How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohtani?
The hard choices the Angels have to make to keep 21st century Bambino Shohei Ohtani in the lineup.
If you were at a secondhand shop and stumbled upon a Stradivarius made of diamonds, you’d be excited. Even if it struck you as a little crazy—who makes a violin out of diamonds?
Your excitement would only grow when the owner sold it for eight bucks.
Then your head would explode when you had a violinist try to play it and discovered it sounded amazing—you possessed a unique treasure, a once in a century discovery.
At which point you left it in the driveway and backed over it with your car.
For fans, this is what it feels like happened with the Los Angeles Angels and Shohei Ohtani. A 23-year-old superstar in Japan, Ohtani was so desperate to compete in the American major leagues he signed a contract with an annual base salary of just $545,000 in a sport where stars rake in over $30 million. This inspired The Atlantic to speculate he might be the “most underpaid man in the world.”
Granted, Ohtani insisted that he wanted to be a hitter and a pitcher. Accommodating his request would be a challenge, but if he showed legit potential at either with that bargain price, he was a steal. And if Ohtani somehow turned out to be the new Babe Ruth and accomplished a feat unseen since 1919, he would arguably be even more valuable than his teammate (and certain Hall of Famer) Mike Trout.
Shockingly, Ohtani proved downright Ruthian. On the mound, he surrendered one hit over seven innings to the Oakland A’s while striking out 12. It was his second start against them, meaning the more they saw him, the more they whiffed.
At the plate, Ohtani ravaged Cleveland with four hits and two home runs in a game. Oh, and he stole a base. Yep, he’s fast too.
In general, when Ohtani hits a home run, he destroys it—witness this nearly 450-foot blast.
These performances were highlights, but they weren’t outliers. As a pitcher, Ohtani ranked in the AL’s top 10 for both ERA and strikeouts per nine innings. At the plate, his slugging percentage was among the league leaders too.
Or he would be among the leaders in those categories, except he didn’t play enough games to qualify for the rankings.
This shouldn’t come as a shock to the Angels. They knew Ohtani was remarkable, but potentially fragile. Before the season, the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow required a platelet-rich plasma injection. Angels GM Billy Eppler was publicly unconcerned: “Based on the readings of those MRIs, there are not signs of acute trauma in the elbow. It looks consistent with players his age.”
And sure enough, that confidence seemed justified when Ohtani was firing 101 mph pitches and showing off a damn near unhittable splitter.
Then on June 8, Ohtani went on the disabled list with a grade 2 UCL sprain.
Understand: UCL injuries are still scary. Yes, Tommy John surgery means they no longer necessarily end careers. Even so, the surgery typically requires at least 12 months of recovery time and many pitchers are never the same. Tommy John surgery coupled with a mess of other procedures enabled 1990 World Series MVP Jose Rijo to extend his career, but he was still out of the bigs for five entire seasons and only managed 94 innings upon his return.
This is where we start the second-guessing.
Now vs. Later. “Baseball looks at players in a bigger picture than any other sport,” Dr. David Geier told RCL. An orthopedic surgeon and the author of That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, Geier also worked with the medical teams for the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. After all, players can have epic careers: Witness Ichiro playing nine seasons in Japan and another 18 in the U.S.
Franchises can think beyond the current season, particularly when it’s unlikely to end with a World Series. “Most of the time, teams, when they’re not in contention, will do whatever they can to shut someone down and get them healthy,” Geier explained. On June 8, the Angels were a respectable 36-28. Unfortunately, they were only third in their five-team division, which includes the defending champion Houston Astros.
Understandably, the Angels shut Ohtani down.
On July 3, Ohtani was back in the lineup as a designated hitter. Which was fine—Ohtani just needed to avoid pitching or throwing as a fielder.
There were more bad breaks. Mike Trout wound up on the disabled list and took additional time away after the death of his 24-year-old brother-in-law, former pitcher Aaron Cox. Knee surgery ended the season for Albert Pujols.
By September 1, the Angels were 66-70, fourth out of five teams in the AL West and 17 games removed from first place with just 26 left to play.
This is when Ohtani took the mound.
He’s Back? On September 2, Ohtani pitched for the first time in nearly three months. He was effective against the Astros for two innings. In the third, the velocity of his fastball dropped from 99 to 89. He gave up a home run to George Springer and left the game. Angels manager Mike Scioscia was weirdly upbeat: “There was definitely a drop of velocity but not connected at all to the thing that he had with his elbow before. Hopefully he has good workouts in between and be ready to go next week.”
The man who hit the home run off Ohtani was less so: “He was throwing 98-99 and then came out throwing 88-92. When it’s that obvious I hope he’s OK.”
