When Shohei Ohtani was finally posted in early December, baseball fans in the States were formally introduced to his exploits. Selected first in the NPB’s 2012 draft by the Nippon Ham Fighters when he was 18, Ohtani quickly became the first player to start on the mound and in the field. As a teenager and young adult in a league that, on average, featured players between five and 10 years his senior, Ohtani slashed .286/.358/.500 and struck out in excess of 10 batters per nine innings for a 2.52 ERA. He also possessed an outstanding arm, jaw-dropping raw power, and top-of-the-line speed. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, Ohtani set a velocity record for all Japanese high schoolers at the age of 17 (99 mph) and then did the same, one-upping himself, in NPB play four years later (102.5 mph).
He doesn’t feel human.
By now, you have likely heard the news that Shohei Ohtani is immensely talented. Inviting comps to Babe Ruth, he has taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning and homered off of a reigning Cy Young winner. He owns the 11th-highest exit velocity (and 10th-highest hard-hit percentage) among batters with 50 batted balls or more. Ohtani’s 151 wRC+ places him in the 95th percentile (min. 100 PA), which is as remarkable as it is baffling given the notable adjustment he made so quickly.
You have also likely heard that Ohtani came down with a second blister on his throwing hand approximately two weeks ago, received an MRI, and found out he has a grade-2 sprain of his throwing UCL. The two-way unicorn has opted for plasma-rich platelet and stem-cell treatment in an effort to repair the ligament and avoid Tommy John surgery.
With the unfortunate injury news comes a nugget from Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, who reports that Ohtani’s grade-2 sprain is a new injury, unrelated to the grade-1 affliction he carried at the time of being signed. Unlike a grade-3 tear, which necessitates the surgery, a grade-2 sprain — while serious — can be healed through PRP, though it is no guarantee the alternative medicine will show marked improvement in the ligament. If that is to be the case, then Ohtani will be out of action not only for this season, but likely the following one as well.
On June 6, the day Ohtani exited the game to his second blister of the season, the Angels had a 33.5% chance of making the postseason, according to our playoff odds. Today, that figure has dwindled to just 11.3%, the result of a bullpen that is home to a league-leading 15 blown saves, an array of eye-raising injury maladies, and severe underperformance from key contributors. The prime beneficiary of the club’s injury woes are the Mariners, who continue to surge despite benefiting disproportionately from their own sequencing to climb to 20 games over .500. At this point, however, those wins are locked in for the remainder of the year; the cushion has been built regardless of what happens from here on out.
Nevertheless, the following two updates on Ohtani’s progress are especially interesting, the latter being particularly relevant.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) June 11, 2018
Scioscia said the Angels’ medical staff is “very optimistic” about Shohei Ohtani’s prognosis. Still two to three weeks from seeing whether PRP injection took hold. Ohtani is taking one-armed swings in batting cage.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) June 18, 2018
This news bodes well for Ohtani and the Angels. All things being equal, the club is better with Ohtani than without him — even if he’s limited to just a batting role. The early returns on his offensive performance seem to suggest that Ohtani is a better hitter than previously suspected. He is not just viable at the major-league level, but is a speedy slugger with the ability to profile anywhere in a batting order. A quicker return means an opportunity for greater development (and perhaps an opportunity to master batting with one arm).
That said, it’s probably in the Angels’ best interest to continue handling their two-way star with caution. With the Mariners’ lead in Wild Card race, the club is unlikely to be playing meaningful games in the latter half of the season. Meanwhile, the Angels’ investment in Ohtani is an extended one — they have him through the 2023 season, at least — so it’s probably in the club’s best interest to protect him, utilizing him as a designated hitter in something less than a full-time role. As for the long term, Ohtani will likely be fine, given the more advanced knowledge of best medical practices and recovery rates from UCL injury.
As for the future in Anaheim, it’s easy to be pessimistic about a team that is three games over .500 at the moment. The club is likely to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year thanks to lackluster production from typically reliable right fielder Kole Calhoun (-1.1 WAR, 3 wRC+), an underperforming Zack Cozart (0.3 WAR, -5 DRS at third base), an Albert Pujols who Drives in Runs, and a bullpen ranked 13th in the American League by WAR and 12th in FIP. With major injuries to Ohtani, starter Garrett Richards, closer Keynan Middleton, Nick Tropeano, Matt Shoemaker and minor ones to defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, Calhoun, Cozart, and Rene Rivera, portending a comeback in the standings seems wholly impractical.
That said, the long-term health of the organization appears to be in good hands. With big-spending capabilities, a top-heavy approach to roster-building, and a controllable starting rotation in Ohtani, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, and Jaime Barría, the outline is here for a contending team. Perhaps more encouraging is an improving minor-league system that has begun to mold athletes and better develop talent, boasting four top-100 prospects (including Jo Adell, a young 19-year old slashing .311/.346/.623 for a 159 wRC+ in High-A) that are rising quickly through the system. With the first wave of prospect depth about to arrive in Fringe Five regular David Fletcher, a first baseman who has embraced the fly-ball movement in Matt Thaiss, and pitchability starter Jose Suarez, the question is not if the Angels will make the playoffs with Mike Trout, but when.
There’s no doubt that missing Shohei Ohtani for an extended period of time will hurt for a team which entered the year with lofty expectations, but let the injury not dissuade you: the organization’s long-term bull thesis is very much in play.
A finance student in the lovable armpit of Orange County, Rahul Setty spends his time following the Angels, writing for Halos Heaven, and derives joy from Mike Trout's on-base percentage which is, thankfully, always high. You can reach him on Twitter @RahulSetty_.