- Shohei Ohtani has been one of the bright spots of the 2018 season. With a UCL sprain, we may not see him again for a while.
Shohei Ohtani has made words feel paltry. As the two-way Japanese superstar plowed through opposing lineups with his triple-digit fastball and devilish splitter, then battered pitchers with booming home runs, it didn’t feel like English—or any other language, for that matter—had what was necessary to capture how great and crazy his success was. Here was a 23-year-old rookie looking like a marriage of Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, blessing us with wondrous starts and terrific at-bats, and emerging as the biggest story in the sport since Barry Bonds broke the game. Ohtani wasn’t just good; he was marvelous, magic, a miracle. He was a gift.
And now that gift has been cruelly snatched away thanks to two words that spell nothing but doom and gloom: UCL sprain. On Friday afternoon, the Angels announced that Ohtani—who left his start on Wednesday against Kansas City with what was believed to be a blister—will be sidlelined for at least the next three weeks, and likely much longer, with a grade 2 UCL sprain in his right (pitching) elbow. For those unfamiliar with what that means, it’s another way of saying that he has a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament—an injury that, more often than not, leads to Tommy John surgery and 12–18 months on the shelf. “Bad” doesn’t begin to describe that result for Ohtani, the Angels, and baseball fans in general. The question now is just how painful will this be for all parties.
The one silver lining is that a partial tear of the UCL is just that—partial. It’s not the worst possible outcome—that would be a Grade 3 sprain, or a full tear, which always requires surgery—and can be rehabilitated without going under the knife. Common treatment involves rest and physical therapy; in Ohtani’s case, he’s also received stem cell injections and platelet-rich plasma therapy to help with the healing process. If all goes according to plan, a player can theoretically return to action within a few months.
Such is the path that other notable names have followed: Adam Wainwright, Masahiro Tanaka, and Angels teammate Garrett Richards, to name a few, all avoided Tommy John surgery despite partial UCL tears. In Tanaka’s case, he spent roughly 10 weeks on the disabled list in 2014, from early July until late September, before returning to the Yankees. Wainwright, meanwhile, survived two separate partial tears—first in high school, then in the minor leagues—before his elbow finally gave out in 2011 after his first four seasons with the Cardinals. And Richards successfully avoided surgery after suffering a high-grade UCL tear in May 2016, though rehab ate up what was left of his year.
But for every pitcher who’s triumphed over Tommy John, several others haven’t been so lucky. The Angels have proof of both in Richards and in rotation-mate Andrew Heaney. The latter hurt his UCL early in the 2016 season and tried to rehab it but ultimately was forced to undergo surgery that July, which cost him not only the rest of that year but also the entirety of the ’17 campaign. Every elbow—and, subsequently, every ligament tear—is different and responds differently to treatment. So while some pitchers walk away relatively unscathed, others have no such luck, and neither teams nor players know which side of the ledger they’ll fall on until after the rehab begins.
Regardless of how long Ohtani is out for, though, it’s a loss that Los Angeles can ill afford, as he’s been a difference maker on both sides of the ball. On the mound, he’s posted a 3.10 ERA and 132 ERA+ in 49 1/3 innings along with a whopping 61 strikeouts; among all pitchers with 40 or more innings on the year, his strikeout percentage of 30.5 is 11th-best in baseball. At the plate, he’s been just as impactful, hitting .289/.372/.535 with six homers as the semi-regular DH; his 149 OPS+ is second only to demi-god Mike Trout on the team. Add it all up, and Ohtani’s 0.9 WAR puts him fourth on the roster in total value, trailing Trout, Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and mashing outfielder Justin Upton.
Ohtani has been a big part of the Angels’ strong 35–28 start to the season, one that has them in third place in the AL West (4 ½ games behind Seattle) and 3 ½ games back of Houston for the second wild card. But those positions are now dangerously tenuous with Ohtani out, even though he’d been limited to roughly a start and 15–20 at-bats per week. It’s not that the Angels have to worry about being caught in either the West or wild-card races: Their biggest competition in both is Oakland, currently a game above .500, followed by a raft of struggling pseudo-contenders in Detroit, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Toronto, all with losing records. But a weakened Los Angeles team will have a tougher time keeping pace with either the Astros, owners of the best run differential in baseball at a staggering +121, or the red-hot Mariners, winners of 15 of their last 21.
In truth, Ohtani’s injury is good news only for Seattle and Houston, as well as Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres, who now stands alone atop the AL Rookie of the Year leaderboard. For everyone else, it’s a crushing blow (especially for MLB, which lost its newest and most hyped star). It’s also a painful reminder that, no matter how special they are, pitchers break with alarming regularity, even if you take all the care in the world. That was the case with Ohtani, who was handled as delicately as a Faberge egg in his arrival to the United States. The Angels built a six-man rotation to give him more rest between outings, didn’t allow him to hit before, during or after his starts, and tried as hard as possible to keep his innings and pitch counts low. No matter: He still got hurt, because the act of throwing a baseball is inevitably ruinous to elbows, shoulders and all other parts of the arm.
All injuries are unfair, but Ohtani’s loss feels significantly more so—a transcendent talent cut down in the midst of a truly special and rare season. As a modifier, “unique” is deployed too often (and usually with incorrect or unnecessary descriptors), but it’s what best defines Ohtani, who is a player unlike any other. It felt like there was no limit to what he could do, and you could have easily imagined him stealing the stage at this year’s All-Star Game, or dominating as the starter in the wild-card game, or carrying the Angels into and through the playoffs.
Now, all those hopes have been dashed—maybe only for a short while, but perhaps for longer. There are few if any words that can sum up just how much that hurts.