Returning to the Los Angeles Angels’ lineup following a monthlong injury layoff, Shohei Ohtani finally reminded everyone last Sunday night why he ranks among baseball’s most electrifying players. Pinch-hitting against the crosstown rival Dodgers in the seventh inning, Ohtani blasted a 2-2 fastball from JT Chargois 443 feet to center field, giving the Angels what eventually proved to be a decisive lead in the game.
Ohtani’s ability to crush those towering homers while also slinging nasty splitters is what makes him unprecedented in the modern game. At the time of the arm injury that shut him down in early June, he ranked among the American League’s best dozen or so hitters and pitchers on the season. However, that injury — a ligament strain to Ohtani’s pitching elbow — has limited him to “just” hitting for the foreseeable future. Since Ohtani throws right-handed but hits lefty, he can swing the bat without putting much strain on his damaged elbow.
Ohtani has since slid back into LA’s lineup as its regular designated hitter, batting in seven straight games for the first time all season.1 And that appears to be how the Angels are handling Ohtani’s recovery for now, using him only as a hitter and hoping that a combination of rest and platelet-rich plasma therapy can heal his arm and help him avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which could take him out of action as a pitcher for years.
The hitting half of Ohtani is still pretty valuable by itself, and there’s some chance he could return to the mound without needing surgery. But Los Angeles may also just be delaying the inevitable, as injections like the ones Ohtani is getting don’t always successfully stave off Tommy John in the end. (Indeed, Ohtani already underwent the same treatment for a less severe UCL sprain last fall, only to have the injury re-emerge.) With the Angels’ playoff chances all but dried up this year, is it worth it to run him out at half strength for the rest of his rookie campaign? Or should they just call it a season and schedule the operation to fully repair his damaged elbow? Ohtani’s unprecedented ability has given Los Angeles an unprecedented front-office dilemma.
Having Ohtani back certainly improves the Angels’ short-term outlook, since the team looked lost without him for most of June. On June 6, the day of Ohtani’s last start, Los Angeles was 35-28 with a 39 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to The Baseball Gauge. By the time he returned, they’d fallen to 43-42 with a 7 percent playoff probability. It wasn’t all due to Ohtani’s absence — teammates like Andrelton Simmons and Andrew Heaney also fell off pace after hot starts — but losing a player with his unique production abilities didn’t help. According to an average of the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Ohtani has been worth 2.0 combined wins above replacement as a hitter and pitcher in 50 games of action this season, which is roughly what we’d expect from one solid starter over the course of an entire season.
By now, though, Ohtani’s contributions may be too little, too late to save the Angels’ season. As of Tuesday afternoon, they sat fourth in the AL West, 14 games behind the division-leading Astros and 10 games back in the wild-card race. Most likely, any playing time Ohtani gets from here on out this season will be to get him more reps against MLB pitching (no small consideration) and improve his Rookie of the Year candidacy, not to power an epic playoff push. Because of this, the Angels have come under some criticism on social media for putting off Ohtani’s Tommy John surgery for the sake of batting him during what’s likely a lost season.
We can do some rough math to map out the options for Ohtani and the Angels. According to this database of Tommy John surgeries collected by Jon Roegele, the median time for a hitter to return to his previous level of competition after the procedure is 11 months, and the median for pitchers is 15 months. That means that, looking at the regular season only, if Ohtani had surgery now, he could expect to return as a batter in June 2019 and as a two-way player for the start of the 2020 season. If he delays surgery to the offseason, though, he’d miss all but the final month of 2019 as a hitter, though he’d still return as a pitcher in time for the start of the 2020 season.
(Obviously, these are just the median outcomes — a quarter of position players recover in under 10 months, while 25 percent of pitchers take more than 20 months to return. But these numbers do help give a sense of the recovery times involved for most players who undergo Tommy John surgery.)
If we combine those time frames with a simple age progression on Ohtani’s projected regular-season hitting and pitching WAR,2 we can come up with an estimate of how much value Ohtani figures to add over the next three seasons, depending on when (or if) he elects to go under the knife:
|Batting WAR||Surgery in …|
|Season||July 2018||2018-19 OFFSEASON||DOESN’T HAVE SURGERY|
|Pitching WAR||Surgery in …|
|Season||July 2018||2018-19 OFFSEASON||DOESN’T HAVE SURGERY|
|Total WAR||Surgery in …|
|July 2018||2018-19 OFFSEASON||DOESN’T HAVE SURGERY|
At a first glance, the difference between the two Tommy John-related strategies is small (just 0.4 WAR), and that’s assuming that Ohtani does eventually need surgery. The ideal scenario, of course, is one where Ohtani the pitcher comes back without needing surgery and the Angels reap the benefits of Ohtani the hitter in the meantime. This outcome would have an expected value of 6.6 total WAR over the next three seasons, dwarfing the expectation if they shelved him right now. It’s a gamble with considerable upside.
Research shows that the plasma injections can keep a player out from under the knife between about 40 and 65 percent of the time. For simplicity’s sake, let’s treat that as a 50-50 shot. Baking in that estimated 50 percent chance of Ohtani’s elbow recovering without surgery, we’d expect the non-surgery choice to deliver an overall expected value of 5.2 WAR — that’s just the average of the delayed-surgery and no-surgery scenarios.
Of course, the calculations change a bit if we lower the odds of not needing surgery (dropping them to 40 percent would mean weighting the average toward the delayed-surgery numbers, which would bring his expected value down to 5.0 WAR), or if we account for the fact that LA’s wins over the rest of this season come with lower championship leverage than they might in future seasons, due to the Angels’ poor chances of making the playoff at the moment. The last time the Angels had a comparable playoff probability at this stage of a season, their average play was only 35 percent as impactful as the typical opening-day play.
But even if we reduce Ohtani’s hitting WAR over the rest of 2018 by that factor and assign a mere 40 percent chance he won’t need surgery, the expected three-year value of LA’s wait-and-see approach comes out to 4.5 WAR, essentially the same as the expected value of his having surgery right now (4.3 WAR). And again, that’s assuming the least-favorable rate of success for the non-surgical approach, which might be underselling its effectiveness.
In other words, the Angels are probably making the right call with Ohtani at the moment. It feels strange to only use half of Ohtani’s incredible skill set, particularly with LA’s playoff chances on life support, and it certainly isn’t exactly what the Angels were envisioning when they paid a $20 million posting fee for Ohtani last December. But it’s a good quandary to have — if he was an ordinary pitcher, this wouldn’t even be a debate. By putting off surgery for now, they’ve given Ohtani’s arm a chance to heal without necessarily losing his services for a year (or more) while also giving his bat a chance to develop further (remember, he just turned 24).
And if nothing else, it also gives us a chance to see more weird, puppet-based depictions of his home runs: