Six years ago, Shohei Ohtani shocked the baseball world by signing with the humble Angels. As time went by, the reason became clearer: he was given every chance to become a two-way player in the big leagues.
Unlike the Dodgers or the New York Yankees, the Angels were in no position to say no to him. They couldn’t tell him to give up batting or, after he underwent his first reconstructive elbow surgery, to give up pitching. Regardless of how the two-sided experiment played out, there was never a chance the Angels would tell him his individual pursuit could cost them important games. The Angels didn’t play any major games.
The freedom granted to Ohtani eventually led to the most notable three seasons in the sport’s history, as he was a top-class pitcher and top-class hitter at the same time.
However, those same freedoms could be attributed to the lack of scrutiny that led to the utter disaster that unfolded on Wednesday.
Ohtani walked out of the first game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds after just 26 pitches and underwent an exam that found a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He won’t serve for the rest of the season. While general manager Perry Minasian said Ohtani will get a second opinion before deciding on another elbow job, surgery is likely.
Minasian said the diagnosis surprised him. According to Minasian, Ohtani never mentioned anything wrong with his elbow, so the angels didn’t suspect anything was wrong.
“This is the first day we’re hearing about it,” Minasian said.
Ohtani skipped his previous start and the Angels didn’t think there could be anything wrong? His fastball speed had dropped and you didn’t think anything could be wrong? This year he’s never resembled the pitcher he was last year and you didn’t think something was wrong?
“We trust him,” Minasian said. “He knows his body.”
How could they trust him?
By now the Angels should know Ohtani well enough to understand that his desire to play and win overwhelms every other instinct.
The last time he wasn’t in the Angels starting lineup was on May 2nd. The only other time this season was on April 12th. And when he’s played, he’s played hard, as evidenced by the ferocity with which he directs bases on serve days, even when the Angels are all but eliminated from postseason competition.
Most upcoming free agents are acutely aware of how much money is at stake, which explains, for example, why Max Scherzer refused to pitch for the Dodgers in Game 6 of the 2021 National League Championship Series. The Dodgers lost the game and the series, but Scherzer signed a $130 million contract.
If the Angels were expecting Ohtani to display a similar dollar sign-adored reticence, they shouldn’t have. This is someone who missed the chance to break into the big leagues as an unrestricted free agent from Japan because he didn’t want to wait until he was 25. Ohtani said last year that he came to the United States when he was 23 because he thought it would improve his chances of becoming a Hall of Famer. His international amateur rating limited him to a $2.3 million bonus. The decision could have cost him $200 million.
The fact that he climbed the hill on Wednesday, a week after his missed start in Texas, showed he was flouting the record deal that awaited him in the winter.
As a sports franchise operating in a country where money is more important than anything else, the Angels were blind to his mindset. They therefore did not realize that they had to protect Ohtani from himself.
Even if they did, the terms of their relationship with Ohtani would already be set. He told them what he wanted to do and they went along with it. He wanted to play every day, so he did. He wanted to pitch on Wednesday, so he did. He insisted on scoring in the second game of the doubleheader and he did. And if he wants to be the Angels’ designated batsman for the rest of the season, like he did when he sustained his UCL tear in 2018, then he will do it.
Ohtani is unlikely to serve next season and when he returns the following year he will likely be recovering from a second operation. There’s no guarantee he’ll ever be the same pitcher again. That injury could have cost him $100 million, maybe even more.
Ironically, the Angels’ chances of keeping Ohtani might just have improved dramatically.
With Ohtani leading the majors with 44 home runs, many teams should still be interested in signing him this winter. Some teams may want to reduce the number of pitches he pitches to ensure his punching power isn’t compromised. A move close could be suggested, maybe even outfield.
But if Ohtani has made one thing clear, it’s that he wants to remain a two-way player for as long as possible.
“Part of me feels like it’s not just mine,” he once said, recalling the small group of people who believed he could both throw and bat when he broke into the pro ranks in Japan.
There is one team he can be sure will give him every chance he gets to make nearly 30 starts and throw 160+ innings again: the Angels.
Minasian already seemed prepared to oversee Ohtani’s return to the hill.
“If anyone can get back on their feet,” Minasian said, “it’s him.”
And if there’s anyone who will be patient with him as he rediscovers how to be a two-way player, it’s the Angels, who have nothing else to play for until the deathweight Anthony Rendon’s contract expires of the 2026 season ends.
The angels have walked this path before. You are familiar with the journey ahead.