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The Los Angeles Angels took a huge risk in opting to use Shohei Ohtani as a pitcher again this season despite a UCL sprain, and the Japanese phenom’s first trip back to the mound didn’t do much to assuage worries about his arm. However, that struggle might not be due to those same elbow problems.
Ohtani started Sunday’s game against the Astros and left after just 2.1 innings pitched, allowing four baserunners and a two-run homer to George Springer before getting pulled. That stat line in itself would be cause for concern, but the loudest alarm bells might be reserved for Ohtani’s radar gun readings.
From 99 to 89: Shohei Ohtani’s erratic day
Ohtani certainly looked up to full strength early in his start, maxing out his fastball at 99 mph in the first inning. That’s good! Per MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, the right-hander averaged 97.4 on his fastball and worked all over the zone with three of his pitches.
Unfortunately for Ohtani and the Angels’ decision-makers, it got decidedly less good in a hurry. After a solid second inning, Ohtani opened the third inning with an 88.9 mph fastball to Tony Kemp. Kemp went on to walk, then Springer took a 77 mph slider, one of Ohtani’s slowest pitches of the night, into the left-field stands.
Ohtani stayed in to face Jose Altuve and got the Astros superstar to ground out, but he was soon pulled for reliever Jim Johnson as concerns about his elbow began to fly.
This really doesn’t look like the in-game velocity trend of a completely healthy pitcher.
Ohtani's velocity trends tonight are absolutely horrifying pic.twitter.com/2l0aUPamUM
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) September 3, 2018
Going beyond that fact that a pitcher topping out at 99 mph then dropping to as low as 89 mph will always be concerning, Ohtani’s huge velocity spikes and dips between pitches also imply a very concerning lack of consistency for the right-hander.
Angels blame Ohtani’s velocity drop on back stiffness
After the game, Angels manager Mike Scioscia chalked up Ohtani’s velocity drop to a combination of back stiffness and a sore right middle finger. He also said the team is hopeful that Ohtani will make his next start.
Mike Scioscia said Shohei Ohtani was dealing with some back stiffness and a sore right middle finger from attempting to snag a comebacker, which the Angels believe led to his drop in velocity. They don’t think it was related to his elbow.
— Maria I. Guardado (@mi_guardado) September 3, 2018
The Angels made a huge gamble with Ohtani’s health
It’s worth wondering how many teams would have allowed Ohtani to pitch again this year after suffering grade 2 UCL sprain, especially if they had been in the Angels’ current position of 17 games out of first place in the AL West.
Ohtani had already entered the season with a first-degree elbow sprain, and hurt it again in June despite a PRP injection to treat the elbow pain. The Angels obviously believed that Ohtani’s elbow ligament healed enough to get him back on the mound, but one setback was all that separated Ohtani from the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
Moving forward with their plan of pitching a talent as dynamic as Ohtani despite a partially damaged elbow had a massive risk of backfiring. And after Sunday’s performance, it’s worth wondering how many more innings Ohtani has in him for the rest of the season.
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