A damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow did nothing to slow Shohei Ohtani in the batter’s box this week. The Angels’ erstwhile two-way star slugged three homers in two games after sustaining an injury Sunday that will probably require surgery.
The Angels should expect significant, if not similar, plate production from Ohtani next season, even as the 24-year-old right-hander recovers from the ligament replacement procedure that, assuming he has it, will prevent him from pitching until 2020.
“I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be able to hit next season,” said Dr. Luga Podesta, 62, a sports medicine and rehabilitation specialist from Naples, Fla., and a former Dodgers and Angels team physician. “It all depends on how he heals and how he progresses through the rehabilitation for his elbow.
“If he has problems reestablishing his range of motion and his strength, or if there’s any complications with his ulnar nerve, which can become inflamed, there could be setbacks. But if he’s not going to throw and he’s just going to be a designated hitter, he could be back in about six months.”
The chance of a complete recovery from Tommy John surgery is estimated at 80%-90%. The rehabilitation process takes 12 to 18 months for a pitcher, six to 12 months for a position player and as little as six months for a DH like Ohtani.
The first three months of Tommy John rehab are devoted to healing, with a splint or brace protecting the ligament. Players begin range-of-motion, stretching and strengthening exercises in the fourth month, at which point position players can usually begin swinging a bat.
Ohtani, who enters Friday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox with a .287 average, .946 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 18 homers and 47 RBIs in 279 plate appearances, is scheduled to meet with general manager Billy Eppler on Monday to determine a course of action.
If he has surgery this month, Ohtani would reach the six-month point of his rehabilitation next March, as spring training is winding down, giving him ample time to start the 2019 season as a DH. He would probably begin a throwing program next June.
Podesta said hitting should not hinder or pose any risk to Ohtani’s rehabilitation as a pitcher. The fact that Ohtani bats from the left side could provide further protection for his pitching elbow.
“Because he bats left-handed, that’s his pulling arm coming through on a swing, and he really shouldn’t have much stress on his ligament other than flexing his elbow,” said Podesta, who spent 16 years with the Dodgers under Dr. Frank Jobe and three years with the Angels under Dr. Lewis Yocum.
“As he swings through the ball, he’s not going into full extension as he would with his top hand. When you go down for an inside pitch, you have to bend that top elbow a little earlier to get to it, and that can stress the elbow a bit. But because it’s his opposite arm from throwing, he’s not putting as much torque on it.”
Ohtani, who went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts as a pitcher this season, wears a protective pad on his right elbow when he’s hitting. The ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery is on the inside of the elbow, so getting hit by a pitch should not pose a threat.
“Anything can happen with a pitched ball — you could break a bone, things like that,” Podesta said. “But damage to a ligament? That’s not very common.”
The biggest risk, Podesta said, could come on the basepaths.
“If he puts that right arm down on a feet-first slide and catches that hand, it can cause some stress on the inside part of the elbow,” Podesta said. “Or if he slides head-first, he could jar the elbow when he hits the bag or a defender’s glove or foot.”
These are risks the Angels are willing to take to get Ohtani’s lethal bat in the lineup next season. No player in baseball has hit as many homers in as few at-bats this season as Ohtani.
After re-injuring his elbow in Sunday night’s 2 1/3-inning start at Houston, Ohtani hit his first homer off a left-handed pitcher in Texas on Tuesday night.
Then, after being gut-punched with Wednesday’s news that he would need Tommy John surgery, Ohtani had four hits, including two homers, in that night’s 9-3 win over the Rangers.