ANAHEIM — Shohei Ohtani’s greatness can be measured in the spin rate of his fastball, the exit velocity of his booming home runs and the decibel level he generates in the stands. But it shines in quieter moments, too.
Ohtani had thrown 97 high-effort pitches while subduing the Giants over six innings Wednesday. He threw 32 alone in a grueling second inning. He took three plate appearances, drew an intentional walk and sprinted from first to third on an error. He was playing his 15th game in 14 days, twice pulling double duty on the mound during that span.
“The man’s just tired,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said.
He has a funny way of showing it. At the end of a muggy night and at the finish line of a rigorous stretch, after Ohtani drew a walk in the eighth inning, he still had enough competitive drive and presence of mind to tag up and take second base on a fly out. To right field. In a game the Angels, due in large part to his performance on the mound, were leading 4-1.
Giants third baseman J.D. Davis watched in amazement.
“I truly did not know how fast he was,” Davis said. “And how well conditioned and mentally strong he is. That was a heads-up play right there, knowing it’s going to be hard for (right fielder Michael) Conforto to turn and throw. I mean, he’s done pitching but he’s still locked in. For him to have that baseball IQ and that speed and will to perform … impressive doesn’t really begin to describe it.”
That is what you’re getting with Ohtani. That is what every deep-pocketed major-league team will seek to obtain when the Angels’ 29-year-old wonder becomes a free agent in a matter of months. Even if Ohtani makes the decision to pare down and focus on hitting at some point in his career, he’d still be close to the total package — a self-motivated position player and impact power hitter who also generates value with his base running, his instincts, his unwavering competitive zeal and … who knows what else?
“It’s a great question,” Davis said. “If he concentrated on hitting, instead of .300 with 40 home runs, he’d probably be hitting .320 with 50 home runs. Who knows? Maybe he plays center field with how fast he is and he runs everything down. Maybe he’s making extraordinary play night after night, doing something else we’ve never really seen.”
Maybe Ohtani, who relishes a challenge like nobody who’s ever buttoned up a jersey, might get it in his mind that he wants to train to win a Gold Glove in his mid-30s, too.
But that is not a conversation for today, or tomorrow, or for when Ohtani begins to take meetings with clubs after he files for free agency. Unfortunately for the Giants, it was not the right conversation to have in 2017, when they were one of seven finalists chosen to make in-person presentations to Ohtani while he was in the process of selecting his major-league destination. Bobby Evans, the Giants’ GM at the time, felt that the club checked many of Ohtani’s boxes after meeting with him in Los Angeles. But the lack of a designated hitter in the National League at the time loomed as a big, blank square.
“We brought up the fact we would find a way to have a six-man rotation to keep him on the rest he was used to, which was well received,” Evans said in a phone interview Wednesday. “But when we talked about having to put him at a position to have his bat in the lineup, I just sensed the discomfort. We had the idea that the outfield would be the safest bet. When we put our presentation together, we felt the hill we needed to climb was not having a DH. And we couldn’t promise him anything about the future about that.”
Why did the Giants make Ohtani’s shortlist back in 2017? Another question: If the universal DH had arrived three years earlier than it did, would Ohtani have considered making a different choice? I managed to wiggle to the front of his postgame media scrum Wednesday night and ask him that question. He flicked it into the figurative upper deck.
“I don’t really like to reflect on the past,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “We’re still trying to win ballgames here. I don’t want to talk about the past. I’m just happy we got the win today.”
The Angels needed their 4-1 win to stay on the extreme margins of the American League playoff picture. The Giants, despite losing nine of their last 10 road games, continue to stand in the middle of the NL wild-card picture.
In a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the host places the bowl’s most aesthetically pleasing side directly facing the guest. It is a sign of respect to show this “best face.” Perhaps one way for the Giants to show their best face to Ohtani would be to finish strong, make the playoffs and navigate a deep run in October.
The other way would be to offer him a gobsmacking amount of money.
The DH isn’t an impediment any longer. And based on Evans’ experience in his meeting with Ohtani six years ago, the former GM sees reasons for optimism that the Giants will be a top consideration once again.
“My perception was we were a very intriguing option for him,” said Evans, adding that he found agent Nez Balelo to be credible and fair during the process. “It would be interesting if he could have picked a National League club, who would he have picked at that time? He might not want to disclose that. But I would say the fact we were one of the seven finalists bodes well.
“I felt the process was legitimate and fair. I have no sour grapes. We made our best effort. And I appreciated the fact he had an open mind. A lot of teams that put together presentations and didn’t get in the door, which I’d have to believe was an even worse feeling.”
Evans mentioned one other factor besides the DH that might have steered Ohtani to San Francisco.
“This was less spoken about, but we kept hearing that his advisors were telling him not to go to a team that already had a big-name Japanese player,” Evans said. “That would spur a lot of marketing opportunities for him in Japan. That was the perception, anyway. I’m no marketing expert. It was just something you heard come up often. That might have eliminated a couple of teams but it certainly didn’t eliminate us.”
The Seattle Mariners already had Ichiro Suzuki. The New York Yankees already had Hideki Matsui. The Los Angeles Dodgers already had Hideo Nomo. The Giants debuted the first Japanese-born player, pitcher Masanori Murakami, in the 1960s. They briefly employed center fielder and current Nippon Ham Fighters manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who is a celebrated figure in Japan for his flamboyant personality more than his former playing abilities.
But the Giants haven’t had a transcendent star from Japan. The Bay Area is home to tech wealth and international corporations. And the Giants would have the nation’s sixth-largest media market all to themselves if the Oakland A’s follow through with their move to Las Vegas.
They also have an owner who sits on their executive board, Buster Posey, who impressed Ohtani with his “great aura” during that recruiting pitch six years ago.
Any club that enters the Ohtani bidding will go into it with the clear-eyed understanding that the negotiations will start at Mike Trout’s 12-year, $430 million contract. They’ll also understand that Ohtani, an unprecedented talent, is the Salvator Mundi of players. All it takes is one owner to become as covetous as a Saudi prince and ratchet up a record-setting deal into utter ridiculousness. And that owner will have to sell Ohtani on everything else besides the money, too.
So how about it? How about a 15-year, $750 million contract? How about front-loading it with $200 million guaranteed in the first three seasons, followed by an opt out? How about $50 million salaries in each of the next six seasons, plus $15 million annually in incentives based on starts or innings (worth a total of $90 million), thus keeping the ball in his court whether he wants to continue being paid like a two-way player into his late 30s? How about straight salaries that de-escalate from years 10 to 15, thus modestly reducing the average annual value of the deal (to $50 million) to give the Giants a fighting chance at not blowing past the luxury tax threshold season after season?
How about the consideration that money won’t be enough to convince him?
“This is an incredibly, off-the-charts smart young man,” Evans said. “He’s very, very intuitive and he’s got smart people around him. I think he’s going to make a very smart decision and also a very heartfelt decision. I think he’ll balance both. You won’t be able to fool him and you’ve got to put people in the room who can speak intelligently about the organization, the present, the future, but also do it with heart. Because he’s going to be intuitive about the culture he’s coming into.”
(Top photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)