The Return of Shohei Ohtani, Pitcher

Shohei Ohtani is coming back. Not Ohtani the hitter, who has thrived in his capacity as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter since his return on July 3 from a Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament. No, it’s Ohtani the pitcher, the one who we were afraid we might not see again this year — and maybe not even next year — will start Sunday night’s game against the Astros, announced Angels manager Mike Scioscia on Thursday. It will be the first time the 24-year-old two-way phenom taken the ball in that capacity since June 6.

If you’re not awaiting this start — and the return of this incredible athlete’s filthy stuff — with bated breath, consult your doctor.

Ohtani left his June 6 start — his ninth of the season — against the Royals after just four innings due to a recurrence of a blister. While getting the blister drained, he complained of soreness in his elbow, and a subsequent MRI revealed the sprain. With the Angels optimistic that he could avoid Tommy John surgery, he underwent both platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injections and was placed on the disabled list. He was cleared to begin taking swings again three days later, returned to action without even going on a rehab assignment, and, despite some ups and downs, has more or less equaled the impact of his early-season work, if not exactly replicating its shape:

Shohei Ohtani’s Batting, Pre- and Post-Injury
Pre-injury 129 5 11.6% 25.6% .360 .289 .372 .535 149
Post-injury 137 9 8.8% 32.1% .333 .262 .338 .549 141
Total 266 15 10.2% 28.9% .347 .275 .355 .542 145

Because he hasn’t been pitching, Ohtani has been more available to Scioscia since his return. Before his elbow injury, he started 30 of the team’s 61 games and pinch-hit four times. Since returning, he’s started 26 out of 48 and pinch-hit 18 times. He’s been largely shielded from facing lefties, making just nine starts against them, pinch-hitting against them just three times, and facing them on a total of 69 occasions (hitting a not-nice .167/.275/.233 for a 49 wRC+). He’s been outstanding in the pinch, by the way (.316/.409/.684 with two homers and a 197 wRC+).

The Angels were 35-28 when Ohtani went down, and the promise of a contending team starring both him and Mike Trout quickly faded. By the time he returned, they were just 43-42, and they’ve since slipped out of the AL Wild Card race and below .500 (65-69) due to abundance of pitching injuries and too few runs. Still, they have worked to return Ohtani to activity on the mound. On July 19, six weeks after undergoing his injections, he was cleared to resume a throwing program with the usual progression. Flat ground, long toss, bullpens, bullpens, bullpens, then a 29-pitch simulated game on August 20, another bullpen, and then a 50-pitch simulated game on Monday. Now he’s good to go for Sunday, likely with a pitch count in the 50-60 pitch range.

If all goes well, he’ll take further turns within a six-man rotation, presumably with incrementally higher pitch counts. There hasn’t been any suggestion he would pitch out of the bullpen the rest of the way. Assuming the Angels stick to a Sunday starting schedule, Ohtani could have an impact on the AL West and Wild Card races, since four of his five starts would be against the Astros (twice), Mariners, and A’s. If this all happens, his DH and pinch-hitting duties will be reduced; as before, he won’t hit on the days before, during, or after his starts.

With their medical team’s blessing, the Angels are taking the wraps off Ohtani because they want to know before the end of the season whether his elbow can withstand the rigors of pitching, rather than waiting to find out in February or March. If he needs Tommy John surgery, getting it this fall would knock him out of action as a pitcher for all of 2019 but still allow him to return to DH duty in the first half of next season. Via the Tommy John Surgery database, position players have returned in as little as six months (Tony Womack, 2004). And while eight or 10 months is more common, such as in the cases of Shin-Soo Choo (2008) or Gleyber Torres (2018), Ohtani wouldn’t have to worry about throws on the defensive side of the ball, presumably placing him at the lower end of returns. On the other hand, surgery next March would mean missing all of the season as both a pitcher and a hitter, and probably cutting into 2020 on the first front, as well.

While most players who receive PRP injections eventually wind up getting TJ surgery, not all of them do. Via the database, here’s a growing list of major-league pitchers who have staved off the procedure — a list that already included Ohtani, who received a PRP injection for a Grade 1 UCL strain last October, before he was formally posted by NPB and went through the process that resulted in him signing with the Angels.

MLB Pitchers with PRP Injections but No TJ Surgery
Player Team PRP Return
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees 7/14/14 9/21/14
Tyler Thornburg Brewers 8/1/14 4/7/15
Michael Lorenzen Reds 4/1/16 6/24/16
Wei-Yin Chen Marlins 8/1/16 9/19/16
Aaron Nola Phillies 8/17/16 4/8/17
Seth Lugo Mets 4/4/17 6/11/17
Wei-Yin Chen Marlins 9/27/17 4/28/18
Shohei Ohtani Angels 10/1/17 3/29/18
Shohei Ohtani Angels 6/7/18 9/2/18*
SOURCE: Tommy John Surgery Database

Additionally, Ohtani’s teammate Garrett Richards received PRP in May 2016, returned the following April, and avoided TJ until this past July. His 22-start reprieve might have been longer if not for biceps and hamstring injuries.

Just as he had been at the plate, Ohtani was impressive on the mound before his injury, as well, dazzling with a fastball that topped 100 mph seven times according to Statcast, as well as a devastating splitter and slider. In nine starts totaling 49.1 innings, he put up a 3.10 ERA and 3.28 FIP while striking out 30.5% of all batter faced.

Despite the time he’s missed, Ohtani’s combined 2.9 WAR (1.8 as a hitter, 1.1 as a pitcher) is tied for 74th in all of the majors, and tied for second among all rookies:

Top 2018 Rookies by WAR
1 Harrison Bader Cardinals 324 10 .277 .347 .446 115 3.3
2T Shohei Ohtani Angels 266 15 .275 .355 .542 145 2.9*
2T Ronald Acuña Braves 356 21 .291 .357 .559 144 2.9
4 Juan Soto Nationals 375 16 .292 .409 .513 146 2.8
5 Brian Anderson Marlins 578 10 .276 .358 .401 111 2.7
6 Joey Wendle Rays 432 7 .296 .346 .424 112 2.4
7 Miguel Andujar Yankees 500 22 .300 .330 .525 128 2.3
10 Gleyber Torres Yankees 379 21 .279 .349 .507 130 2.0
* combined pitching and position player WAR

Note the jump in the rankings between Andujar and Torres, coincidentally the AL’s presumptive favorites in Ohtani’s absence; those spaces belong to pitchers, namely the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty (2.2) and the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler (2.1). All of which is to say that Ohtani still very much belongs in the AL Rookie of the Year race, though I’m hardly the first person to say this. Dan Szymborski projected an Ohtani victory a couple of weeks ago, and hell, he probably projected me writing about the topic a couple weeks down the road. We’ll see what happens in September, but I don’t think Ohtani has to succeed wildly in his return to the mound in order to justify a vote for the award.

I hope he does succeed, of course. I don’t expect him to hit 100 on the gun, and it’s probably not even a good idea. I just want this remarkable young star to continue wowing us with a combination of skills unseen at this level in our lifetimes, and to demonstrate to himself and his team that he can head towards the offseason with some peace of mind as to the condition of his elbow. Is that too much to ask?

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

I hope he does well but he should probably just get TJ now. Tanaka has had a long run but delaying something for a year isn’t really worth that much if you have to get it anyway.

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago
Reply to  rhdx

Where did you go to med school, dude?