Shohei Ohtani Has Been a Major Success

When Shohei Ohtani made his return to the mound over the weekend, millions upon millions of fingers were crossed. And then, abruptly, his velocity dropped. The Angels suggested it didn’t have anything to do with the elbow injury that had kept Ohtani off of the mound for so long, and it was even somewhat believable, but now we know the truth of this dark timeline — the official recommendation is that Ohtani needs Tommy John surgery. It was reported before the season that Ohtani’s UCL had some damage. It was hurt again in June, and now it’s been hurt again in September. The rest-and-rehab approach didn’t take. It usually doesn’t, but it was worth a shot.

For whatever it’s worth, Ohtani still hasn’t decided whether he’ll have the operation. This is all new to him, and it’s a hell of a thing to accept. Presumably, he’ll acquiesce at some point, and then we’ll know we won’t see Ohtani pitch in the majors in 2019. This was one of the reasons why the Angels allowed Ohtani to pitch the other day at all — if he made it, it would provide some peace of mind, and if he didn’t make it, then an operation would allow Ohtani to be ready to pitch in a year and a half. Had the Angels waited, and had Ohtani gotten re-injured next spring, then he’d be out for much of 2020 as well. Now all parties have more information. Actionable information. Horrible, unfortunate, terribly upsetting actionable information.

But if there’s a silver lining to any of this, let me suggest that we take a step back and consider what Ohtani has already accomplished. Yes, it sucks what happens to pitchers sometimes. Yes, Tommy John surgery is a risk, and, yes, Ohtani’s two-way career might never be the same. Yet Ohtani has already proven himself. He’s already proven that someone like Shohei Ohtani can work. As far as Major League Baseball was concerned, Ohtani was something of an experiment, and he has been wildly successful. It’s impossible to deny the conclusion.

To a certain extent, there’s some arrogance here. We all wanted to know if Ohtani could make it work in the bigs. But Ohtani had already proven the concept in Japan, where the baseball is played at a very high level. No, of course NPB isn’t at the same level as MLB, but against the next-best competition, Ohtani managed to both pitch well and hit well. He stuck to a unique schedule, and he thrived. MLB would bring better opponents, but it wouldn’t change the fundamentals of the activity.

Nevertheless, you never know how someone will do in the majors until he’s playing in the majors. And as much as it seems like Ohtani might’ve spent a lot of this season partially on the sidelines, we’ve got a perfectly good data sample. How did Ohtani do on the mound? He threw 51.2 innings over ten starts, two of which saw him get hurt. By ERA-, he looks the same as Carlos Carrasco. By FIP- and xFIP-, he looks about the same as Charlie Morton. Among starters with at least 50 innings, Ohtani ranks tied with Blake Snell for 12th in strikeout rate, and no one has allowed a lower rate of contact. For every three swings against Ohtani pitches, one of them missed. The fastball, the slider, the splitter — the pitches were all obviously good. Ohtani’s stuff carried over, and big-league bats swung and missed plenty.

There was probably more of a question about Ohtani’s ability to hit big-league pitching. No other league has MLB velocity, and Ohtani failed to impress as a hitter in spring training. You’ll recall he had to ditch his leg kick, in an effort to improve and speed up his timing. Theories abounded. Ohtani wouldn’t be able to catch up. He could be pounded with good heat inside. There was no shortage of people who believed Ohtani would ultimately end up a one-way player, taking turns on the mound once or twice a week.

Ohtani has been steadily approaching his 300th plate appearance. He has a wRC+ of 146. You’ve heard of rookie sensation Juan Soto? He also has a wRC+ of 146. And other rookie sensation Ronald Acuna? He has a wRC+ of 144. Matt Chapman is at 144. Freddie Freeman is at 136.

Shohei Ohtani has proven he can pitch, but, on top of that, he’s proven he can hit. He’s been hitting more regularly of late, but even back when he was alternating between the box and the mound, he was excelling in both areas. This strong performance more recently has only further demonstrated that Ohtani can hold his own with the bat. Yes, there’s some swing-and-miss in his game; he’s not quite exactly a contact hitter. And yes, he only just Tuesday hit his first home run against a southpaw. Many lefties have to grow into hitting big-league lefties. Ohtani the hitter isn’t perfect, but I didn’t fudge any of the following numbers.

The exit velocity is real. Ohtani hits a good number of balls around the ideal launch angles. Ohtani’s terrific wRC+ is supported by his underlying indicators. The statistical argument is compelling. The visual argument is just as compelling.

Ohtani showed that he could hit, and he showed that he could make adjustments. He even showed that he could run pretty well. Ohtani did not show that he could play a defensive position, but in case you wonder about the value of a DH, recall that Ohtani has a 146 wRC+. Edgar Martinez finished his career at 147. David Ortiz finished his own career at 140. Ohtani has hit as well as Nelson Cruz, and any Mariners fan could tell you Cruz’s bat has felt irreplaceable. Ohtani, in short, has done everything anyone could’ve dreamed of. He could hit at the plate while looking unhittable on the mound, and the Angels were able to develop a workable schedule for both.

The only thing Ohtani couldn’t do was stay healthy. Given that he already had UCL damage before he ever wore an Angels uniform, perhaps this was inevitable. Because of what Ohtani is as a player, the path forward is somewhat unclear. The Angels don’t know when Ohtani might be ready to hit, post-surgery. Billy Eppler won’t make any promises. Position players have shorter rehabs than pitchers do, and Ohtani would only need to swing a bat. If he had the operation tomorrow, odds are he’d be clear to DH next opening day. Then the Angels would be without only half of Shohei Ohtani. But this case is obviously more complicated. I don’t know how the pitcher rehab folds in for a player who’s trying to hit on a regular basis. Tommy John rehab for pitchers is draining, and the Angels haven’t given up on the two-way project.

The very fact that Ohtani has been so successful is a huge part of what makes this so demoralizing. We know, now, exactly what the Angels will be without. They’ll be without a player who fulfilled every square inch of his promise. Even if and when Ohtani does reappear next season as a DH, it won’t feel the same. His presence will be a reminder of what he’s not doing. When one-half of Shohei Ohtani is shut down, he’s just a regular player. A good one, but, there are lots of good regular players. There’s only one Ohtani.

I’d say that’s just the most important thing to keep in mind. Again, one-half of Shohei Ohtani is going to be taken away for a while. What could be left in the meantime is a quality DH. A player is being at least partially shut down, and what could be left is a quality player. The Ohtani experiment worked. The Ohtani experiment worked. He’s not just some other weirdo like Michael Lorenzen. Ohtani was so much more than that. Could be again, a year and a half down the road. Given the lack of recent big-league precedent, Ohtani was kind of a baseball miracle. He is a proven phenomenon we got to observe. Even beyond his own recovery, he’s stretched the limits of what appears possible. He’s paved the way for the next Ohtani. He’s paved the way for the next experiment, even one that once seemed unimaginable. Ohtani was impossible, until he wasn’t.

This is a sad day for fans of fun baseball. Let it also be a day of recognition and appreciation. Shohei Ohtani’s two-way career is on hold. But it’s also a career that couldn’t have begun any better. We all get to look at baseball differently from how we did mere months ago. It takes someone special to pull that off.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Ohtani gets the news and he’s 3-3 tonight with a homer and a walk….

5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Correction: he was 3-3 with a bomb. He’s now 4-4 with 2 HR

5 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Only logical explanation: Jeff’s a wizard

5 years ago
Reply to  Anon

wait what the shit lol