The Shohei Ohtani Finals: The Case for San Diego

We’ve had our first major upset of the offseason: Shohei Ohtani isn’t going to be a Yankee.

Of the seven finalists, three — the Angels, Mariners, and Rangers — reside in the AL West, which this author argued last month represented the ideal landing spot for the interests of Ohtani and MLB.

Many thought that the Yankees were the favorites entering the process and that AL clubs, in general, would have a significant advantage with the DH. Well, Ohtani gave us some surprises, as the Yankees and all large-market East Coast clubs are out. Not only that, but four — the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, and Padres — of his seven finalists are NL clubs.

I wrote nearly a month ago that the best decision for Ohtani and for baseball was to have him sign with the Angels and that is still a possibility. The Mariners should perhaps be cautiously optimistic. Ohtani’s process remained something of a mystery until he gave clubs a homework assignment last week that both I and others analyzed.

What did we learn from it?

Yankees GM Brian Cashman has some insight:

It appears as though Ohtani would prefer a small market. It matters how one defines “small,” of course, but the West Coast features two clubs outside the top-10 media markets: Seattle (No. 14) and San Diego (No. 28).

Seattle was always thought to be in the mix due to its history with Ichiro, its geography, and demographics. But San Diego was the real surprise winner Sunday. Ohtani to San Diego isn’t ideal for baseball, but it might be an ideal fit for him.

For starters, we learned Sunday that Ohtani is perhaps uninterested in market size and might prefer to begin his career under a smaller spotlight. He’s described as a private person and, from what I can tell, hasn’t done many interviews in Japan.

Maybe Ohtani is most comfortable in a smaller market. After all, he’s from a rural area in northern Japan. Consider this, from a Dylan Hernandez feature in the L.A. Times :

Ohtani was born in the rural town of Oshu in the northern prefecture of Iwate, which is known for its hot springs resorts and national parks, as well as livestock that produces high-grade beef. The area is about a three-hour train ride from Tokyo, but might as well be on another planet. …

Ohtani is the youngest of three children. His father, who worked at a local automobile manufacturing plant, used to play baseball in Japan’s semi-professional industrial league. Ohtani’s mother was a national-level badminton player in high school. The family resided in a nondescript two-story house that is typical of the region.

Perhaps this modest upbringing further underscores the lack of interest Ohtani has in capturing every possible dollar. Ohtani might be more comfortable in a smaller city, and he might want to begin his career and this two-way experiment without the increased scrutiny that accompanies larger towns. San Diego is the smallest market closest to Japan.

And what goes along with market size is media presence. The Padres might have the smallest local media presence in the sport.

The Union-Tribune is the only traditional news outlet in the city that has a beat reporter — Dennis Lin — who regularly covers and travels with the team. The only other media outlets that regularly follow the club, I believe, are and the local cable-rights holder.

Now, to be clear, there is going to be a considerable media presence wherever Ohtani is playing. But there’s considerably less local media presence in markets like Seattle, which has become a one-newspaper city, and if you’re seeking to reduce the spotlight as much as possible, San Diego is your best bet.

Speaking of Lin, he notes that the Padres have a former Nippon Ham Fighters trainer in their front office and that manager Andy Green played in Japan in 2007. The Padres can send an impressive delegation to their meeting with Ohtani.

Reported Lin:

With the field now narrowed to a fortunate several, the courtship will involve more personal touches. While the date of the Padres’ appointment in Los Angeles is not yet known, they can send a contingent that is relatively familiar to Ohtani. Members could include Japanese ex-pitchers Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito; executives Logan White and Acey Kohrogi, both of whom recruited Ohtani for the Dodgers a half-decade ago; sports science director Seiichiro Nakagaki, an ex-Fighters trainer; and manager Andy Green, who played for Hokkaido in 2007.

And the familiarity extends even further: the Fighters and Ohtani have trained at the Padres’ spring facilities.

San Diego has other advantages, too, that are geography-based beyond the country’s best climate and its Pacific Ocean view: the ballpark.

If we’re most certain about how Ohtani’s pitching skill will translate, no ballpark reduced left-handed hitter’s production more than Petco Park last season (though a number of other finalists appear favorable for right-handed pitchers according to Baseball Prospectus’s park-factor splits).

Where Left-Handed Hitters Excelled in 2017
Rank Team Split HR Factor Runs Factor
1 COL LHB 138 125
2 ARI LHB 110 116
3 CHA LHB 106 113
4 BAL LHB 113 111
5 CIN LHB 140 110
6 TEX LHB 111 106
7 DET LHB 106 106
8 NYA LHB 122 104
9 KCA LHB 107 104
10 MIL LHB 142 103
11 MIA LHB 85 102
12 TOR LHB 93 102
13 PHI LHB 109 100
14 BOS LHB 92 100
15 OAK LHB 96 99
16 WAS LHB 96 99
17 ATL LHB 98 99
18 MIN LHB 93 98
19 CLE LHB 102 97
20 NYN LHB 101 96
21 SLN LHB 105 96
22 ANA LHB 89 94
23 PIT LHB 91 92
24 CHN LHB 90 92
25 LAN LHB 107 92
26 TBA LHB 81 91
27 HOU LHB 90 90
28 SEA LHB 84 88
29 SFN LHB 83 87
30 SDN LHB 73 86
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

On the other hand, if Ohtani is mostly concerned with hitting home runs, Texas stands alone.

San Diego has an advantage over Seattle among small-market West Coast cities, as the Padres log about 10,000 miles less in air travel over the course of the season.

Of course, there’s also the two-way-player element. What we do know about Ohtani is that he wants to hit and pitch in the majors. While teams will certainly promise that opportunity, if he’s batting .220 in the middle of 2019 there could be pressure to remove his bat out of a lineup — particularly, say, in the DH spot in the American League. Ohtani will always be assured of some at-bats as an NL pitcher, though, and the Padres also have the weakest position-player core among the seven finalists, which should give Ohtani the longest leash as he acclimates to major-league pitching.

The Padres aren’t without negatives, however. While the farm system contains hope, there is sustained losing at the major-league level. As Eno found recently, the Padres have had trouble keeping their players healthy. The size of the market could limit endorsement opportunities, too, as San Diego has felt like a forgotten outpost at the MLB level for some time.

Ohtani would change that to a degree.

San Diego can offer the best climate, the smallest West Coast market, the greatest patience for his development as a hitter, perhaps the most familiarity with staff, and one of the most favorable ballparks for a right-handed pitcher. Also, fish tacos. San Diego emerged as a surprise finalist, but the Padres can make a compelling case to win the Ohtani sweepstakes.

Ohtani has been something of a mystery to date, but his inclusion of San Diego speaks not just about the Padres and the city but about what he is seeking. With Ohtani, geography and market size could be destiny.

We hoped you liked reading The Shohei Ohtani Finals: The Case for San Diego by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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I guess the sales pitch of “it won’t take much to be both the best hitter and best pitcher on the team” might convince him. He’d probably hit cleanup for SD which none of the other teams left can really offer.