Another Nice Thing We Can’t Have in 2020: Shohei Ohtani’s Pitching

The list of things that haven’t gone according to plan in 2020 is long enough to reach to the moon and back, and to that, we can add the return of Shohei Ohtani to competitive pitching. After more than a year spent recovering from Tommy John surgery, the 26-year-old wonder’s reacquaintance with the mound was hotly anticipated, but after two brief and miserable outings, he’s injured, and Angels manager Joe Maddon said on Tuesday that he doesn’t expect to see Ohtani pitch again this year.

On Sunday, Ohtani made his second start of the season, and it began with promise, as he retired the top of the Astros’ lineup — George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman — in order on a total of eight pitches. He topped 95 mph a few times with his four-seamer, struck out Springer swinging at a splitter, and induced Altuve to pop up a bunt foul. Here’s the Springer strikeout:

Things were looking up, particularly given that in his July 26 start against the A’s, Ohtani failed to retire any of the six hitters he faced, yielding three hits, three walks, and five runs. Though he dialed his fastball as high as 97.1 mph in the second inning on Sunday, he labored and grew visibly frustrated while walking the bases loaded on 26 pitches. He went to two strikes on six consecutive hitters, squandering 0-2 counts twice before striking out Kyle Tucker and Jack Mayfield. By the time he walked both Dustin Garneau and Springer, he had thrown 42 pitches in the inning — a ridiculously high number in any context, let alone one for a pitcher in his second start back from surgery. His three fastballs to Springer in the second inning failed to break 90 mph; belatedly, Maddon gave him the hook, bringing in Jose Rodriguez, who retired Altuve via a groundout.

“I thought it was fatigue, from where I was standing,” said Maddon of Ohtani’s rough second inning. “We were trying to get him out there as quickly as we could at that point. There was also the chance that he could get through it, and then I wasn’t certain if he’d be able to continue or not. It was one of those cusp situations. I thought he was just out of his delivery at that point.”

Once removed, however, Ohtani complained of discomfort in his forearm, prompting an MRI exam. He was diagnosed with a Grade 1-2 strain of his flexor pronator mass, which helps in part to explain why his average fastball velocity has been so far removed from 2018 (93.8 mph vs. 97.4, via Pitch Info). He’ll be shut down from throwing for four to six weeks, which likely would not leave him enough time to build up to game activity on the mound. He will remain available to serve as a designated hitter, though for the moment he’s considered day-to-day, like the rest of us.

“I’m not anticipating him pitching at all this year,” Maddon told reporters on Tuesday. “In whatever kind of throwing program, it’ll be very conservative. I don’t have any projection on that other than he’s not going to pitch this year.”

This is a heartbreaker. Ohtani dazzled the baseball world with a nine-start run in early 2018, before a blister and then elbow soreness sidelined him in early June. Diagnosed with a Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament, he underwent both both platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injections, but lasted just 2.1 innings in his return to the mound on September 2. Soon after that, doctors recommended that he undergo Tommy John surgery, which he did in October 2018. He returned to the majors on May 7 of last season, and spent the remainder of the year splitting his time between rehabbing his throwing arm and serving as a DH, but in September it was discovered that he needed surgery on his left knee to repair a bipartite patella, a congenital issue that had been aggravating him throughout the season. In his injury-bookended campaign, Ohtani hit .286/.343/.505 with 18 homers and 12 steals in 425 PA before being shut down, a very good performance but a step down from his .285/.361/.564 (151 wRC+) as a rookie.

The knee surgery delayed Ohtani’s post-Tommy John rehab program, but he finally completed it in December, after which he was shut down until spring training. The plan as of February was that he would return to the mound in mid-May, pitching once a week, and that he would have an innings limit. The coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans but he started the Angels’ third game of the season, and there was plenty of optimism that he could help the team’s quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Now, if he’s going to do it, he’ll have to do so as the primary DH. So far, things haven’t gone that well for Ohtani on that side of the ball, either; he’s hitting .148/.179/.407 with two homers, one walk, and nine strikeouts in 28 PA. Despite those ugly numbers, he’s actually making good contact, with an average exit velocity of 91.7 mph, an xwOBA of .382, and an xSLG of .642.

The Angels’ rotation will be the poorer without Ohtani, though the other five pitchers who have started (Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, Matt Andriese, and Patrick Sandoval, the last two of whom have taken just one start apiece) have combined for a 3.45 ERA and 3.00 FIP thus far. The return of Julio Teheran, who arrived in camp late after testing positive for COVID-19, will help compensate for Ohtani’s loss; he’ll make his Angels debut on Wednesday, starting against the Mariners, but even so, the rotation ranks just 19th in the majors in our projection-driven Depth Charts, suggesting that the unit’s current overperformance — which has still only led to a 4-7 record thus far — may be fleeting.

