Will Shohei Ohtani still amaze us after Tommy John?

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Thursday, September 6, 2018

The news we've feared since Shohei Ohtani landed on the disabled list in early June has arrived. The Los Angeles Angels are telling the two-way rookie star that he needs Tommy John surgery:

The decision is now in Ohtani's hands. For now, he'll continue to hit. He was in the lineup Wednesday in Texas as the DH, batting third and continuing his pursuit of Rookie of the Year honors, and all he did -- talk about a flair for the dramatic -- was go 4-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base and his 17th and 18th home runs, raising his season line to .287/.367/.579. If he had enough playing time to qualify for the leaderboards, he'd rank fifth in the American League in slugging percentage. Amazing.

Ohtani made his first pitching appearance since June on Sunday night against the Astros, when his velocity suddenly dipped into the low 90s in the third inning, and he was removed after 49 pitches.

"One of the things that Shohei does is he throws extremely hard," general manager Billy Eppler told reporters on Wednesday. "If you're going to throw hard for a number of years, and you're going to continue to stress ligaments, you're going to put yourself at risk. If you're going to be a phenom, like Shohei is, and play both ways ... and you're going to hit huge home runs and throw 100 miles an hour, it's a lot for your body to endure."

From the outside, it seems the Angels managed this situation as best they could. When Ohtani landed on the DL on June 8, they were 36-28 and in the thick of the playoff race, just 4.5 games behind the first-place Mariners. It made sense to rest Ohtani, continue to let him hit (he returned as a hitter on July 3) and hope he'd be able to help on the mound later in the season. It just didn't work out. The Angels fell out of the playoff race, going 32-44 after Ohtani went on the DL, and Ohtani wasn't able to contribute as a pitcher.

It was the right decision to wait before having Tommy John. If Ohtani had undergone surgery in June, he wouldn't have been able to hit the rest of the season. And he'd still likely have missed all of 2019 as a pitcher. Given the standard timetable of pitchers returning to game action 12 to 16 months after Tommy John surgery, Ohtani might have been able to return late in the 2019 season, but assuming the Angels would be cautious, that would hardly be a guarantee, and bringing him back for a few starts in September wouldn't make sense. He likely would not have pitched in the majors in 2019, regardless of whether he underwent surgery in June, now or at the end of the season. (Eppler said he and Ohtani will discuss the options on Monday.)

Even if he does have surgery, Ohtani should be able to hit in 2019. As Stephania Bell wrote back in June:

Notice that the 14-month timeline post-operatively refers to a return to pitching. But what about hitting? For the same reason Ohtani could potentially remain on the roster as a hitter before surgery, he could also return sooner to the roster as a hitter post-surgery. Position players return to their full pre-injury level of participation following Tommy John surgery more quickly than pitchers. Given that their positional demands place less stress on the elbow, they are specifically cleared even sooner to resume hitting, potentially as early as six months.

All that leads to the question: What is Ohtani's future? Eppler said the team still sees him as a two-way player. After all, that guarantee was part of the reason Ohtani elected to sign with the Angels in the first place. Eppler wouldn't forecast the team's plans for Ohtani in 2019, but a six-month timetable following October surgery means Ohtani could be back with the Angels as a hitter in late April or early May.

We know Ohtani can star on both sides of the ball, but we don't know whether his remaining a two-way player maximizes his value. While in the Angels rotation, Ohtani was starting -- at the minimum -- once per week (he had at least six days off between starts and sometimes more) and required days off before and after he started. That meant he was neither a full-time pitcher nor a full-time hitter. As Joe Sheehan tweeted Wednesday, "This is what I wrote in April, at the peak of Ohtanimania. I think it stands. 'I'm pretty sure Shohei Ohtani is a five-win pitcher, and I can be convinced he's a five-win outfielder. I just don't know if we're taking those players and making them into a four-win P/DH.'"

Joe was spot on. Ohtani has been worth about 2.0 WAR as a hitter so far. Double that to a full-time number of plate appearances and put him in the outfield, and you're looking at a 5-WAR player -- higher if he's a plus defender (he has the speed to be a very good outfielder). He's also just 23 years old with big raw power, so his production at the plate doesn't feel like a fluke.

During his 51 2/3 innings as a pitcher, Ohtani was worth 1.2 WAR. Give him 200 innings, and you're close to a 5-WAR pitcher, with obvious upside for even more (given good health, of course). Instead, he'll end up giving the Angels 3 to 4 wins of value this season. That's still an important piece of any roster, but it proves the difficulty of playing both ways and explains why nobody has been able to do it since Babe Ruth 100 years ago.

The other issue for Eppler and Angels owner Arte Moreno: Mike Trout is under contract for two more seasons. Once this season concludes, the Angels will have made the playoffs just once in his seven full seasons. The Angels finished 21 games out of first place in 2016, 21 games out of first place in 2017 and will probably finish more than 21 games out of first place in 2018. And the Astros aren't likely to suddenly fall apart next season.

So ... well, as ESPN's Alden Gonzalez wrote:

Eppler was asked, once again, if he would consider trading arguably the game's best player in order to rebuild the roster.

"Um, yeah," Eppler said, "we're not going to trade Mike Trout."

Eppler added that his goal is to "put together a contending team next season." But he will probably have to do that without Ohtani, at least as a starting pitcher.

Is it possible for the Angels to figure out how to build a winner around Trout? The problem isn't just the pitching, even though everyone cites the injuries in the rotation. The Angels are seventhin the AL in runs scored and seventh in runs allowed. The offense, even with Trout and Ohtani, is just as mediocre as the pitching/defense.

The Angels need a third baseman, a second baseman (maybe Zack Cozart returns to fill one of those slots next year) and, yes, a first baseman. Unfortunately, Albert Pujols with his $28 million contract likely has to play somewhere. The point here: They need Ohtani as a hitter just as much as they need him as a pitcher.

I wouldn't trade Trout either. Extracting fair value for him -- even with just two years left on his contract -- is pretty much impossible. Eppler will simply have to be creative in finding ways to build a better roster around his superstar. And step No. 1 might be convincing Shohei Ohtani to stick to one side of the ball.

And the answer there might be this: Babe Ruth gave up pitching.

Related Video