Why it made sense for Shohei Ohtani to pitch again in 2018, even if it led to Tommy John

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

The Los Angeles Angels wanted nothing more than for Shohei Ohtani to completely avoid Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, that procedure has now become an inevitability for the prized two-way star after an MRI revealed new damage to his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) following his brief return start against the Houston Astros on Sept. 2.

According to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, Tommy John surgery has been recommended for the 24-year-old right-hander. It’s seemingly a matter of when now, not if, Ohtani will undergo the procedure in an attempt to return to full strength.

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On the heels of that news, the focus is now turning to the Angels handling of Ohtani’s health following the original diagnosis of a grade 2 UCL sprain in June. More specifically, the question is whether having him return for a meaningless September start was worth the risk it now so clearly carried.

When you put all the variables together, it might actually have been worth it. That’s because the Angels could end up gaining several months in Ohtani’s recovery should he have Tommy John surgery soon.

The Angels had to test Shohei Ohtani’s elbow sometime

The argument could be made that Ohtani should have had Tommy John surgery immediately upon June’s diagnosis. You won’t get an argument against that here. But because Ohtani was determined to avoid surgery, and since the Angels were willing to let him continue hitting while resting and rehabbing his elbow, we can only focus on the options that those decisions afforded the Angels.

One option would have been for the Angels to completely shut Ohtani down as a pitcher for the remainder of the season. Considering they’ve fallen 15 games back in AL West standings, such a decision would have been easy to justify at any point following his injury.

The other option is what the Angels actually did. That was allowing Ohtani to continue hitting while undergoing platelet-rich plasma and stem cell treatment, then recover for several weeks, before eventually working his way back to the hill to test his elbow this season.

The former would have created an offseason filled with unknowns. Perhaps the extra rest and treatment would have been enough to get Ohtani close to full strength. But there’s no guarantee what’s happened now would not have happened then too. Had Ohtani instead waited until next spring to test his elbow, only to experience the same outcome, it would have prevented him from being any kind of factor during the 2019 season and potentially cut into his 2020 season as well.

In that sense, the Angels may have gained precious time despite a worst-case setback. Because we know all along the elbow was going to remain a concern until something like this happened.

Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani has a chance to be full strength sooner than later despite elbow setback. (AP)
Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani has a chance to be full strength sooner than later despite elbow setback. (AP)

Shohei Ohtani’s 2019 outlook

Assuming Ohtani does undergo Tommy John surgery soon, chances are we won’t see him pitch again until 2020. He could still be an impact hitter though. Position players are often able to return from UCL injuries much quicker than pitchers. Considering Ohtani is strictly a hitter, he could definitely be on track to hit for all or at least most of the 2019 season. 

The Angels could also opt to rest him completely so that he can focus on his elbow. It’s not a bad idea, but it seems unlikely.

Truth is, it’s difficult to defend how the Angels have managed the injury this season. Especially since it seems they haven’t learned anything from past results.

However, given where this specific situation has taken them, at least now there’s an opportunity for clarity and a chance for Othani to hopefully return to full strength sooner than later.

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