what the future is worth

words: david roth

Hiroaki Shimauchi is doing fine. The 27-year-old outfielder for the Nippon Professional Baseball League’s Rakuten Golden Eagles is, by some measures, having the best season of his six-year career: hitting for a little more power, showing more patience at the plate, playing every day. All of which is to say that, despite what I took to be incontrovertible visual evidence, Shimauchi’s spirit did not in fact leave his body after he swung and missed at a dematerializing breaking pitch thrown by the 23-year-old Japanese phenomenon Shohei Otani in a game on September 13. That was just a GIF, it turns out.

But holy shit, what a GIF. Otani is its star, and that wild slide on his pitch is the story the GIF exists to tell. Most reports have Otani coming to the United States next season, which is reason to be excited even this deep in another long season. The soul-deep phlegmatism of baseball scouts fails where Otani is concerned; you can read a lot of words about baseball prospects without ever seeing Babe Fucking Ruth as a comparison, and yet the name keeps coming up.

 

But what makes the GIF so memorable is poor Hiroaki Shimauchi’s defeat. You see his near-death experience twice, and what is implausible at game speed looks very much like a bit of overdone special effects in its second, slowed-down iteration. Here we see a zoom-in on the ball as it leaves Otani’s hand—the pitch is spinning so hard it appears to be vibrating—and then pulls back to reveal the pitch darting vigorously from a location on the inner tenth of the plate to a spot somewhere behind Shimauchi’s left knee. It’s hard to say for sure, because after Shimauchi’s flailing empty left-handed swing he just collapses, spinning through a complete about-face and then deflating onto his butt.

 

At the end of this controlled demolition of a whiff, Shimauchi rolls haplessly onto his back; both his feet leave the ground, and what looked initially like a grimace goes blank before flattening into an expression that’s almost peaceful. It’s as if he’d somehow swung himself to sleep. Otani starts to walk off the mound, and then it all resets and happens again. That’s how GIFs work.

 

This isn’t the only Shohei Otani GIF, not by a long shot, but it’s the one I keep coming back to. The marketplace in Shohei Otani GIFs is large and almost unbelievably vast. If you would like a GIF of Otani throwing a fastball at 101.3 miles-per-hour, you don’t even have to leave the same thread of tweets. Or maybe that’s not your thing at all. Perhaps you would like to watch Otani blast a towering opposite-field home run off a former big leaguer.

Or hit a moonshot over the batter’s eye and into the most inhospitable upper altitudes of dead center field.

Or simply hit a baseball so hard that it disappears, if not from this plane of existence then at least from the ballpark with notable speed.

Baseball is a strange, wonderful, and extremely slow game that can’t really be understood or even appreciated very well on a GIF-by-GIF basis. But you do not need to be a devoted consumer of baseball GIFs or even an especially dedicated fan of the game to have noticed the remarkable thing about all this astonishing #content. They all have the same star.

 

Shohei Otani is throwing those implausible pitches and mashing those psychedelic taters. He is both the best pitcher in Japan’s highest league and one of its premier power hitters. For most stateside fans, he’s presently more GIF than man, an avatar of outrageous possibility manifest mostly through his set of super-stacked stats—a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings pitched last year; 22 homers and a .322/.416/.588 slash line in 382 plate appearances—and the periodic looping chunk of pornographic highlight footage.

 

Baseball is home to numerous prodigies who were both brilliant pitchers and brilliant hitters in high school or even in college; there is no template for a player who has done both, brilliantly, as a professional. That’s where we are, and that’s who Shohei Otani is. And next year, it seems, he’ll be playing baseball in the Major Leagues.

 

The broader question that looms over all the smaller ones—where Otani will wind up, how much he’ll get paid, how he’ll be used and what he’ll be—is whether baseball is ready for him. This is an old and sentimental game, and it lives not just with but in its long history. Shohei Otani is a player who exists outside of any recognized or recognizable baseball context. This is simple—he can do more things well than baseball players are supposed to be able to do—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to grasp.

