July 14, 2024
Ohtani and the Angels have not yet decided if he will undergo a second Tommy John surgery, but either way, it drastically impacts what he could earn this winter as a free agent.

The baseball world was rocked when the Angels announced on Wednesday night that two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani suffered a serious elbow injury that has put his entire pitching career in jeopardy.

Ohtani has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, the same injury that led him to have Tommy John surgery in 2018.

Ohtani’s plan is to continue to DH, including this weekend in New York, while he and the Angels seek further opinions to determine his course of treatment, the Angels said.

Ohtani continued to hit for almost a month after learning he needed Tommy John surgery in September 2018, and as a result he did not return to the lineup as a hitter until May 2019.

Given that, it’s fair to wonder if Ohtani would choose to have surgery sooner if that’s the route he chooses this time.

That is just one of many questions raised by the news of his injury.

Were the Angels negligent by having Ohtani pitch?

After General Manager Perry Minasian announced the diagnosis on Wednesday, he was asked several different times in several different ways if the Angels suspected, or should have suspected, that something was wrong with Ohtani before they sent him to the mound on Wednesday.

Minasian was unequivocal that Ohtani did not give them any indication he was having any type of pain that might suggest an injury. He said repeatedly that Ohtani had only mentioned cramping, fatigue, a blister and a cracked nail in the previous months.

The Angels allowed Ohtani to skip his previous turn when he merely mentioned fatigue, so it’s not logical to think they would have dismissed his mention of pain.

“Today is the first day of any complaint of any type of pain,” Minasian said.

Minasian was not asked specifically if the Angels had Ohtani undergo an MRI in the previous two weeks, based solely on his description of fatigue.

It also wouldn’t make sense for Ohtani himself to keep it a secret, because he had so much to lose personally, with free agency looming.

Ohtani did not speak to the media following the diagnosis on Wednesday.

What is the prognosis for a second Tommy John surgery?

About 25-30% of major league pitchers end up having Tommy John surgery, and a small fraction of those end up having a second procedure.

Texas Rangers ace Jacob deGrom is the most notable pitcher currently rehabbing from his second Tommy John. Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler is currently working his way back from his second procedure.

Rangers right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, Chicago Cubs right-hander Jameson Taillon and Chicago White Sox right-hander Mike Clevinger are among the most prominent current pitchers who have recovered from a second Tommy John surgery to become productive major league starters again.

The time frame for recovery from a first Tommy John surgery is typically 12 to 18 months, but it can be longer for a second.

Dr. Rick Lehman of the U.S. Center for Sports Medicine, addressed the risks in an interview to discuss DeGrom’s surgery in June.

“A second Tommy John surgery is not like the first,” Lehman said. “I may be able to come back. I may not be able to come back and I’m certainly not going to perform as well as I did before I had my second TJ.”

If Ohtani has the surgery sometime in the next month, he will probably not be able to pitch again until 2025. He will turn 31 in the middle of the 2025 season.

There is also a new “internal brace” procedure in which the ligament is repaired using collagen-coated suture tape instead of tissue transplanted from elsewhere in the patient’s body. The recovery for that surgery can be 6-9 months, but there is limited history on that procedure working in lieu of Tommy John surgery for pitchers.

What if he opts against having the surgery?

There are non-surgical treatments, like platelet-rich plasma injections and stem-cell therapy. Ohtani tried both of those in 2018, and they merely delayed his surgery by a few months.

At that time, Angels GM Billy Eppler said Ohtani could have just skipped all the treatment if he wanted to just be a DH.

Ohtani continued to hit – with a torn UCL – for the rest of the 2018 season. He even hit two home runs on the September day when he learned he needed surgery. He hit a homer on Wednesday just minutes before throwing his fateful final pitch.

It is possible Ohtani could just scrap being a pitcher and go along as a DH with no issues.

However, Ohtani endured his two worst offensive seasons in 2019 and 2020, when he was limited to DH duty. Many around him suggested that he was not happy when he had nothing to do except hit. Former Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed said Ohtani took so many swings in the cage it was detrimental to his performance.

If Ohtani were to give up on pitching, he likely would learn a defensive position. He worked out in the outfield and at first base when he couldn’t pitch in 2020.

If Ohtani were to do that, then he would likely still need the surgery, but the rehab wouldn’t be as long.

Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper had Tommy John surgery on Nov. 23, 2022. He returned to the lineup as a DH in about five months. It took another couple of months for him to be able to play first base. He still has not played outfield.

What does this mean for his free agency?

It seemed a lock that Ohtani was going to surpass Mike Trout’s record $426.5 million deal, simply because he was going to get the salary of two premium players, a starting pitcher and a hitter.

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Now, his future as a pitcher is in doubt. If he’s merely a DH, even the best one in the majors, he would be looking at a contract worth less than the estimates of what he would earn as a two-way player.

Ohtani could increase that value by learning a position. It’s likely he’d become competent as an outfielder or a first baseman, but this winter teams won’t know how to put a price tag on that, because he’s never done it.

If Ohtani commits to continuing his pitching career, a team will certainly pay for that potential, but they won’t pay him as much because of the risk.

Does this help the Angels re-sign him?

In a weird way, this might be a good thing for the Angels’ chances of re-signing Ohtani.

Obviously, he’s not going to cost as much now. Also, if he’s going through a rehab period, Ohtani might decide that he’s more comfortable doing that in a place where he’s done it before.

Can he still win the MVP award this season?

Absolutely, and he probably still will.

Ohtani has a WAR of 8.5, according to FanGraphs. The next closest in the American League is Rangers shortstop Corey Seager, at 5.0.

Ohtani has already surpassed the FanGraphs WAR of 8.0 that he had in 2021, when he was the unanimous MVP.

Also, it’s possible that Ohtani still adds to his offensive numbers over the final month, even though he can’t pitch. He has hit an MLB-leading 44 homers – Luis Robert is second in the AL with 33 – and he’s got an OPS of 1.069.

UP NEXT

Angels (LHP Patrick Sandoval, 6-10, 4.08) at Mets (RHP Kodai Senga, 10-6, 3.19), Friday, 4:10 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM

 

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