Ray Carlin/Associated Press
Shohei Ohtani last pitched on Sept. 2. In all likelihood, he won’t pitch again until 2020.
Or ever, if he and the Los Angeles Angels are smart.
For the time being, Ohtani and the Angels merely need to decide whether he should have Tommy John surgery, which was formally recommended to the right-hander Wednesday:
Shohei Ohtani underwent an MRI on his right elbow earlier today. The imaging revealed new damage to his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Based on these findings, UCL reconstruction surgery is the recommended plan of care. Additional information will be provided when appropriate.
Ohtani’s official decision should come Friday. According to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, that’s when the 24-year-old will address the press.
Meanwhile, there’s time to ponder what’s been lost. There’s no ignoring the 3.31 ERA and 63 strikeouts that Ohtani racked up in his first 51.2 major league innings. Nor is there any forgetting all the 100 mph fastballs and physics-defying splitters and sliders that he threw.
Under normal circumstances, it would be an utter tragedy that such a talented pitcher might be sidelined for over a year. But in this case, it’s a mere bummer.
Ohtani can, after all, still do this:
Pictured here are the two home runs that he hit in a 9-3 win over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night, mere hours after he was advised to have surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Those were part of a 4-for-4 night in which he also walked and stole a base.
It was the ultimate reminder that—oh yeah—this dude who came to Major League Baseball with a reputation as the Babe Ruth of Japan can pitch and hit.
Since one of those fates is now on thin ice, Ohtani and the Angels would be wise to lean into the other one.
It sucks that they’ve even found themselves at this fork in the road. And yet, how this might have been avoided is a question with no easy answers.
As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported, there was a red flag planted in Ohtani’s UCL before the Angels even signed him away from Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters in December 2017. But that was never an excuse for them to back off. Ohtani’s upside as a two-way star was made perfectly clear by the .859 OPS and 2.52 ERA that he put up in Japan. His cheap acquisition cost (about $22.3 million) amounted to virtually zero downside to taking a shot on him.
Of course, the Angels could have put the kibosh on Ohtani’s rookie season as soon as his troublesome UCL put him on the disabled list in June.
But nobody recommended Tommy John surgery at the time, and the Angels were very much in the American League playoff picture. If Tommy John would knock him off the mound for the rest of 2018 and all of 2019 either way, it made sense to give rest and rehabilitation a shot first.
So if anybody’s planning on 1.21-gigawatting their way back to the past to fix this, they’d better bring some magic UCL-healing pixie dust. Otherwise, good luck influencing a different outcome.
All Ohtani and the Angels can do now is minimize the risk of his elbow going kablooey again. Unfortunately, that’s all but impossible. As Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found in 2013, nothing predicts future elbow injuries like past elbow injuries.
As it is, pitching has already been reduced from a full-time job to Ohtani’s side hustle. After amassing 456 innings in Nippon Professional Baseball between 2014 and 2016, ankle and elbow injuries have limited him to 77 professional innings since then.
Meanwhile, his bat is flourishing.
Ray Carlin/Associated Press
Ohtani compiled a .981 OPS and slammed 30 homers in his final two seasons in Japan. Despite looking in over his head against major league pitching in spring training, he’s carried that success over to the States to a remarkable degree.
Through 82 games and 279 plate appearances, Ohtani has a .946 OPS and 18 homers. The latter works out to a 36-homer pace over a 162-game season. The former equates to a 155 OPS+. That ranks 12th among rookies since integration in 1947, right between 2001 Albert Pujols and 2007 Ryan Braun.
The really scary part is that Ohtani is only now finding his groove. He had a .907 OPS when he went on the DL in June. He has a .979 OPS since returning on July 3.
This coincides with him being better at getting under the ball and generating a good launch angle:
This means more balls in the air, and that’s where Ohtani’s raw power can do the rest. He averages 97.7 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, which is higher than that of J.D. Martinez and Khris Davis.
Throw in good patience (see his 10.4 walk percentage), and you get an ideal slugger. If Ohtani were to be kept on the track he’s on now full-time, there’s little doubt that his future would contain one or more 40-homer seasons.
Tommy John or no, it would indeed be a damn shame to let his golden right arm to go completely to waste in the future. Maybe, just maybe he could stick to hitting except for when the Angels need him to moonlight as a late-inning fireman.
But since the logistics of that would be a nightmare—how and when would he warm up?—the best thing the Angels can do is groom Ohtani for right field.
Depending on what happens with Kole Calhoun’s 2020 option, there might be an opening out there after 2019. Ohtani’s arm is perfect for the job. And as the second-fastest Angels regular behind only Mike Trout, his speed would also make him a difference-maker on defense.
It would be a better story if Ohtani came back from his elbow woes and fulfilled his destiny as Major League Baseball’s first two-way superstar since the Bambino himself. But he and the Angels will be pushing their luck if they keep insisting on a pitching career. Knowing that he could be one of the game’s great sluggers and perhaps one of the game’s great right fielders, why bother?
The bat works better than the arm. Take a hint.