Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani is still in the first stage of rehabilitation after last month’s Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his damaged right elbow, Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler said.
And at this point, there’s no way of knowing when Ohtani will be able to pitch or even hit again in a big-league game, Eppler added this week at the Major League Baseball General Managers’ Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif.
The surgery has a 12-18 month recuperation period for a pitcher, but there’s little predicate for Ohtani’s return as a hitter before that. Right now, there’s no timetable.
“Not until we get to the end of January, then I might have a little bit better timetable,” Eppler said about Ohtani who’s a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed hitter. “And certainly by the time we get to spring training in February we should have a better idea.”
Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the foremost orthopedic surgeons in the field, performed the surgery on Oct. 1, the day after the end of Ohtani’s rookie Major League season. He’s the team physician of the Los Angeles Dodgers and is based at the famous Cedars-Sinai Kerlan Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
It will be up the ElAttrache to determine when Ohtani is ready to play again, but he’s expected to miss all of the 2019 season on the mound and at least a good part of it at the plate. Right now, he’s in Los Angeles still engaged in postop range of motion exercises on the repaired elbow. He won’t progress to the next stages of full baseball exercise and throwing until he’s cleared from that.
“We will have to rely on Neil and his guidance,” Eppler said. “There are certain assessments you do on the athlete. He’ll go through a battery of assessments and when he does he’ll go on to the next stage. We’ll be careful not to introduce too many new things at the same time. For example, if he started throwing you probably wouldn’t want him hitting the same day. You’d probably want him throwing the first week and then hitting the next week.”
It’s renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews who has said that teams should now conservatively take up until the full 18 months recovery time to avoid damage to the replacement ligament, which is usually taken from the opposite wrist of the throwing arm. The recurrence of ligament replacement surgery is as high as 50%.
As far as pitching this coming season, Eppler said that that didn’t seem to be in the cards.
“I’m open-minded to anything a doctor could tell us, but we’re not anticipating that at all,” Eppler said.
He wouldn’t speculate, though, about Ohtani’s return first as a hitter
“I could tell you I won’t know that until we get a little further on in the process,” Eppler said. “I can tell you I’m hopeful, but that’s my own hope.”
Despite the right elbow injury which limited his use as a starting pitcher, Ohtani had a record-setting inaugural Major League year, becoming the first player since Babe Ruth in 1919 to throw at least 50 innings and have 250 plate appearances in the same season.
He’s one of three candidates for the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award, along with infielders Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar of the New York Yankees. The Rookie of the Year Awards for both leagues will be announced on Monday via MLB Network.
Because of a diagnosed tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, the Japanese-born Ohtani only started once on the mound after June 6.
When Ohtani pitched at full-strength early in the season he was nothing short of spectacular, mixing four other pitches with a potent 98-miles per hour fastball. He was 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA in seven starts through a two-run, six-hit, nine strikeout, 7 2/3 innings, season-high 110-pitch win over Tampa Bay at home on May 20.
At that point, the elbow injury began taking its toll and he never was the same pitcher again, logging 11 2/3 innings in three starts from May 30 to Sept. 2.
In between he had multiple MRIs and palliative shots in the elbow that led to the ultimate diagnosis that he needed the dreaded T.J. surgery if he ever wanted to pitch again.
After he was given that news by the Angels on Sept. 5, Ohtani opted to remain as the Angels’ designated hitter. Bad elbow and all, from Sept. 4 on to the remainder of the season, Ohtani had a slash line of .310/.371/.632 with seven of his 22 homers and 18 of his 61 RBIs. His OPS for the month was 1.003, .925 for the season.
It’s those numbers that make Eppler eager to have Ohtani return sooner rather than later. The Angels have Ohtani under control for the next five seasons and could sign him again to the minimum of $555,000 for 2019 if they choose.
Eppler said he’s spoken to multiple doctors about Ohtani’s return first as a hitter. Because Ohtani is a left-handed hitter, he doesn’t put the same stress on his outward right elbow when he swings a bat as he does when he pitches. That kind of stress is actually on his left elbow when he hits, Eppler demonstrated.
“Some of the doctors I talked to when we were going through the whole research process have dealt with the two-way player,” Eppler said. “But they have been college-level players. It should come as no surprise that every doctor has their own timetable and recovery protocol, so it just depends on which doctor you talk to.”
As far as waiting until Ohtani’s ready to pitch before he returns at all, Eppler added: “No, not one doctor said that.”