Column: Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani expected to undergo elbow ligament replacement surgery

Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Angel Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The news spread within seconds, and so did the instant commentary.

Shohei Ohtani had a shredded elbow. He would not pitch next season, so the Angels would not win, and they ought to get on with the business of trading Mike Trout.

“We are not going to trade Mike Trout,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said on a conference call.

That was about all that was definitive on Wednesday, the latest in a deflating series of days for the Angels. Project 2020 -- the effort to persuade Trout he can win in Anaheim before his contract expires and he can sign with another team -- took a serious hit when the Angels revealed that doctors had recommended Ohtani undergo elbow ligament replacement surgery.


Ohtani was the Angels’ most effective starting pitcher this season, and their most effective hitter besides Trout, based on the league-adjusted ERA+ and OPS+ statistics entering play Wednesday. If Ohtani has surgery, he probably would not throw a pitch for the Angels until the 2020 season, the final one in Trout’s contract.

This is the eighth season of Trout’s career. He has yet to win a postseason game. Trout burns to win, and the Ohtani news makes it that much less likely that Trout would sign an extension this winter.

The Angels plan to contend next year, Eppler said. They tried this year.

They retained outfielder Justin Upton for $106 million. They signed infielder Zack Cozart in free agency. They traded for infielder Ian Kinsler. And they lured the magical Ohtani, who hit and pitched and sparked interest in the team here and abroad, and from the casual fan curious not about Trout but about the phenom, and the phenomenon.

Ohtani delivered, even in his abbreviated season. No player had hit as many home runs and won as many games as a pitcher since Babe Ruth, 99 years ago.

And he played Wednesday night, even after taking an MRI examination and getting the bad news during the day. The rest of the Angels starters included two players that opened the season in Anaheim, seven that opened in the minor leagues.

Ohtani had four hits, two of them home runs, his 17th and 18th this season. No player in the major leagues has hit as many home runs in as few at-bats.

Eppler said he plans to meet with Ohtani on Monday. At this point, Eppler said, he does not know whether Ohtani will proceed with surgery and, assuming he does, whether he would be able to hit or play the field next season.


If Ohtani remains a designated hitter, and if Albert Pujols cannot return to first base following knee surgery, Pujols could become the most expensive bench player in baseball history.

When the Angels signed Ohtani, they were aware he had some damage to the ligament, but he had pitched effectively with it. The Dodgers signed Kenta Maeda to an eight-year contract knowing his elbow was not in pristine shape, but he had pitched effectively with the injury and has continued to do so.

“Is throwing hard good? Yes, it helps you get out hitters,” Eppler said. “Is throwing hard dangerous? Yes, it stresses ligaments.”

In June, when an examination revealed additional damage to Ohtani’s ligament, he and the team agreed to try injections of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma before considering surgery. The therapy has failed Andrew Heaney, Garrett Richards, JC Ramirez and now Ohtani with the Angels, but Eppler said the treatment has been successful with other pitchers and he would not rule out trying it again.


Ohtani returned to the mound on Sunday, but his velocity dropped precipitously in the third inning, and an examination Wednesday revealed new damage to the ligament. That could have happened next spring just as easily as it did on Sunday, and the waiting would have cost Ohtani much -- if not all --of the 2021 season.

As word spread of Ohtani’s probable surgery, fans jumped to this conclusion: Why not just have the surgery in June and get on with it? Here’s why: There is no guarantee with elbow ligament replacement surgery.

In about 80% of the cases, pitchers return to their level of performance. But why risk the procedure if there is a nonsurgical alternative to try first, and if there is a one in five chance the surgery does not work? If you turn out to be that one, and if your career is done, those statistics are cold comfort.

The Angels do not plan to dissuade him from his two-way career, Eppler said.


You think he should give up pitching? In spring training, you probably would have said he should give up hitting.

His performance in the Cactus League was so poor the Angels could have defended sending him to the minor leagues for three weeks -- manipulating his service time and assuring them of keeping him at least one more year in Anaheim -- but they did not.

“He made a commitment to us and he trusted us,” Eppler said, “and he trusted that we would use him in a two-way role, and we made that commitment.

“And when you commit to someone, it makes it hard to walk away from them or hard to change course with them. Not only are you letting them down, but you’re living with the responsibility that comes with committing to somebody.”


So, if all goes as planned, Ohtani could be pitching and hitting again for the Angels come 2020. That could be quite the dramatic farewell season for Trout.