By Andy McCullough
Shohei Ohtani’s singular pursuit of history reached another summit Saturday when he agreed to the largest contract in the annals of major North American team sports, a 10-year, $700 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ohtani announced his decision to sign with the Dodgers on Instagram; his agency revealed the terms of the contract.
The deal ends years of feverish speculation about Ohtani’s future. Ohtani, a 29-year-old sensation unique in modern baseball for being an elite pitcher and an elite hitter, has captivated the industry since he left Japan for Major League Baseball heading into the 2018 season. He has done things that appeared impossible in the current era — feats that harked back to Babe Ruth, the last great two-way player. As he traveled the country with the Los Angeles Angels this past summer, fans serenaded him with recruiting pitches. When he entered free agency, a dozen teams lined up, curious to see if they could meet his eye.
Ohtani will now be compensated for his immense talent and his unparalleled star power. His contract eclipsed the $360 million record for free agents set last winter by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and also surpassed the record-setting $426.5 million extension from Ohtani’s former Angels teammate Mike Trout. His price tag exceeded even those outside of baseball, topping the $450 million contract signed by Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Ohtani’s individual brilliance was not enough to lift the Angels into the postseason. With the Dodgers, Ohtani may now have a better opportunity to add hardware to his trophy case. The Dodgers have won the National League West in 10 of the past 11 seasons, topped 100 victories in five of the past six full seasons and won the World Series in 2020.
“My sense is that he wants to be the best ever,” said St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who played with Ohtani last spring in the World Baseball Classic, “but I don’t think he would ever publicly say that.”
Significant questions linger about Ohtani’s future. He will not pitch in 2024 as he recovers from a September operation to repair his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018. Neither Ohtani, who has not taken questions from reporters since August, nor the Angels have disclosed the exact nature of the second operation, but the Los Angeles Times has reported that it was a second Tommy John procedure.
Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, has stressed that Ohtani remains committed to pitching and hitting in the future. “Shohei loves to pitch,” Balelo told reporters in September. Ohtani will attempt to return to the mound in 2025. His camp has not revealed at what point he would consider giving up his dual career and focusing on one part of his game. Since he was a teenager, Ohtani has ignored suggestions that he focus on only one pursuit.
Ohtani demonstrated his potential as the American League Rookie of the Year in 2018, but his two-way hopes were delayed after his first elbow operation. It was not until 2021 that his full ability was on display. He has won the AL MVP award in two of the past three seasons and came in second in MVP voting in the other season.
To create a comparison for Ohtani involves inventions that sound freakish. “It’s like if Judge went out and was a 20-game winner as well,” his former teammate Kole Calhoun said.
Ohtani is committed to being a starting pitcher. If he cannot stay healthy enough for that role, he could aid the Dodgers as a reliever. He closed the final game of this year’s World Baseball Classic, securing the crown for Japan by striking out Trout. His four-seam fastball averaged nearly 97 mph in 2023.
Even if Ohtani never pitches again, his value as a hitter is immense. In 1920, his first season exclusively as a hitter, Ruth led the American League in homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In 2023, while making 23 pitching starts with a 3.14 ERA, putting him among the league leaders in that category, Ohtani led the AL in the same three hitting categories as Ruth. He hit 44 homers with a career-best 1.066 OPS. He did this while dealing with a torn ligament in his elbow.
Only one stage remains for Ohtani: He has never played a playoff game in the majors. As the Angels struggled in recent years, Ohtani became more vocal about his desire to play for a winner. Now he has the chance to make a different kind of history.