The Angels still view Ohtani as a legitimate two-way player, but should they? His total body of work on major league mounds now amounts to 12 outings spread over three seasons, with three appearances totaling four innings since June 6, 2018. Recall that he also made just five starts for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2017, his final year in NPB, due to a right ankle injury that required surgery. In other words, he’s thrown just 78.2 competitive innings over four seasons, with the previous three ending with an injury that required surgery, and he’ll head into another offseason with health questions. That’s a lot of work and a lot of rehab with only a minimal payoff, and it has come with roster issues that the Angels have had to work around — days off before and after his starts, and extra rest between starts, necessitating some rotation juggling. With a healthy Ohtani playing every day in an outfield alongside Mike Trout and Jo Adell (who made his major league debut on Tuesday night, going 1-for-4 with an infield single that showed off his elite speed), that unit might be the best in baseball and the cornerstone of a contender.

On the other hand, Ohtani has shown that he has high-quality stuff on the mound, this year’s struggles notwithstanding. He pitched to a 3.31 ERA and 3.57 FIP with a 29.1% strikeout rate in 2018, and Sunday’s first inning suggested that he can still get good hitters out even if he’s not dialing it up to 100 mph. A player who can put up All-Star caliber rate stats as both a pitcher and a hitter is a once-in-a-century talent; Ohtani’s high-level performance as both a pitcher and hitter has only early Babe Ruth’s 1918 and ’19 seasons as a precedent. To give up on that simply so that Maddon has an everyday DH or outfielder to write into the lineup feels like using a Van Gogh painting as a TV tray.

Maddon told reporters he still believes Ohtani can be a two-way player. “We just got to get past the arm maladies and figure that out,” he said. “He’s such a high-end arm and, of course, what he can do in the batter’s box. It might get to the point where he may choose to want to do one thing over the other and just express that to us.”

So far as anybody knows, that’s not the case yet, and in a normal six-month season, Ohtani’s forearm strain would be viewed as a setback, not a crossroads. He won’t be able to help the Angels as a pitcher during this brief, weird season, but that’s not enough of a reason to surrender the possibility that he could return to dazzling the baseball world with his unique combination of talents.

We hoped you liked reading Another Nice Thing We Can’t Have in 2020: Shohei Ohtani’s Pitching by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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thepainguy
Member

Might be time to start talking — again — about the relationship between pitching mechanics and injuries.

Ohtani’s problems were all too predictable.

And were predicted.

https://twitter.com/thepainguy/status/1287765162800361476

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

The sheer volume of pitching injuries make “predictions” like this often appear to be prophetic. But mostly all they prove is that we are still in the dark ages (or at least maybe the “dim” ages) of understanding/predicting injuries. People were saying Chris Sale would never last a full season since the beginning of his career, and he turned into one of the most durable pitchers around for about a decade. The very act of throwing a baseball is harmful to one’s arm, so of course a lot of these guys will be injured throwing as often and as hard as they do, but claims of any predictive ability of which major league pitchers are more likely to get hurt than others are almost certainly bs.

MikeS
Member
Member
MikeS

Exactly. You can pick almost any pitcher in baseball (especially a starter) and say each year “this guy is going to have arm trouble” and sooner or later you are probably going to be correct.

Smiling Politely
Member
Member
Smiling Politely

Might be time to start talking–again–about the relationship between living and dying. The living are all too predictable.
And were predicted.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich

Wow, someone predicted that a pitcher, an inherently injury prone position, would get hurt. Brilliant!

thepainguy
Member

That’s fatalism.

WHY are pitchers injury prone? And more so, recently? What’s changed?

You can see things in Ohtani’s pitching mechanics that…

1. Are taught.
2. That Nolan Ryan did NOT do.

Starting with what I call the Tommy John Twist.

https://clients.chrisoleary.com/Pitching/The-Epidemic/The-Big-Five/Tommy-John-Surgery-Twist

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich

Pitching is an un-natural motion no matter how good someone’s mechanics are. Trying to compare mechanics between decades does not work.

thepainguy
Member

Your points don’t follow.

And this. “Pitching is an un-natural motion no matter how good someone’s mechanics are,” is an assumption, not a statement of fact.

P.S. People have been throwing implements for thousands of years. What are we doing differently? Many things? That are being taught.

https://clients.chrisoleary.com/Pitching/The-Epidemic/The-Big-Five

Joser
Member
Joser

Oh look, somebody has a website to promote. “Doctors hate him!” “Do This One Thing Daily!”

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich

It is a fact. Throwing a ball overhand like that tears small muscle tissues every pitch. If it wasn’t real a great pitcher could take the mound every day.

CliffH
Member
CliffH

By that logic every motion with effort is “unnatural”. I don’t see anything especially unnatural about throwing a ball, but doing anything at max effort over and over is likely to lead to injury eventually.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

“Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”

~ Mark Prior, Owner, Perfect Pitching Mechanics LLC

Max Power
Member
Member
Max Power

“Don’t believe 90% of what you read on the internet”

-Mark Twain

thepainguy
Member

Here’s me offering to take Tom House, the author of Mark Prior’s pitching mechanics, up on his bet that Shohei Ohtani was going to be better than ever.

https://twitter.com/thepainguy/status/1287919433403510784

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

If that guy (or anyone) could reliably and accurately predict pitching injuries by looking at mechanics he wouldnt be posting about it on twitter to nobody.

Gavin
Member
Member
Gavin

That tweet says that the “T.J. twist” “already got” Ohtani’s elbow; as in, he already had the elbow surgery. What, exactly, are you attempting to claim credit for predicting?