Shohei Ohtani is not going to pitch for the Los Angeles Angels this season in his recovery from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow.
That much is certain.
Whether the Japanese two-way player hits is up to the medical staff and the baseball gods.
The Angele and Ohtani should err on the side of a longer rehabilitation. While the guidelines for recovery from Tommy John as a pitcher is 12-to-18 months, there’s no such paradigm for a designated hitter, particularly one who’s expected to come back and pitch.
A right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter, Ohtani could re-injure the elbow swinging, sliding, banging it while running the bases.
“I think that’s why we’re saying we’re going to be extremely cautious,” said new Angels manager Brad Ausmus as pitchers and catchers worked out on Wednesday for the first time this spring at Tempe Diablo Stadium, “because we don’t want the fact that he might be able to DH affect if he’s going to be able to pitch in 2020.”
Ohtani, then, shouldn’t hit this season, either. At 24, he has an entire career ahead of him.
The reigning American League Rookie of the Year met with the collected media on Wednesday for the first time since undergoing the reconstructive surgery on Oct. 1, the day after the end of his injury-plagued first Major League season.
Ausmus said on Tuesday they were eyeing a possible return for Ohtani in the DH role sometime in May. And Ohtani said in his mind, that date is the same.
“There are a lot of variables, but that’s the goal I’m shooting for,” Ohtani said through his interpreter Ippie Mizuhara. “There might be some setbacks here and there, but if not, that’s the date I’m actually trying to go for.”
The Angels let Ohtani make many of the calls about his use last season. He signed with the club in December well-aware he had a Grade 1 tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Because of the injury, the Angels tried to limit his use during spring training, restricting him to a number of “B” games against minor-league and international teams outside the big ring of the main stadium.
When the season began, they kept him in a six-man rotation, allowing him to start one day a week.
By May he was having increased elbow problems and was limited to two starts in 16 days, ultimately blowing out the elbow for good on June 6.
During that time he was limited to 47 1/3 innings and 804 pitches in nine starts.
None of that worked. They might as well have let Ohtani pitch.
“I have no regrets about last year,” Ohtani said. “The club made all those plans and in the end it didn’t work out, but I still had no regrets.”
Instead of having surgery in June to increase the likelihood of a return even to the mound late this season, the Angels let Ohtani return to hit. During a month on what is now being called the injured list, Ohtani had a platelet-rich plasma shot and therapy to no avail.
After building his arm back up in bullpen sessions, Ohtani made one more pitching start the remainder of the season on Sept. 2. He lasted into the third inning and after his velocity quickly deteriorated against the Astros in Houston, an MRI revealed the injury had turned into a Grade 3 tear.
At that point he was told he needed the surgery. Instead, Ohtani decided to DH for the remainder of the season. Again, that decision may ultimately delay his return.
“I guess there might have been an opportunity for me to hit again by opening day,” he said. “But I felt like last year when the doctor told me I needed Tommy John, I was swinging the bat really well, seeing the ball really well. I wanted to get that experience level and finish out the season. Ultimately that’s going to help out this season.
“I might miss the first month, but in the long run it’s going to help out myself and the team.”
Be that as it may, that’s all in the past. The question is, what did Ohtani and the Angels learn from all that?
This year, the Angels have a DH with Albert Pujols returning from left knee and right elbow surgery that ended his season on Aug. 31. At 39, the injuries certainly were exacerbated by Pujols starting 70 games at first base while Ohtani was the DH.
This year, the Angels have a capable first baseman in Justin Bour, a free agent signee who hit 20 homers and drove in 49 runs last year for the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.
There’s absolutely no reason to rush Ohtani.
To that end, Ohtani was not even on the field Wednesday, disappointing the myriad Japanese photographers and videographers who were there to document every step. He has taken what baseball people like to call “dry swings” with the bat. No ball, flailing at thin air.
Otherwise, he’s getting in his cardio and light weight work, all behind closed doors.
May or June or 2020 will come soon enough.
“Like I said, we need to protect this guy long term,” Ausmus said. “We’re hoping for May, but if it goes longer, it goes longer.”