Last season, there were an array of different takes in the baseball world surrounding Japanese AL MVP-winner Shohei Ohtani. The overwhelming majority of opinions from the mass media have been positive, praising his talents on both sides of the mound. But like anyone popular, of course, Ohtani has his detractors. One such notable example was when popular sports talk show host, Stephen A. Smith, voiced a possible concern that a non-English speaking MVP may have on the league. And while these remarks were quickly apologized for and retracted, it still got me thinking, What value does Ohtani bring to the league?
When I say “value,” I mean in two fairly objective categories: viewership and financial value. But how do we reconcile these numbers with his cultural impact, a factor nearly impossible to track? Let’s dive in.
For those unfamiliar, Ohtani has the rare combo of being both an elite pitcher and batter, with base running skills to boot. To give you just a small snippet, he was just one of four pitchers in the MLB to throw a 101 mile per hour fastball, while also sitting third in the league in home runs hit (46), only two behind the league leaders.
Simply by tuning into the games, it’s easy to see why everyone is so hyped up about Ohtani; however non-more than ownership and the league. While the on-field product is great, if the past few months have shown us anything, it’s that the MLB is a business, one where money talks. Luckily for those surrounding the 27-year-old superstar, many outside the baseball world see Ohtani as one of the best talents or years to come, with Forbes declaring him the most marketable player in the entire league.
While there are many complicated metrics that can point to just why Ohtani could be a golden ticket for the league, we simply need to follow the money and eyeballs. Throughout the All-Star Game, where Ohtani was among the best of the best, his merchandise accounted for 28 percent of total sales, despite being only one of 81 players featured. And it’s not only here where the fans are picking Ohtani above his peers, but online as well. Ohtani is the most searched player on MLB Film Room, the league’s streaming platform. In an era where the baseball fandom is slowly fading compared to faster-paced competition like the NBA, this special talent is something the league was lucky to stumble upon. And with other Japanese sports stars like Naomi Osaka and Hideki Matsuyama making waves across the globe, the branding opportunities are lucrative, to say the least.
With the financial value appearing sky-high, those that have yet to be sold on Ohtani being an MVP might not see it through the same point of view. Instead, they might be looking through a more sports-cultural lens, where players, impact the game, through either skill or cultural relevancy Think of how Steve Curry changed the modern NBA, or how Carl Nassib helped open the door for conversations of homosexuality in American Football. These hold tremendous value, regardless of whether they can be measured or not.
For Ohtani, the value he adds to the sport is impactful both on and off the playing field. Starting with on-field performance, for pretty much the entirety of the modern era, an elite pitcher and an elite batter rolled up into one was only a dream mocked up only by fantasy baseball owners. It was for the old-heads to cite the name Babe Ruth and his untouchable greatness. Many figured a two-way player of that calibre wasn’t possible in the modern era. Could we see the next generation of supreme talent be inspired to pursue both in the big show? Will dual threats inspired by Ohtani suddenly pop up everywhere? Only time will tell.
The other value that can’t be denied, and is even more apparent following Smith’s comments, is that diversity matters. More importantly, we know that representation matters in sports. A younger audience might benefit from seeing others that look like them being celebrated which in turn inspires confidence in oneself. And it’s not just Japanese youth that Ohtani is inspiring, but also those who aren’t native English speakers but still dream of being able to market themselves in North American leagues.
Today, fans, owners, and players are scrutinizing the MLB’s bottom line more than ever before. After all, petty squabbles between millionaires and billionaires tend to do that. So, naturally, the scrutiny towards the league’s biggest stars will therefore be just as harsh. This offseason, players will have their values graded and their potential criticized, as is tradition. The difference is, this summer, executives will be facing similar critiques to ensure baseball be as marketable as possible. But despite the division still plaguing the league, the MLB would do well by dispelling the xenophobia that so often follows atypical players like Ohtani. Because if baseball wants to maintain its bottom line, it needs to embrace difference; different cultures, different languages, and most importantly, different talents.