Shohei Ohtani was the Dodgers' darling, but Yoshinobu Yamamoto was 'the opportunity'
LOS ANGELES — Yoshinobu Yamamoto came prepared to give himself a proper introduction. The 25-year-old has yet to throw a pitch in Major League Baseball but offered one for himself as he donned a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform for the first time. Over his monthlong posting process that saw him primarily in Los Angeles (with stops in San Francisco and New York along the way), the Japanese right-hander practiced his English. His pace through life, his agent said, is deliberate. But he can attack a task quickly; his sister, an elementary school English teacher, has helped in his progress.
“I cannot express how much it means to me to be able to call Los Angeles my new home,” Yamamoto said in English on Wednesday, greeted by a horde of cameras and international media in his new ballpark.
He is the owner of the richest contract for a pitcher in baseball history, the subject of fascination for several big market teams due to a combination of age, circumstance and above all, an electric and deep arsenal that has allowed him to thrive. The eye-popping figures — 12 years, $325 million — are staggering. So too is the billion-plus dollar figure the Dodgers have committed to supplement their roster before the calendar has even flipped to 2024.
It comes with considerable risk, much less for a Dodgers club that has at times shown a propensity to be risk-averse when it comes to pitching contracts. Before this month, the Dodgers had only topped nine figures six times ever for a pitcher. They’ve now done so three times in a matter of weeks for Shohei Ohtani (10 years, $700 million), Tyler Glasnow (5 years, $136.5 million) and Yamamoto. Ohtani won’t throw a pitch next season but is the most talented player in the game. Glasnow has dealt with injury troubles, yet has shown himself to have as dynamic of stuff as any pitcher in the league.
Yamamoto? Well, his next start in the majors will be his first. Yet he’s the bet the Dodgers have been yearning to take, the subject of adoration of some in the organization for years well before he was made available by his club with Nippon Professional Baseball, the Orix Buffaloes. Several of the organization’s higher-ups, from president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to general manager Brandon Gomes to vice president of player personnel Galen Carr trekked multiple times to Japan to watch Yamamoto pitch in person.
It took little for the organization to strike the same conclusion.
“(This) was the opportunity,” said Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ president and CEO. “This was a player, if he had been there any year we would have been after him.”
The circumstances were unique, as was the player. At 25 years old, Yamamoto was well younger than some of the other premium starters on the market. He didn’t come with any draft pick obligations, nor would he require a massive prospect haul to acquire. All he cost was money, and the Dodgers had as much as any of the other deep-pocketed clubs interested in Yamamoto. The cost for matching the New York Mets’ offer (and topping the New York Yankees’ 10-year, $300 million offer, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported) and outbidding the likes of the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays was a commitment that netted out to close to $400 million including the $51.6 million posting fee. A hefty price for any pitcher, even one who has dominated Japan to the tune of three consecutive MVPs and Sawamura Awards but whose closest brush with major-league competition came in last March’s World Baseball Classic.
The list of bidders eases some of that concern: Mapping out projections between the two leagues has never been simpler, and few clubs appeared scared off by Yamamoto’s 5-foot-10 frame. Rather, they spoke with awe of an unorthodox preparation method that those close to Yamamoto believed would continue to propel him forward.
It goes beyond an aggressive form of long toss that Gomes said “looks like it’s going to knock the catcher’s mitt right out of his hand.” Yamamoto does not lift weights, instead incorporating a variety of other tools ranging from miniature soccer balls to a javelin as a matter of building functional strength and mobility. Rather than be minimized by his frame, Yamamoto has sought to maximize every last bit of it, controlling details down to his nutrition before games to try to achieve peak performance. The method’s origins come from a Japanese guru by the name of Yata Sensei, according to Yamamoto’s agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman, with an emphasis on “breathing, flexibility, yoga and core training.”
Sensei’s teachings, Wolfe said, were a frequent topic of conversation with Dodgers personnel like Carr as well as officials from other clubs, with the Dodgers asking to speak with him to dive deeper into what has allowed Yamamoto to not just survive, but thrive as his workloads increased. One club, in a gesture of goodwill, even presented Yamamoto with a customized javelin with the club’s logos, one of several gifts Yamamoto received over the monthlong courtship. As they spoke with inquiring clubs, Wolfe pointed to the numbers — of the pitchers who participated in the WBC this past spring, he said, 80 percent of them either regressed in performance or suffered an injury in the ensuing season. The internal and public-facing data showed Yamamoto got better as he went along, finishing with a 1.21 ERA in 23 games.
So the guru will come to Los Angeles along with Yamamoto, who has a chance to be the player the Dodgers needed more than any other as they broke through in the splashiest winter in recent baseball memory.
Ohtani was the darling. And yet it was Yamamoto who fit the club like a glove.
Ohtani was always going to be the winter’s biggest prize, a unicorn who had been the subject of the Dodgers’ fascination dating back a decade. Yet as they mapped out different paths for this winter, Yamamoto remained at the forefront. The prospect of adding both, seemingly preposterous on its face, never seemed to barrel past the extreme. Yes, there was a path to adding both.
“This one definitely did,” Gomes said.
The unorthodox structure of Ohtani’s contract, from its unprecedented deferrals to its ties to the power brokers of the front office, only further cleared the path to address the actual needs on the roster this winter: pitching Ohtani helped further, helping convince Glasnow to sign a long-term contract extension sight unseen while also appearing as one of several Dodgers stars to take part in Yamamoto’s in-person meeting with the club at Dodger Stadium on Dec. 12 (Glasnow, for what it’s worth, is also represented by Wolfe). That meeting was revealing, according to those who attended. Gomes raved about Yamamoto’s personality, how Yamamoto navigated a clubhouse tour and interacted with the likes of Freddie Freeman and his future catcher, Will Smith. And Yamamoto came away wowed by the “clubhouse atmosphere” he sensed in interacting with his new teammates. While Yamamoto said he likely would’ve wound up a Dodger regardless of Ohtani’s landing spot, it proved to be quite a compelling option.
“The fact that we were able to do both of them was good fortune,” Kasten said. “But we would have been interested in either one of them in any year.”
As he spoke to the mass of cameras Wednesday, Yamamoto spoke of wanting more. He’d been to Dodger Stadium before, arriving as part of a postseason tour (after a stop in Oakland for the AL Wild-Card Game) in 2019 to watch Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda twirl 4 2/3 innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS. He wanted to see what the atmosphere would be like. That, Yamamoto said, only made his pull to the United States stronger.
He has arrived to a horde of expectations that accompany such a contract, and such an offseason for the Dodgers. Flipping back to Japanese, he welcomed it.
“I promise to all the fans of L.A. that I will focus my everything to become a better player and to become a world champion as a member of the Dodgers,” Yamamoto said through interpreter Mako Allbee. “I will stop simply admiring the players I looked up to, but rather strive to become the player that others want to become.”
(Top photo: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)