Ohtani wasn’t. On September 5, the Angels announced that an MRI had revealed “new damage” to the UCL and team doctors were recommending Tommy John surgery.
Let’s be clear: Things could be worse for the Angels. After all, they still have a phenomenally talented 24-year-old under contract. Ohtani responded to the Tommy John news by having a second game when he collected four hits, two home runs and a stolen base, this time against the Texas Rangers. Yet while hindsight is 20/20, it’s reasonable to question how Ohtani has been handled so far. Incidentally, 2020 will likely be the next time Ohtani pitches.
Clearly, hard choices will have to be made about his career. These are the options the Angels possess, all offering plenty of anxiety.
DH until he can pitch again. This is what Ohtani has been doing for much of the season. Geier said even with the surgery players are “generally allowed to bat.” He added that how well they can still manage to do so varies wildly. Obviously, there’s a major upside to this option—you keep an explosive hitter in the lineup. But that’s basically all you get. Geier noted even if you’re not getting on the mound it’s still “really difficult to throw hard and reliably,” making it virtually impossible to play any position: “You’re certainly not in the outfield. You’re certainly not at shortstop or third.”
Of course, even if you’re exclusively a hitter, you can get hurt. If the Angels believe Ohtani’s pitching is as valuable (or more valuable) than his hitting, they might want to…
Close the shop completely. “If you really believe he can be a two-way star and has a pitching future, I might be willing to have a surgery knocking everything out for a year, pitching and batting,” Geier said. In the short term, this would double L.A.’s pain—already without a potential ace, now they give up those monster homers too. But Geier noted it might be worth a highly cautious, miserable season so the franchise wakes up one day and discovers that Ohtani has a “healthy arm that’s not limited.” And again, he’s only 24—a tough 2019 would be forgotten if 2020 Ohtani reaches his full potential.
Then there’s the final option. This choice would make a lot of people unhappy, notably Ohtani.
Permanently leave the mound. Michael Witte is a cartoonist-turned-MLB pitching consultant, including for a Cardinals team that won the World Series. Seriously: What he told us is fairly mind-blowing. He subjects a pitcher’s form to an agonizing frame-by-frame exam, noting the seemingly insignificant details that can have career-ending implications.
Even before the Tommy John announcement, Witte offered an ominous evaluation of Ohtani: “Not at all surprised by his injury. His mechanical deficiencies aren’t huge/obvious but big enough to produce health issues, especially when a pitcher [is] exposed to typically grueling Japanese training regimens.”
Ohtani played five seasons at Japan’s highest level of baseball before coming to the U.S. This is worrying to baseball aficionados who recall promising Japanese pitchers like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish finding American success, only to abruptly fall to pieces.
Witte believes that while Ohtani isn’t “far off” from a more durable form, plenty of his “mechanical components are difficult to change.” In short, Witte isn’t optimistic about Ohtani doing it both ways long-term: “Going forward, think his future will be with a bat.”
Needless to say, this would not go over well with Ohtani. A major reason he signed with the Angels was because they agreed to let him do both. He has held up his part of the deal by excelling at each. And the thought of losing a starting pitcher with multiple killer pitches is enough to make an entire front office get in the fetal position.
But if Ohtani’s future as a pitcher just holds more arm injuries, pitching and hitting won’t make him uniquely great: It will only prevent him from utilizing the rest of his gifts. Again, he is good at seemingly everything—he even legs out triples.
What if he became an outfielder, combining that ability to cover ground with a laser arm he could show off a few times a game?
This is a harsh option. But there’s one man who would pick it.
Ruth’s Route. Babe Ruth was a great pitcher and a great hitter, but he was only both of those things simultaneously for less than two seasons. A tremendous hurler early in his career, he led the AL in ERA and set a record for scoreless innings in the World Series. He could hit too, which resulted in him being placed in the outfield between starts. Ultimately, he found it so exhausting he chose to focus on the homers. During both halves of his career, Ruth was a winner, collecting three World Series titles as a pitcher for the Red Sox and four as an outfielder for the Yankees.
Okay, so this decision is hard. Let’s drive home why the Angels desperately need to get it right.
Baseball’s Best in the Balance. Since his Rookie of the Year season in 2012, Mike Trout has been baseball’s star of stars. Yet his talents have translated into a single postseason appearance, which ended in a sweep. His contract expires in 2020. It’s reasonable to assume that if the Angels don’t show signs of being a contender by then, he’ll move on.
It’s also reasonable to assume that the key to the Angels winning enough to keep Trout is maximizing Ohtani’s production, whether as a hitter, a pitcher or both.
Meaning baseball historians may look back on 2018 as either the beginning of one of the great partnerships in baseball history or the moment the Angels pulverized something priceless.