***

Here is one thing that has not changed about baseball, even as its new and strange globalized future rushes up to meet it: there are a number of mostly arbitrary rules that ensure that owners won’t have to pay players any more than they absolutely have to. These outwardly picayune rules—the ones governing MLB service time and arbitration eligibility and arbitration itself, all the way down to those dealing with the suggested salaries at various slots in the MLB Draft—serve to cost young players many millions of dollars. That is the primary reason why they exist.

 

By the time most Major Leaguers become eligible for free agency, they’ll have already delivered value to their teams that far outstrips their compensation during that period. International free agents, especially those from Japan, have a somewhat better deal: teams have to pay an eight-figure “posting” fee to those players’ previous teams for the right to negotiate with the players, but new rules have capped those fees at $20 million, which by MLB standards is only a moderately outrageous expense. Players can only negotiate with the team that wins the initial bidding war, but can do so within those restrictions just as MLB veterans do. It’s a handicap, but the best of these free agents still wind up very rich.

 

For all the advantages this gives them, there’s still some financial risk built into this for Major League teams, which explains why those teams agitated for rules that make it all a bit easier. Per newly instituted MLB rules, international players under the age of 25 are not treated as true free agents. They are instead subject to the league’s international bonus pools, a legalistic bogscape that we are all better off not addressing here or honestly anywhere else, but which serves to suppress their salaries significantly.

 

Because Otani is 23 and not 25, he will not truly be a free agent, and the most he could earn as a bonus—that is, the entirety of a team’s international bonus pool extended through trades to the maximum 75 percent over the initial allotment—is $10.1 million. Had he waited another couple of years and come to the league as a free agent, Otani could have been worth easily ten times that amount; he’s already made millions in Japan, but in making this move when he’s making it, Otani will be leaving not just tens but possibly hundreds of millions of dollars on the table over the course of his career.

 

This spectacular act of financial self-abnegation, for all its other issues, effectively levels the marketplace for Otani’s services. If money doesn’t matter, Otani is free to sign with the team he most wants to join. “[I] can’t think of a free agency as fascinating as Otani’s will be,” Yahoo’s Jeff Passan tweeted. “Think about it: Free agency where money almost literally isn’t a factor.” Even in the realm of hard caps and collectively bargained bonus pools, Otani somehow exists in a state of strange and tantalizing abstraction. 

***

 That will change. As a collection of GIFs or the summation of some startling stats and scouting reports, Otani is clearly remarkable but not quite clearly seen. Big league teams have scouted him and those scouts have described him, in a tone of giddy reverence they almost never use. The internet has gifted us these little blips and flares of virtuosity, and they’re identifiable and legible even out of context as cool baseball things. But what’s really exciting about Otani is what we don’t know—what he might be able to do, and how a team might use a player who is able to do all those things.

 

Otani’s current NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, have used him both carefully and adventurously. They have been cautious in how they’ve used him as a pitcher, emphasizing rest and limiting his innings, and although he’s shown himself to be a strong defensive outfielder—you will not be surprised to learn that his throwing arm draws high marks—the Fighters have mostly used him as a designated hitter. This all seems like the right thing to do, because Otani is not just still developing as a player but physically still growing. There is no template for how to keep a player like this healthy, or for how a team might best use a player like this, because there has not been a player like this.

 

More than anything else, that’s what’s exciting about Shohei Otani. As a player, he could be valuable in ways we don’t yet know how to guess at. Ultimately Otani will be whatever he will be, or whatever his talent and his luck and his team and the limits of baseball’s imagination will let him be. But, in another sense, Otani might never mean more than he does now, in this moment just before, when he could still go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.

 

Otani is a ballplayer and there are GIFs to prove it; he’s exciting enough on those merits alone. But as what he is in this moment—a baseball player from the future who makes periodic GIF-able visitations to us in the here and now, and the embodiment of a future that’s new and stranger and more fun than the present—he is valuable in a different sense. At a long season’s end, what’s thrilling about Otani is how the possibility of him points towards next year, and all that it could be.