How Shohei Ohtani can play in 2019 even if he undergoes Tommy John surgery

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

Because Shohei Ohtani is the single most talented baseball player in the world – not the best yet but quite clearly, with his ability to pitch and hit at hyper-elite levels, the most talented – the news Wednesday that the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow needs reconstruction gobsmacked the game. And then, as if to pat the dismayed on the head and tell them every little thing is gonna be all right, Ohtani hit a pair of magnificent, towering home runs in the midst of a 4-for-4 night from the third spot in the Los Angeles Angels’ lineup. As he coped with his body’s fallibility, his impending Tommy John surgery, his inability to pitch until the 2020 season, he managed to become the 75th player in major league history with a pair of four-hit, two-homer games in a season.

It’s fitting that a player unlike any in a century is now primed to embark on a path never taken. Ohtani is almost certain to heed the Angels’ recommendation to undergo the elbow surgery that takes at least a year to recover – and, amid that recovery, become the first player to continue participating in games.

There’s a chance Shohei Ohtani could return as a hitter in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. (AP)
There’s a chance Shohei Ohtani could return as a hitter in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. (AP)
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However counterintuitive it may sound – play while healing – four doctors who regularly repair torn UCLs told Yahoo Sports that they believe the 24-year-old Ohtani can spend the 2019 season as a regular designated hitter for the Angels provided his Tommy John recovery lacks complications. The doctors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen as suggesting treatment for a patient who isn’t theirs, discussed in general terms how they would outline Ohtani’s rehabilitation and why the biomechanical elements of a swing are unlikely to harm his new ligament.

Calling it a ligament, of course, is not immediately true. If Ohtani does undergo surgery, a tendon – typically taken from his wrist or hamstring, occasionally chosen from a tissue bank’s cadaver supply – will be woven to connect and stabilize the ulna and humerus bones. A process called ligamentization will slowly transmogrify the tendon into a ligament, with the first three months especially important in the healing process.

At the three-month mark, one surgeon said, he would expect Ohtani to be ready to start taking batting practice. Batting in and of itself, according to another surgeon, is not considered perilous for a UCL; Major League Baseball’s injury-tracking database, according to a source, shows only one case in which a hitter was believed to have blown out his elbow while swinging a bat.

Even better for Ohtani, a third doctor said, is his handedness. The elbow ligament that is stressed most during the swing, he said, is on the trail, or back, arm. Because Ohtani is a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter, his trail arm is his left. While this does not inure him from any troubles swinging, the fourth surgeon said, the case for Ohtani to bat next season is well worth whatever risk the Angels would be taking. Particularly, the first surgeon said, because he sees Ohtani being ready to return to full-time batting anywhere between the 4½-to-six-month mark.

The Angels’ doctors almost certainly share a similar opinion, which puts Ohtani and the team in an interesting position before he meets with Angels general manager Billy Eppler on Monday. Were Ohtani to shut down his season and schedule the surgery for mid-September, he could be swinging a bat before Christmas and reach the six-month mark with two weeks left in spring training. Play through the end of this season, and those extra two weeks push his first swings into the New Year and his full-time play, should they be cautious and conservative, to the cusp of opening day.

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that Ohtani re-injures the ligament, at which point the conversation about his future as a pitcher would be a reasonable one. For now, any talk of converting Ohtani to a full-time hitter is bunk. An 18-month healing period to pitch is more than enough. If he stays on schedule, Ohtani still will be just 25 years old when he throws his next pitch. “We do still see him as a two-way player,” Eppler said Wednesday in a conference call, and he didn’t expound on why because he didn’t need to.

Only two starting pitchers with at least 50 innings have a better swinging-strike rate than 15.2 percent: Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. Nobody has a lower contact percentage – contact made divided by swings – than Ohtani’s 65.6 percent. His 96.7-mph fastball is the fourth-fastest behind Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi.

Only five hitters with at least 275 plate appearances have a better slugging percentage than Ohtani’s .579: J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez and Max Muncy. Those five and Matt Carpenter, Alex Bregman and Aaron Judge are the only ones with an OPS higher than Ohtani’s .946.

As long as Ohtani is physically capable of pitching and hitting, he will pitch and hit, because what he can produce doing both exceeds what he could be focusing primarily on either. He has shown – in limited spurts, yes, but shown nonetheless – that when he pitches he caucuses with the game’s best, and when he hits he does the same, and so long as that is true, there’s no compelling reason to keep him from endeavoring to do both.

Shohei Ohtani homered twice on Wednesday for the Los Angeles Angels. (AP)
Shohei Ohtani homered twice on Wednesday for the Los Angeles Angels. (AP)

Maybe somewhere down the line it all becomes too much, but then doubting Shohei Ohtani is a road to perdition, and having trod that walk of shame already, a kind suggestion for those thinking of doing the same: don’t. Because the uncommon talent Ohtani possesses is matched by a mental acuity that allowed him to seamlessly transition to a country he didn’t know with a language he didn’t know in an organization he didn’t know and somehow balance those personal landmines with a bifurcated professional life in which he retooled his swing after a wretched spring training and began to understand the difficulty of beating major league hitters.

Wednesday night may be the last great performance of a rookie season in which Ohtani has hit .287/.367/.579 with 18 home runs in 248 plate appearances and put up a 3.31 ERA over 51 2/3 innings with 63 strikeouts and a .203/.289/.332 opponents’ line. It’s a staggering season for anyone and seemingly impossible for the person who arrived with literally a world of hype and managed to exceed it.

Baseball believes Ohtani is capable of anything because he has shown as much, so he now becomes the guinea pig in something that even a year ago would’ve sounded too novel to try. Not anymore. Not for him, the kid who pitched like a star and hit like a star and proved himself one on both sides of the ball. Even if his right elbow finally gave out, the rehab and biologics and rest not enough to stop it from blowing, the rest of his body need not. Come spring of 2019, the game will be waiting for him and that swing, not happy but ready to bide its time before the swing and the arm and everything that makes Shohei Ohtani one of a kind returns fully healed, rested and raring to go in 2020.

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