Los Angeles Angels rushed Shohei Ohtani back too soon, and paid the price

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 2: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels leaves the mound during the game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday, September 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Loren Elliott/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 2: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels leaves the mound during the game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday, September 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Loren Elliott/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Angels gave Shohei Ohtani one more start on the mound in 2018, and paid the price for that decision.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Angels announced Shohei Ohtani‘s latest MRI revealed new elbow damage and is recommended to undergo reconstruction surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament.

This news comes after Ohtani returned to the mound this past Sunday for the first time since June 6 against the Houston Astros, a start in which he was pulled after giving up a pair of runs in 2 1/3 innings. Ohtani lasted just forty-nine pitches, and made a disgruntled grimace as he walked off the field that was undoubtedly shared by Angels fans as their prized rookie appeared to have suffered an injury.

Following the Angels’ 4-2 loss to the Astros, Halos manager Mike Scioscia reported Ohtani left the game due to a stiff back and sore ring finger, but anyone who watched him pitch could have deducted a sore elbow was the cause of the 24-year old’s sudden drop in velocity. “Showtime” has averaged 96.6 mph with his heater in 2018, but by the end of his outing Sunday his fastball flattened out to a season-low 89.9 mph.

The MRI confirmed the Angels’ biggest fear — Ohtani needs Tommy John surgery. This is devastating for the team and their prized rookie, who has built himself a case for AL Rookie of the Year. Ohtani went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in ten starts this season, and also has 18 home runs along with a .287 batting average and .903 OPS as a part-time designated hitter.

The Angels have reaped the benefits of Ohtani’s positional flexibility as he’s provided value at the plate in spite of his pitching-related injuries. In fact, Ohtani has hit three home runs in as many days since his abbreviated start on Sunday, including a two home run game Wednesday just hours after receiving word of his unfavourable MRI results.

The possibility that Ohtani needs reconstruction surgery is crushing, as it would keep him off the mound through at least all of 2019 — it’s tough to predict how the surgery affects his ability to hit but one could imagine the Halos would be without Ohtani for a considerable amount of time regardless.

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Ohtani’s injury is especially glaring due to the fact it worsened with his return to the mound Sunday. The Angels, who were 17 games back with a 0% postseason probability on the day of Ohtani’s start, decided to send him out anyway and risk his elbow flaring up again. Clearly, it did, and now the Angels are paying the price for having rushed a fragile Ohtani back on the mound in the middle of a lost season.

To be fair, the Angels took their time with Ohtani ever since he arrived in Los Angeles, but had they been cautious enough? The Angels were aware of Ohtani’s history of elbow issues, and when he felt elbow discomfort in June this year they had him throw bullpen sessions for several months before bringing him back on Sunday. The Angels could argue they were patient with Ohtani’s rehab, but it’s worth wondering whether they should have shut him down for the season after he initially felt pain in his arm.

This is the second instance in which the Angels knew Ohtani was dealing with some sort of injury, yet brought him back too early. On April 10, pitching coach Charlie Nagy told reporters Ohtani had dealt with blister problems in spring training, and that it was no longer an issue. Yet just a week later, Showtime’s start vs the Boston Red Sox was over after just two innings as he left the game with a blister on his pitching hand.

You could argue that pitchers developing blisters is more or less unpredictable —although they’ve become more prevalent than ever— but this exemplifies the Angels have bypassed legitimate concerns regarding Ohtani’s health twice this season, and his latest injury might cause him to miss all of next year.

Ohtani is the latest in a long line of Japanese pitchers who have experienced arm issues since coming over to Major League Baseball. New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a $155 million contract, only to be placed on the disabled list halfway through his rookie season with a partially torn UCL. The Yankees were lucky Tanaka narrowly escaped Tommy John surgery, but the righthander’s arm issues have lingered as he’s yet to surpass 200 innings once across his first five seasons in the MLB.

Similarly, Yu Darvish made his MLB debut in 2012, and after a couple healthy seasons he underwent Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss a year and a half of action. This season, injuries limited him to only 40 innings as the Chicago Cubs had to shut him down after an MRI revealed a stress reaction in his elbow.

It would be devastating for the Angels if they had to go into 2019 Ohtani-less, as it would likely mean another season without making the playoffs leaving only one more year to finally contend before the Mike Trout can depart via free agency.

The Angels should want to do whatever they can to bring back Trout, but the potential loss of Ohtani only further clouds the franchise’s murky waters. After coming up short of postseason success year after year, the mishandling of Ohtani is yet another misstep by the Angels’ front office who need to figure out how build a winning team around two of the league’s most valuable assets before its too late.

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All statistics shown are current as of September 5, 2018.