- Shohei Ohtani's return from Tommy John surgery as only a hitter proves his MLB potential is more than just as a two-way player. Offensive performances like his cycle Thursday night will become commonplace as his career progresses.
The worst thing about Shohei Ohtani’s Tommy John surgery wasn’t that it would keep him off the mound for the entirety of the 2019 season. It was the fear that the injury might fully compromise the career of a burgeoning superstar. Ohtani had already proven that he could handle himself as a pitcher and a hitter in his rookie season. But how would his elbow injury affect him going forward? Would it reduce him from freak athlete to mere mortal? Would the world be denied his two-way talent?
It’s too soon to tell whether or not Ohtani the pitcher will return in the same form. But it’s clear that Ohtani the hitter is as good as ever. That much the Angels’ designated hitter showed on Thursday night in Tampa, where—around a long power-outage delay at Tropicana Field—he hit for the cycle to key Los Angeles’ 5–3 win over the Rays. In the process, Ohtani became the first Japanese-born player ever to accomplish the feat, as well as the second major leaguer this season to pull off the trick.
On its own, the cycle is a neat but somewhat overrated deed. It’s rare, to be sure, but not any more than the no-hitter (Ohtani became the 326th player in MLB history to hit for the cycle, versus 300 no-nos), and certainly nowhere in the neighborhood of such true oddities as the perfect game or a four-homer night. Nor does it represent some pinnacle of hitting: After all, a cycle is 10 total bases, a figure that’s already been achieved in a game 42 different times in 2019. A three-homer game is theoretically more valuable. The hook of the cycle is the way it ticks off boxes, like someone completing a shopping list.
Still, it’s not something that happens every day. As noted, Ohtani’s is the second this year, following that of Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco back on April 5. This cycle is also historic by dint of Ohtani being the first Japanese player to record one. Your best bet prior to Ohtani would have been the peerless Ichiro Suzuki, master of contact, but he fell short 21 times: twice missing a double, 10 times a triple, and nine times a homer. (Fittingly, the man with 2,514 career singles never had a game in which he hit a double, a triple and a home run but failed to collect that most piddly of hits.) Ohtani’s cycle is also the first for the Angels since (who else?) Mike Trout did it on May 21, 2013.
The night began with a bang for Ohtani, who laced a three-run homer, his eighth of the year, off Ryan Yarbrough in the first inning—an opposite-field laser that left the bat at 111 mph and went 414 feet, and that former figure doesn’t do justice to a ball that practically left vapor trails as it went screaming out to left.
A leadoff double followed in the third, then Ohtani and everyone else at the Trop had to take a break as the power was knocked out by a storm smashing into St. Petersburg. Just over half an hour later, play resumed, and in the fifth, Ohtani got the hardest part of the cycle out of the way by lacing a triple over a leaping Travis d’Arnaud at first base and into the rightfield corner. With the outfield playing him away, he easily chugged into third base.
All that was left was the single, and Ohtani wasted no time in picking it up, blooping a hit into right-center in the seventh. Four trips to the plate, four hits, and a cycle—not bad for a day’s work.
Ohtani didn’t get a chance at a fifth hit, as the Angels went down in order in the eighth and ninth to deny him one more plate appearance. Still, it was a good game overall: four hits, three runs scored and three RBI. The big night raised his overall line to an excellent .281/.350/.512 to go with a .361 wOBA and a 131 wRC+ in 137 plate appearances. Those may not be Trout-ian numbers, but they’re plenty strong for a 24-year-old who has yet to get a full season’s worth of at-bats in the majors.
The underlying peripherals are also plenty comforting. Ohtani’s walk and strikeout rates are more or less unchanged from last year. So are his line-drive and hard-hit rates. On top of that, he’s making slightly more contact and swinging and missing less, and his average exit velocity has jumped a little, from 92.6 mph last year to 93.1 this season.
If there’s one concern, it’s that Ohtani is suddenly pounding the ball into the dirt. His 54.8% ground-ball rate is the 13th highest among all hitters with 130 or more plate appearances, and his launch angle has dropped sharply, from 12.3 degrees in 2018 to 2.5 so far this year. Ohtani is moving a little quicker than last year—his 2019 Sprint Speed, per Statcast, is 27.0 feet per second versus 28.4 the season prior—but that’s still middle of the pack when it comes to the league at large. He’s no burner, and he can’t survive with Dee Gordon’s approach.
Consider, though, that even while smashing balls into the ground with regularity, Ohtani is still slugging over .500. His raw power is absolutely absurd and completely legit, and if he can start elevating the ball once again, the results are going to be glorious. Nights like Thursday will become commonplace as one of the game’s most talented young players starts to realize his full potential. Any worry that we’d lost that aspect of Ohtani thankfully hasn’t come to pass.