6 takeaways from Ohtani’s unfortunate injury

August 24th, 2023

On July 27, less than a week before the Trade Deadline, after the Angels announced that they would not be trading Shohei Ohtani, the two-way superstar had one of the greatest doubleheaders in baseball history. In the first game, Ohtani threw a one-hit shutout, the first of his career; in the second, he hit two homers to complete the sweep of Detroit. The Angels were 54-49, on a four-game winning streak and three games out of the AL Wild Card.

Less than a month later, Ohtani -- his team now 61-67, or 7-18 since that sweep -- had one of the most depressing doubleheaders of all time on Wednesday. He was pulled from the first game from arm fatigue, watched his team blow leads in both games of a sweep and, worst of all, had it announced postgame that he had a torn UCL and would not pitch the rest of this season. The best story in baseball, one of the best stories in sports, is in legitimate peril.

In the wake of the terrible news, here are six immediate takeaways from Ohtani’s injury, the unicorn coming crashing back down to earth.

1. This stinks.

Let’s not overcomplicate this. Ohtani has captivated the entire planet with his ability to do something no one in baseball has ever done -- no one has even conceived of doing. (You understand why Elly De La Cruz, no slouch himself, would want to make sure he was actually real.) This season began with Ohtani dominating on the World Baseball Classic stage -- by striking out his Angels teammate Mike Trout for the final out -- and featured Ohtani simultaneously being one of the best hitters and the best pitchers in the game. And now it ends with him pulled from the mound and potentially facing another Tommy John surgery, his second. Even with the Angels’ struggles, you had to watch Ohtani do the impossible every night. This is the worst possible ending to that story.

2. We must recalibrate expectations for him as a pitcher.

Not to continue to be a bummer here -- sorry, but there aren’t really any silver linings to Shohei Ohtani getting injured -- but you do have to wonder how much you can expect to see Ohtani on the mound again. It is not known yet if he will have Tommy John surgery, but if he does, it will be his second, and, suffice it to say, the success rate for pitchers having their second Tommy John surgery is not great. On the positive side, you have Nathan Eovaldi, who has been good this year for Texas after his second Tommy John (though he is just now about to return from another injury). Walker Buehler and Hyun Jin Ryu are going through the same thing and, in a year or so, Jacob deGrom will as well. But their future is far from certain. In a Washington Post piece about multiple Tommy John surgeries a few years ago, surgeon Robert Keller said that, with one Tommy John surgery, “there's a good chance you're coming back. You're probably not as good as you were before, but you're near to where you should be. When you have a second one, you may not come back, and if you do, you won't pitch as much and you won't pitch as long." Ohtani will surely attempt to come back, and it’s not a reach to think you’ll see him on the mound again. But it might be wise to temper expectations.

3. Ohtani’s impending free agency just got a lot more complex.

Ohtani will likely continue to play DH this season; as we’ve seen from Bryce Harper and others, Tommy John surgery shouldn’t affect his swing. But it is one thing to agree to a huge contract with the unicorn of baseball, a man who is essentially two players in one. It is another to sign a huge contract with a guy who can only play DH. Ohtani is one of the best hitters in baseball, but as someone who can’t play the field (who can’t actually throw for a year, maybe more), there is inherently a ceiling to him. Will teams pay him for the possibility that he’ll pitch again down the line? Or will they only pony up for the hit-only player he now is and may be for years to come? One thing is certain: Whatever theoretical offers teams may have been preparing were theoretically slashed on Wednesday night.

4. This could get more teams into the bidding for him.

The number of teams who could have offered Ohtani the astronomical numbers he’d be expecting as a pitcher/hitter combo were inherently limited. Most fans assumed it would be the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, maybe the Giants, and probably the Angels. The usual suspects. But with that number now presumably deflated, you’d have to think more teams could dream on bringing him in now, particularly considering the marketing opportunities he’d bring in. Not every team can pay $500 million over 10 years. But, say, $250 million? 300? That adds suitors. And even if he’s not pitching … every team would love to have Ohtani on it. Including …

5. Ironically, this could give the Angels a little better odds to keep him.

As first pointed out by my colleague Anthony Castrovince, if you had written off the Angels’ odds of holding on to Ohtani (as many had), this at least has a chance of keeping them in the game. Ohtani will want to keep pitching at some point even if he has to have Tommy John, and Anaheim is a stable, familiar, predictable place for him to rehab from the surgery; after all, he has already done it once. It also could keep Ohtani in their price range and allow him to stay in a place of certainty during a period of his career where there will be little certainty elsewhere. The Angels will want to keep him more desperately than anyone else might want to sign him now, as much as the rest of baseball will. This could crack the door open a bit.

6. The Angels’ Deadline push was still commendable.

Obviously, trading away the top of your farm system in order to reach the playoffs in what could be Ohtani’s last season in town, uh, doesn’t seem to have worked out. (And, in an extra cruel twist, now Mike Trout is back on the IL again.) The Angels’ bet did not pay off. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot anyway. You saw what Ohtani was doing before the Deadline, throwing shutouts in the first game of a doubleheader, hitting two homers in the next one. The Angels had the best player in the world, doing the unprecedented, at the peak of his powers, and they were in the pennant chase. They decided to go for it. Isn’t that what we should all want our teams to do? It ended badly. But that’s what happens when you dream big: Sometimes those dreams don’t pan out. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying anyway. The Angels tried to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That it didn’t turn out the way they wanted isn’t a reason to blast them for trying. It should, in fact, be the exact opposite.