ANAHEIM -- The 2019 season was a unique one for Shohei Ohtani, who was limited to serving as a designated hitter and not a pitcher, robbing him of his two-way status after undergoing Tommy John surgery on Oct. 1, 2018.
Ohtani, though, proved he's still a strong hitter, batting .286/.343/.505 with 18 homers and 62 RBIs in 106 games, but he saw his season end on Sept. 11 after undergoing surgery to address a bipartite patella in his left knee. The injury began to flare up in Spring Training, but Ohtani played through it, as it mostly only affected him as he ramped up his throwing program off the mound.
Ohtani, 23, came away a bit disappointed with his season, as he also saw his power decline in the second half, hitting just four homers in 53 games.
“I felt like I could have put together a lot better season,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I felt like I was going through struggles that lasted a little too long. It wasn’t what I imagined, especially with the team situation. It should have been a lot better.”
What went right?
Ohtani is still elite when it comes to making hard contact, as his average exit velocity of 92.8 mph, according to Statcast, was the 11th-highest mark in the Majors, ranking in the top three percent of all players. He has immense power to all fields, and he had a .924 OPS in 53 games in the first half.
And despite playing through his knee injury, Ohtani's speed didn't dip too much, as his average sprint speed was 28.2 feet per second in 2019, compared to 28.2 feet per second in 2018 (MLB average is 27). He also stole 12 bases after swiping 10 bags in 104 games as a rookie.
"Looking at my sprint speed and stolen bases, it was pretty similar to last year,” Ohtani said. “Running-wise, I guess it didn't bother it too much.”
Ohtani also got consistent playing time as a DH, getting more at-bats than he would’ve if he was also pitching once a week. So it should set up Ohtani well for the future as he continues to get more comfortable with Major League pitching.
His throwing program also went to plan without any notable setbacks during the season, although he’ll have to complete it this offseason once he’s recovered from his knee surgery.
What went wrong?
Ohtani didn’t make his debut until May 7 because of his elbow surgery and he also missed the last three weeks of the season after undergoing knee surgery. Ohtani, though, would’ve been able to play through his knee injury, but the Angels felt that it was best to get the operation done in September because it was increasingly bothering him as he threw off a mound. Ohtani has roughly five weeks left of rehab with his knee.
"I was told I'll have plenty of time to get this all right, including my throwing program,” Ohtani said. “I just have to get the knee right first, which is not going to take too long, then I can start a throwing progression."
Ohtani also saw his production fade in the second half, hitting .269/.332/.435 after the All-Star break. Ohtani said his knee didn’t bother him at the plate, but it’s fair to wonder if he sustained from some fatigue late in the season.
“I felt like coming out of the All-Star break was going to be a key,” Ohtani said. “That’s when my struggles really started. I couldn’t really help the team win. It kind of killed our postseason chances.”
Ohtani remains on track to return to two-way status in 2020, as he’s expected to pitch once a week and serve as the DH roughly three to four times a week. But he has to get his rehab done with both his knee and elbow this offseason, as he’s yet to fully complete his throwing program.
He is expected to be cleared to finish his throwing program in December and the hope is that he’ll have enough time to be ready for the start of the season. Ohtani is likely to be behind the other pitchers early in Spring Training, but it’s still too early to know the full plan heading into next year.
Ohtani, though, is looking forward to pitching again and the Angels desperately need him, as their starting pitching was their weakest link yet again in 2019. Under the new two-way rules in 2020, he will have to open the year designated as a pitcher on the roster, but he can be moved to two-way status once he plays in 20 games as the DH. It would allow the Angels some flexibility, essentially carrying an extra pitcher on the roster because of Ohtani’s two-way status.
“I’m very excited, obviously,” Ohtani said. “Since I got the surgery [in September], I need to take each day preciously and try to get back early as possible to be back at full strength next season.”