Shohei Ohtani, Stephen Strasburg, and Literal “Can’t Miss”

Because I believed Jeff Sullivan that there was a 2% chance Ohtani would sign Friday, I wrote this article, that now reads a bit weird, but I’m not going to change it because I have to get back to the job that I do for money instead of for fun. Any complaints about said weirdness should be addressed to Jeff Sullivan.

The phrase “sure thing” is thrown around a lot in sports to describe things that are not actually sure things. Atlanta was going to win the Super Bowl. Up 25 points, it was a sure thing until it wasn’t. Shohei Ohtani is not a sure thing to be a superstar in MLB, or even an All-Star. He’s not even a sure thing to be an average big-league player. History is littered with players that were star players one day and also-rans the next. But what Ohtani is a sure thing to do is pay off his price tag. Barring a tragic accident or something else outside of the realm of baseball, the team that signs Ohtani will surely earn more than $20.5 million extra during the 2018 baseball season that they would not have earned without him.

To understand why this is a certainty, you can look at Stephen Strasburg in 2010. The Nationals were the worst team in baseball in 2009, finishing with 59 wins for the second consecutive season. They were not much better in 2010, adding 10 more wins to that total, but still finishing 5th in the NL East. Their overall attendance for 2010 was bad, which is to be expected. 1,828,066 were said to have paid money to see the Nationals play that year, or about 22,500 per game. That was only about 10,000 higher, on the season, than they managed in 2009. Strasburg’s first game was electric (I was there). It was the kind of atmosphere that made no sense at all for a team that was mired in long-term terribleness. The game, played on a Tuesday, sold out with attendance only rivaled that season by opening day, up to that point.

But that only tells a small part of the story. The two Tuesday games the Nationals had played at home prior to this game averaged about 16,000 fans. It’s pretty safe to say that this game, against the Pirates, would have been in a similar range without Strasburg. But the Strasburg effect was much wider reaching. First, once it became known that Strasburg was pitching, the Nationals created a ticket package to sell many of the unsold tickets. The package included the Strasburg game, plus three additional games. For those that came to the stadium without a ticket, their choices were between that and the suddenly busy scalpers.

The weekend before Strasburg’s debut, the Nationals drew almost 91,000 fans against the Reds. That was about 6,000 more than they drew during their previous weekend series against the Orioles. But the Orioles are not really a fair comparison because they are Beltway rivals of the Nationals. If you go back the weekend series before that, when the Nationals were playing the Marlins, just over 63,000 came to the ballpark. Now, some of this might have been random or based on other factors, but fans were anticipating Strasburg’s debut and buying tickets in anticipation of it — fans including the humble author of this post. Some even speculated that the Nationals intentionally misled fans in order to juice the gate.

Strasburg’s second start was in Cleveland, who also seemed to have benefited from a large Strasburg-related spike in attendance for that game. His third game was a Friday and was sold out. Again, even weekend games prior to Strasburg were sparsely attended. The Saturday game after his start was nearly sold out, likely due to fans incorrectly believing it was going to be the day Strasburg pitched. His 3rd home game was the first that did not sell out. But there is more to the story (again, I was there). This game was played during the week, during the day, and it was literally at or above 100 degrees that day. There were still almost 32,000 fans there. After pitching on the road, Strasburg again sold out the stadium for his 6th start and had a large, but not sold-out game for his 7th. His next home start, another Tuesday game, again sold out. I’ve probably gone on long enough, if not too long. If you didn’t know how much Strasburg boosted attendance, you do now.

And here is the question: As much hype as there was in D.C. during the summer of 2010, do we really think that Ohtani’s hype won’t meet or perhaps even far exceed it? I certainly do. Additionally, the team that signs Ohtani will have a much easier time plotting and planning exactly how they can wring the most dollars possible out of their fans. In 2010, the Nationals created a multigame package on the fly, but now teams are exploring more and more ways of earning extra dollars through dynamic pricing. If a team like Seattle were to get Ohtani and announces that he’ll be pitching the second game of the season, the added revenue they would be able to earn would be astounding. Last season, the Mariners’ attendance dropped from 44,856 on opening day to 18,527 the next day. With Ohtani, it’s safe to say they’d sell out their second game.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, you might be wondering “yeah, I knew all of this already, so what?” And yes, most FanGraphs readers probably already believed that Ohtani is going to really juice attendance wherever he ends up. But then, why did three teams not even bother to try to acquire him? There simply is no justification. If you are the Marlins, you can do both things. You can say you are cutting payroll by $50 million, but at the same time if Ohtani for some reason picks the Marlins (he wouldn’t), you find the $20 million to pay him. You will get it back and more. Take out a loan. Heck, take out a payday loan with onerous and unfair terms and you will still end up ahead. It simply makes no sense. He is, from a financial standpoint, literally a sure thing.



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Dominikk85
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Yes that move was super bad by the marlins. I can understand they have monetary problems but it is not even 25m.

There are several ways to get that money back

-ticket sales
-trading him for 20m of salary relief AND one or two top100 prospects

Just no reason to not bid, that is like not paying for a 2 dollar lottery ticket if you were guaranteed the chance is 1 in 100 instead of 1 in millions like usually.

Also instead of citing monetary reasons and basically saying publicly “I’m worse than loria) they could have just submitted a lame presentation, I mean the likepy wouldn’t have gotten him anyway.