Shohei Ohtani has been put on the disabled list by the Los Angeles Angels with a sprained ligament in his pitching elbow, an ominous injury that will be re-evaluated in three weeks and brought the two-way Japanese sensation’s remarkable rookie season to at least a temporary halt.
The Angels announced Friday that Ohtani’s right ulnar collateral ligament has a Grade 2 sprain, which typically indicates some degree of damage but not a complete tear. His injury doesn’t always require surgery, while Grade 3 sprains are usually repaired by the Tommy John ligament replacement procedure that takes a year or more to recover from.
For all the benefits the Angels have reaped his nine turns on the mound and 30 starts as the designated hitter, the next feat for Ohtani will be to avoid Tommy John surgery.
“We’re hopeful that he can,” general manager Billy Eppler said, “that this is completely treatable with the biologic prescription that the doctors recommend.”
Ohtani, who will turn 24 next month, underwent injections of platelet-rich plasma and stem cells Thursday in Los Angeles. Eppler, speaking on a conference call with reporters before the Angels began a three-game series at Minnesota, said Ohtani won’t throw a ball again until his checkup in three weeks.
“I’m just going to take every day as it comes and put him on this course of recovery and strengthening for the next three weeks and then deal with what we’ve got to deal with in three weeks’ time,” Eppler said.
Manager Mike Scioscia expressed a similarly measured reaction, sitting in the dugout at Target Field before his suddenly injury-depleted team faced the Twins.
“The schedule doesn’t stop, and you can’t take a timeout,” Scioscia said, adding: “We’ve got to absorb it and move on.”
Ohtani left his last pitching start after four innings Wednesday due to the recurrence of a blister on his pitching fingers. Only then, Eppler and Scioscia said, did the Angels get their first indication Ohtani’s UCL might be distressed. He told the team his elbow was “getting a little stiff” after the adrenaline from the game wore off.
Yahoo Sports reported last December that Ohtani had a Grade 1 sprain of his UCL, but Eppler said at the time there were “no signs of acute trauma” in the ligament. Ohtani also had a PRP injection last October.
Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.10 ERA in his debut North American season. He has 61 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings with a dazzling mix of 100-mph fastballs and precipitous breaking pitches including a vicious splitter, a pitch which typically puts significant stress on the ligaments. Angels opponents are batting just .202 against him.
Ohtani also is batting .289 with six home runs, 20 RBIs and a .907 on-base-plus-slugging percentage as baseball’s most successful two-way player in decades. He’s cooled off slightly after a torrid start at the plate, batting .257 with two homers since April.
When the Twins played the Angels last month, batting practice was a must-see.
“Some of the guys just were in awe of the power display,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We got a glimpse of both his offensive and pitching prowess when we were out there. I wish him well. I think guys like that and stories like that are really good for the game. Hopefully it’s not a long-term deal.”
Eppler said if the Angels only viewed Ohtani as a hitter, he’d probably be able to keep playing with such an injury. The Angels paid a $20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s previous club in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters, for the right to sign him.
“But that’s not his circumstance, and that’s not how we want to utilize the player,” Eppler said. “It was determined that any unique swing or variability could impose some small percentage increase in risk, so that’s why we’re going to give it the three-week time period right now.”
The Angels have tried to keep Ohtani fresh by giving him at least a week of mound rest between his pitching starts, adhering to a disciplined plan drawn up by Eppler. While Ohtani was eager for more playing time, the Angels didn’t want to rush Ohtani into a frantic pace in his first major league season.
The Angels took a four-game winning streak into the opener of their nine-game road trip against the Twins. Any long-term absence for Ohtani could be crushing to a team trying to keep pace in the high-speed AL West race with surprising Seattle and defending World Series champion Houston. The Angels, who entered Friday 4½ games behind the Mariners and 3½ games back of the Astros, have been using a six-man rotation so they could probably withstand his absence from pitching better than hitting because they are short on left-handed hitting.
“We’re losing two significant parts to our club,” Scioscia said. “I think what he did on the mound obviously up to this point is really special, and that’s important to us. And what he does in the batter’s box, being a left-handed bat, is very important to us.”