Angels right-handed pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani has new damage to his right UCL, and Tommy John surgery has been recommended, as the team announced Wednesday afternoon:
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.— Angels (@Angels) September 5, 2018
In his rookie season, the 24-year-old Ohtani has legitimately been the best two-way player in baseball since Babe Ruth — they’re the only two players in major-league history with 50 innings pitched and 15 homers in the same season. Though his playing time has been limited as a hitter to keep him fresh as a hitter, Ohtani has generally been great in both areas and was making a serious run for the AL Rookie of the Year award prior to this injury — one that will presumably keep him out for the rest of the season and beyond.
In 10 starts this year, Ohtani has a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 63 strikeouts and 22 walks in 51.2 innings. In 274 plate appearances, he’s hit .276/.355/.547 with 16 homers and six steals.
We’ve known since last December — shortly after Ohtani signed with the Angels — that he had a first-degree sprain of his right UCL, thanks to a report from Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan. While there was initially optimism that the injury wouldn’t be an issue for the immediate future, it forced him to the disabled list in early June, keeping him out as a hitter until early July and off the mound until this past weekend. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for him as he was restricted to hitting for the past couple months, but things weren’t clearly right when he returned to pitching against the Astros on Sunday night. His velocity dropped rapidly, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello pointed out on Twitter:
Ohtani's velocity trends tonight are absolutely horrifying pic.twitter.com/2l0aUPamUM— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) September 3, 2018
The decision to attempt rehab a UCL tear has now blown up in several star pitchers’ faces this season. Back in April, Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto was perscribed rest by Dr. James Andrew after sustaining a UCL strain, but the injury caused him enough discomfort upon his return that he opted to have the surgery after making just four starts following his activation from the DL. The rehab from the surgery will now keep him out for the entire 2019 season, and while it’s theoretically possible that Ohtani could come back as a hitter at some point next year, he certainly won’t pitch again until 2020.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Angels approach Ohtani’s rehab since he’s in such a unique situation as a two-way player. Especially since he’s been limited to designated-hitter duty as a major-leaguer, Ohtani could be ready to hit within eight to nine months. But that could put unnecessary strain on his new ligament as he progresses from the injury as a pitcher, so it’s perhaps possible that the Angels will choose to hold him out for the entire season in an attempt to ensure his smoothest possible return to the mound.