Six years ago, Shohei Ohtani shocked the baseball world by signing with the lowly Angels. The reason gradually became obvious over time: They would grant him every opportunity to become a two-way player in the major leagues.
Unlike the Dodgers or New York Yankees, the Angels weren’t in position to say no to him. They couldn’t tell him to abandon hitting, or, after he underwent his first reconstructive elbow surgery, pitching. Regardless of how the two-way experiment unfolded, there was never the possibility of the Angels saying to him that his individual pursuit could cost them important games. The Angels didn’t play important games.
The freedom Ohtani was afforded eventually produced the most remarkable three-season stretch in the history of the sport, as he was simultaneously a first-class pitcher and first-class hitter.
These same liberties, however, could be attributed to the lack of oversight that resulted in the unmitigated disaster that unfolded on Wednesday.
Departing from the first game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds after only 26 pitches, Ohtani underwent an examination that revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He won’t pitch for the remainder of the season. While general manager Perry Minasian said Ohtani will receive a second opinion before deciding whether to undergo another elbow operation, surgery appears likely.
Minasian said the diagnosis caught him by surprise. According to Minasian, Ohtani never mentioned anything was wrong with his elbow, so the Angels didn’t suspect anything could be wrong.
“This is the first day we’ve heard about it,” Minasian said.
Ohtani skipped his previous start and the Angels didn’t think anything could be wrong? His fastball velocity was down and they didn’t think anything could be wrong? Never this year did he resemble the pitcher he was last year and they didn’t think anything could be wrong?
“We trust him,” Minasian said. “He knows his body.”
How could they trust him?
By now, the Angels should have known Ohtani well enough to understand that his desire to play, and win, overwhelms his every other instinct.
The last time he wasn’t in the Angels’ starting lineup was on May 2. The only other time this season was on April 12. And when he’s played, he’s played hard, evidenced by the ferocity with which he’s runs the bases, even on days he’s pitched, even with the Angels pretty much eliminated from postseason contention.
Most impending free agents are extremely mindful of how much money is at stake, which explains, for example, why Max Scherzer refused to pitch for the Dodgers in Game 6 of the 2021 National League Championship Series. The Dodgers lost the game, and the series, but Scherzer went on to sign a $130-million contract.
If the Angels counted on Ohtani to have a similar dollar-sign-adored restraint, they shouldn’t have. This is someone who passed on the opportunity to come from Japan to the major leagues as an unrestricted free agent because he didn’t want to wait until he was 25. Ohtani said last year that he came to the United States at 23 because he thought it would improve his chances of becoming a Hall of Famer. His classification as an international amateur limited him to a $2.3-million bonus. The decision might have cost him $200 million.
The fact that he scaled the mound on Wednesday, a week after his skipped start in Texas, pointed to his disregard for the record contract that awaited him in the winter.
As a sports franchise operating in a country that values money over everything, the Angels were blind to his way of thinking. They consequently failed to recognize they had to protect Ohtani from himself.
Even if they had, the terms of their relationship with Ohtani were already established. He told them what he wanted to do, and they went along. He wanted to play every day, so he did. He wanted to pitch on Wednesday, so he did. He insisted on hitting in the second game of the doubleheader, so he did. And if he wants to be the Angels’ designated hitter for the remainder of the season, as he did when he previously tore his UCL in 2018, he will.
Ohtani is unlikely to pitch next season, and when he returns the year after, he’ll likely be working his way back from a second operation. There’s no guarantee he will ever be the same pitcher again. This injury might have cost him $100 million, maybe more.
Ironically, the Angels’ chances of retaining Ohtani might have just dramatically improved.
With Ohtani leading the majors with 44 homers, many teams should still be interested in signing him this winter. Some teams might want to reduce how much he pitches to ensure his hitting isn’t compromised. A switch to closer might be suggested, maybe even to the outfield.
But if Ohtani has made anything clear, it’s that he wants to be a two-way player for as long as possible.
“There’s a part of me that feels it’s not just mine,” he once said, recalling the small group of people who believed he could both pitch and hit when he was breaking into the professional ranks in Japan.
There’s one team he can be certain will extend him every chance to make close to 30 starts and pitch more than 160 innings again: the Angels.
Minasian already sounded prepared to oversee Ohtani’s comeback to the mound.
“If anybody can bounce back,” Minasian said, “it’s him.”
And if there’s anyone who will be patient with him as he rediscovers how to be a two-way player, it’s the Angels, who won’t have anything else to play for until deadweight Anthony Rendon’s contract expires after the 2026 season.
The Angels have traveled this road before. They’re familiar with the journey ahead.