ARLINGTON -- Shohei Ohtani's two-way endeavor will have to be put on hold for a while, even if he keeps hitting home runs.The Angels announced Wednesday that Ohtani underwent an MRI exam that revealed new damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, prompting the team to recommend
ARLINGTON -- Shohei Ohtani's two-way endeavor will have to be put on hold for a while, even if he keeps hitting home runs.
The Angels announced Wednesday that Ohtani underwent an MRI exam that revealed new damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, prompting the team to recommend Tommy John surgery for the 24-year-old rookie. Should he opt for the procedure, Ohtani will likely not return to the mound until 2020. No decision has been made yet on when or if Ohtani will have the ligament replacement surgery.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the diagnosis won't stop Ohtani from swinging the bat for now. A few hours after the news broke, Ohtani went out and homered -- twice -- as part of a four-hit night in the Angels' 9-3 victory.
Facing Texas right-hander Austin Bibens-Dirkx in the fifth inning, Ohtani hit his 17th home run of the season, a towering shot to right field hit at a 45-degree angle at 107 mph off the bat, traveling 361 feet. In the eighth against Eddie Butler, he mimicked the first shot, sending the pitch at a 40-degree angle off the bat at 97.8 mph and a distance of 351 feet, barely clearing the right-field wall and the glove of a leaping Nomar Mazara. The second shot was his fourth hit of the game, marking the second time this season the rookie has collected four hits and two homers in a game (also on Aug. 3 at Cleveland).
"Obviously, it's something that we don't wish on anybody," left-hander Andrew Heaney said of the Tommy John surgery recommendation. "He's lucky enough that he's pretty [darn] good at hitting, as you saw tonight. He's got the ability, and it seems like he's pretty strong up top to be able to handle that."
General manager Billy Eppler plans to meet with Ohtani on Monday in Southern California to discuss the situation further, but he said Ohtani is cleared to hit for now. Ohtani batted third and started at designated hitter against the Rangers on Wednesday night and is expected to stay with the club during its trip to Chicago this weekend.
"For now, he's cleared to hit," Eppler said during a conference call with reporters. "I think we saw effectiveness even last night [when he homered] with the ligament being in the situation it's currently in. He is cleared to hit still."
The Angels did not make Ohtani available to the media following Wednesday's game, but he is expected to address his situation Friday in Chicago.
Despite the setback with his elbow, Eppler said the Angels still view Ohtani as a two-way player.
"He trusted that we'd use him in a two-way role, and we made that commitment," Eppler said.
While Tommy John surgery would likely cause Ohtani to miss 14-16 months as a pitcher, it likely wouldn't prevent him from returning as a hitter in 2019. Position players typically return to the field in less time following Tommy John surgery, such as Yankees rookie infielder Gleyber Torres, who missed about half a season in 2017 after tearing the UCL in his non-throwing elbow. Dodgers star Corey Seager underwent Tommy John surgery this past May, and he's expected to be on the team's Opening Day roster in '19. Other notable position players to receive the surgery include former MLB outfielder Carl Crawford, Angels infielder Zack Cozart, Twins third baseman Miguel Sano and Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez -- all of whom were able to return to the field in a year's time or less.
Still, Eppler said it's too early to put a timeframe on any sort of return for Ohtani. He added that the Angels would consult their medical staff before entertaining the idea of using Ohtani at a defensive position if he's unable to pitch next year.
"Right now, the player is processing the result of the image. Everybody has to respect that time that somebody needs when they're digesting information regarding themselves."
Ohtani dazzled as a two-way phenom for the first two months of the season before his historic campaign was derailed by the discovery of a Grade 2 sprain of the UCL in his right elbow. At the time, no doctor recommended Tommy John surgery for Ohtani, who instead treated his damaged ligament with platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injections. He was cleared to resume throwing six weeks later and showed enough progress during his rehab that the Angels felt comfortable re-inserting him into their rotation Sunday against the Astros.
While the Angels have faded from contention, their reasons for having Ohtani pitch in September were manifold. First, they wanted to see if the PRP and stem-cell injections had managed to heal his UCL to the point where he could continue to pitch effectively and comfortably. If Ohtani had been shut down as a pitcher in 2018, the Angels wouldn't have been able to test the soundness of his UCL until Spring Training. Surgery next spring would have kept Ohtani off the mound until late 2020, possibly even 2021.
Even if Ohtani had opted to undergo Tommy John surgery in June -- which, again, no doctor recommended at the time -- he would still be out until 2020, so the Angels didn't have much to lose by giving him a chance to pitch again this season.
"I'll refer you again to the medical staff because those guys said it was the best course of action," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Everything looked fine with the ligament when he had the stem-cell therapy. And at some point, you need to go out there and see where you are. There's never a good time for this injury, but if it happened midway through next year, where he would miss two years, then it's more of an impact. He was cleared to pitch when he started his rehab, the ligament had healed. Unfortunately, it just didn't hold."
Ohtani gave up two runs over 2 1/3 innings against the Astros on Sunday in his first start in nearly three months, but more alarmingly, he showed a notable drop in velocity in his third and final inning of work. Though his fastball topped out at 99.3 mph in the first inning, it did not exceed 92.7 mph in the third.
The Angels and Ohtani initially insisted that the dip was unrelated to his elbow and instead blamed the diminished velocity on a stiff back and a sore finger. Ohtani said he was hopeful that he would be able to make his next scheduled start against the White Sox on Sunday, but he felt some lingering soreness in his elbow Wednesday, leading to the MRI exam that revealed the new damage to his UCL.
"It's disappointing," Eppler said. "It's disappointing, clearly, for the player, and he bears the most disappointment in this. I do feel for him during this time."
Ohtani's season as a right-handed pitcher ends with a 4-2 record and a 3.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts over 51 2/3 innings. He is batting .287 with a .946 OPS, 18 home runs and 47 RBIs as a left-handed hitter.
"He trains, he eats, he sleeps like nothing I've ever seen before," Eppler said. "He's an extremely talented athlete. Is throwing hard good? Yes. It helps you get out hitters. Is throwing hard dangerous? Yes. It stresses ligaments. But Shohei has demonstrated the ability to be impactful on both sides of the baseball, and that is something that we -- and I don't want to speak for every other team -- but I think every team would want impact in the batter's box and on the mound."
While the news is a blow for the Angels, Eppler emphasized that it shouldn't preclude the club from fielding a competitive team in 2019. He did not hesitate to dismiss the notion that he should trade Michael Trout and trigger a full-on rebuild.
"We are not going to trade Mike Trout," Eppler said. "We're going to continue to invest in this club."
Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.