It comes as no surprise that Los Angles Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani will not be ready to play by opening day at the division-rival Oakland A’s on March 28.
Ohtani had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery just after the end of the regular season, and since the surgery has a 12-18 month recovery period, he wasn’t expected to pitch until the 2020 season.
The question was how soon the reigning American League Rookie of the Year would be able to hit, rare ground that has never been covered since the surgery was invented to save John’s career in 1974.
Ohtani is the first full-time two-way player in the Major Leagues since Babe Ruth pitched and played outfield for the Boston Red Sox a century ago.
“It’s clear to us that the timing of his progression will not allow him to be active for opening day,” general manager Billy Eppler said Friday during a conference call with the team’s beat writers. “Anything beyond that, I cannot answer at this time, because it’s a multilayered progression that he has to go through. To pinpoint a time is unrealistic.”
Angels pitchers and catchers have their first workout at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex Feb. 13. Ohtani has been given clearance to begin weight training and will report to camp in a much less heralded position than he did last year when his emergence as a Major League player was one of the biggest stories in the Arizona spring camps.
It takes position players six to nine months to recover from Tommy John surgery. For example, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Cory Seager had the surgery last May 6 on his right elbow and then another to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, but is expected to be ready for spring training. A shortstop, though, may have to throw the ball about a dozen times a game, most of that at far less than maximum velocity.
When Ohtani is given clearance to start hitting, he’ll remain the Angels designated hitter where he had 367 plate appearances last season with a slash line of .285/.361/.564, 22 homers, 61 RBIs and a .925 OPS.
Since he only made two pitching starts because of the elbow injury after May 30, it was those hitting stats that made him the fourth Japanese player to win Rookie of the Year honors and first since Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
“The uniqueness of Shohei also coming back as a pitcher is that you’ll have to incorporate the throwing progressions like throwing from farther distances,” Eppler said. “One of the things that we were mindful of is not introducing him to two new things in the same week.
“The easiest way to frame that is if he’s going to hit off a tee, that would come one week, but perhaps if he was going to move back in his throwing progression, that happens in a different week. It wouldn’t simultaneously happen, and each event is its own level. We’re going level to level, so that’s why it’s hard to put a timeline.”
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.
Because of a diagnosed tear in his UCL, Ohtani made one start after June 6. He lasted 2 1/3 innings on Sept. 2 against the Astros at Houston and was pulled when his velocity precipitously declined. After that outing, he was told that he needed the reconstructive elbow surgery, but decided to finish the season as the DH.
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.
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 homers and 18 RBIs. His OPS for the month was 1.003.
It’s those numbers that made Ohtani say he favored his work as a hitter during his inaugural MLB season rather than his pitching. The 24-year-old, who throws right handed and bats left handed, played his first five seasons for the Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League where he had 42 wins and hit 48 homers.
He signed with the Angels after a tour of select big-league clubs Dec. 9, 2017, for the league minimum $545,000, plus a $2.3 million signing bonus. The Angels also had to pay a $20 million posting fee to the Fighters.
Through medicals from Japan he viewed at the time, Eppler knew Ohtani already had a Grade 1 tear of the UCL, an injury which continued to get worse as the season went on.
It was a tough initial adjustment from Japan. During the spring, he horrified observers by logging a 27.00 ERA and a .125 batting average. But that changed when the regular-season began.
“First of all, the ball’s different, the mound’s different,” Ohtani said on the evening he beat out New York Yankees infielders Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar for the AL Rookie Award. “That’s something I struggled with from the beginning. Plus, the level of competition is higher over here, just different type of hitters. There were a lot of tiny adjustments I had to make early.”
One of them was abandoning his leg kick before taking a swing at the plate. He began to have more success when he kept his front (right) foot flat.
“I was simply not getting results during spring training from my at bats,” he said. “I felt like I needed to change something up. I knew I needed to make some changes. Getting rid of the kick really seems to have helped me.”
The question remains when Ohtani will be cleared to even hit again. It won’t be opening day.