwards of $500 million. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Ohtani recently tore his ulnar collateral ligament, an injury common to pitchers but one that usually requires Tommy John surgery, which takes upwards of a year to recover from. He will not pitch again this season but will continue to hit.

This confirms the biggest fear about a mammoth Ohtani contract: pitching injuries. While Ohtani has been very effective as a pitcher, it’s a small sample size — he’s thrown less than 500 innings in six years as a big leaguer. He’s also already had Tommy John once before, and didn’t pitch at all in 2019 while recovering.

Ohtani is faced with a difficult question does he even bother with another Tommy John? If he chooses to undergo the surgery, he won’t pitch at all in 2024 and will miss some time as a hitter as well. But if he opts to stop pitching all together, he becomes a mere mortal and kills much of his potential value.

There’s a good argument that Ohtani deserves $40 million a year on his merits as a hitter alone. If he asks for upwards of $60 million, many teams will be reluctant to take the chance that he’ll recover as a pitcher, because if he doesn’t, that contract will drag them down for years to come, no matter how well he hits (within reason). But the potential upside if he does return and pitches well is impossible to ignore.

I’m sure I’ll catch some heat for this, but if Ohtani undergoes Tommy John and looks for a long-term deal worth what he was supposed to get before the injury, teams looking to find their franchise player in free agency should skip on Ohtani this year and pursue Juan Soto next year, provided the Padres don’t extend him before then. Soto’s ungodly combination of plate discipline and power has drawn comparisons to Barry Bonds. Soto has a career OPS of .939, is still just 24 years old and will cost far less than Ohtani in this scenario.

For my money, the risk that Ohtani won’t return to the mound is just too great to take on such a contract, especially if it’s a long-term deal. But my opinion could change if he seeks less money or a shorter contract. One thing is certain, however: Ohtani has proven a lot of doubters wrong in his career. And if I’ve learned anything from playing and watching baseball my entire life, it’s that this game is anything but predictable.