Shohei Ohtani and the Cruelty of Baseball
In only two months of Shohei Ohtani, two-way player, baseball fans got to experience a generational talent in action, but that's been put on hold for now.
Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE
On Sunday afternoon, Shohei Ohtani pitched himself into the annals of baseball history. He became the only major leaguer since Babe Ruth to record 15 home runs and 50 innings pitched in a season. It was Ohtani’s first start since June, when he was first sidelined with a Grade II UCL sprain; the history-making nature of his return should have punctuated an already great day for baseball, the full-strength reinstatement of one of its must-watch players. The mood was, instead, one of vaguely sickening anticipation, an anxiety that mounted with each pitch, each location and velocity reading. Every small movement Ohtani made on the mound was scrutinized with the exacting eye you can only have when looking for a reason to be concerned.
Ohtani’s UCL issues were already a known concern prior to his signing with the Angels—he received a platelet-rich plasma injection in December for a Grade I UCL strain. When the issues resurfaced with greater severity after his start on June 6, Ohtani again received PRP treatment, and the general assumption was that Ohtani would need Tommy John, with the Angels taking the most cautious approach possible when it came to the health and protection of one of baseball’s most valuable players. A report surfaced that seemed to confirm surgery in Ohtani’s imminent future, even as the Angels maintained that they were "very optimistic" about his recovery. Eulogies for Ohtani’s incredible season of two-way mastery cut far too short were prepared. There was every expectation of not seeing him, or at the very least not seeing him on the mound, until 2020.
When Ohtani was re-evaluated a few weeks after he received the second PRP injection, though, the Angels’ medical staff concluded that he would not need surgery after all—that the treatment was progressing well, and that he wouldn’t even need to miss the rest of this season, let alone the next. He was cleared to start working toward hitting again; on the pitching side, he would be continually re-evaluated. On July 3rd, less than a month after the initial diagnosis of his elbow injury, Ohtani was cleared to return to the Angels’ lineup.
And here he was, on Sunday, September 2nd, pitching again, and pitching far sooner than most had expected. Ohtani’s first pitch to George Springer came in at 96.9 mph—a fastball outside for ball one. His second, another fastball at 95.7, was poked into right field for a base hit. Ohtani got out of the inning without allowing a run to score. But the second inning was more concerning. His average fastball velocity fell from 97.4 mph in the first to 95.5 in the second. In the third, it fell all the way to 91.4 mph; he recorded one out, gave up a two-run homer to Springer, and was pulled from the game. Both the Angels and Ohtani insisted that his elbow was fine.
Three days later, another MRI revealed further damage to Ohtani’s UCL. The doctors now recommended surgery. The dream of having a full-time two-way star in baseball has been put on hold.
The Angels had a difficult path to tread when it came to handling Ohtani’s injury. At the time the UCL sprain was diagnosed, while on a downward trajectory, they were still far from out of it—only four games out of the division lead, three games out of the second Wild Card. A competitive stretch run wasn’t yet out of the question, and if there was any chance of having Ohtani available to contribute on both sides of the plate for that possible meaningful stretch, they would certainly want to take it. There was also the fact that Ohtani, as this century’s first real two-way player, presented a unique set of concerns when it came to his rehab. Should they try to have him back in the lineup as soon as possible, making sure he continued to progress as a hitter? Would doing so jeopardize his recovery on the pitching side? It was a situation that no team has had to deal with before.
According to Angels GM Billy Eppler, there was no sign of further damage to Ohtani’s elbow throughout his months of recovery until Wednesday’s MRI, and no doctor had recommended Tommy John before then. The decision to have him pitch in a meaningless game now, as opposed to waiting for spring, makes sense: If the ligament had given out next March, Ohtani’s recovery would have been delayed into 2021. But Ohtani is now the latest in an unfortunate pattern of Angels pitching injuries. Per Jon Roegele’s Tommy John Surgery database, three Angels pitchers other than Ohtani have received PRP injections for UCL injuries over the past three years. All three eventually required surgery on the damaged ligaments. The Angels currently have four major-league pitchers on the DL recovering from Tommy John.
Tommy John surgeries have become more frequent across baseball, but the frequency with which Angels pitchers have been afflicted in recent seasons is exceptional, to the point where neither chronic mismanagement nor extremely bad luck seem like they could fully account for the phenomenon. The pitchers the Angels have had go down have been both young and old, developed in their system and acquired from elsewhere. Ohtani’s UCL issues didn’t start during his time with the Angels, but it’s with them that they’ve reached their breaking point. And with Ohtani sidelined at least as a pitcher, their chances of a competitive 2019 season have taken another hit, and with them their chances of keeping Mike Trout beyond 2020. A season that began with so much promise has ended about as sadly as it possibly could for the Angels. Baseball can be a cruel sport to love.
Ohtani hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll go ahead with surgery. If he does, it remains to be seen how he and the Angels will handle his recovery next season and beyond. But mere hours after receiving the news that his elbow had been damaged further, he was in the lineup at DH. He went 4-for-4 with two homers, which is certainly something no other major league pitcher can say they did on the day they found out they needed Tommy John. That he was still out there doing things never seen before, even on a day of crisis, was wonderful to behold. It also made the prospect of losing him for a full year all the more tragic. In only two months of Shohei Ohtani, two-way player, baseball fans got to experience a dazzling, generational talent in action, the thrill of a crazy experiment gone impossibly right. Now, something has gone wrong. We can only wait, and worry.