Angels starter/DH Shohei Ohtani has been cleared medically to resume throwing, per a club announcement. The news came on the heels of his examination after six weeks of rest following stem cell and platelet-rich plasma treatment.
Ohtani, who took MLB by storm in his first season after coming over from Japan, hit the shelf in early June after being diagnosed with a grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament. The two-way star has since returned to the active roster to continue working as a hitter, but has not yet begun moving back toward the mound.
It obviously seems to be promising news that Ohtani will be able to attempt to return to the hill as soon as the present season. The announcement states that Ohtani’s UCL “continues to show improved healing.” He’ll doubtlessly be watched closely as he ramps back up and will certainly need some time to get back to full speed. It’ll also be interesting to see how the Halos balance the need to get Ohtani rehab outings with the fact that he’s already an active part of the MLB roster.
Of course, skeptics will note that this club has pursued this route before, with at most a mixed record. While Garrett Richards was able to stave off Tommy John surgery for a while after electing not to undergo the procedure in May of 2016, he experienced some intervening setbacks and only made it back for 22 total starts before ultimately requiring a UCL replacement. Teammate Andrew Heaney initially charted a similar course at nearly the exact same time, but ultimately did not return to competitive action before needing a TJ procedure. Interestingly, though, to this point Heaney has 22 MLB outings of his own since both he and Richards faced the same choice.
It’s worth noting that Ohtani has been cleared to begin ramping up after just six weeks of rest. That’s the same hope that was expressed at the time that Richards underwent his initial treatment, but he ultimately did not begin his own throwing program until mid-August of 2016 — about three months later. Whether that suggests greater cause for optimism in Ohtani’s case isn’t really clear.
Of course, even if Ohtani is able to make it back later this year, it’s far from clear that he’ll have any impact on the team’s 2018 prospects for reaching the postseason. Since he left the rotation, the club has plummeted in the standings and now sits nine games out of a Wild Card spot.
That’s not to say that there isn’t anything to be gained by avoiding the surgery. At this stage of the year, TJ would likely prevent Ohtani from pitching for most or all of the 2019 season. That essential outlook would remain the same if, say, Ohtani ends up undergoing a procedure this fall. The Richards example shows that there are risks in the rehab approach, too, but it’s also far from guaranteed that a pitcher who undertakes such a serious surgery will end up back at full strength.
Fortunately, Ohtani has impressed nearly as much with his bat as with his arm, though it’s the combination of the two areas that makes him utterly unique at the game’s highest level. Through 157 plate appearances, he carries a .283/.365/.522 slash line with seven home runs. In nine starts, he posted a 3.10 ERA with 11.1 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. The Angels are clearly much better, and the overall game of baseball much richer, with Ohtani functioning in both a hitting and a pitching capacity