Can Shohei Ohtani Stay Healthy Enough to Match MLB Phenom Hype?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterDecember 13, 2017

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 09:  Shohei Ohtani speaks onstage during his introduceion to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on December 9, 2017 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani is a unique talent. He's not a superhuman talent.

He can be one of the best hitters in the world. He can be one of the best pitchers in the world. He does things no one else can.

But he also does things plenty of other guys do...like getting tired and getting hurt.

No one should be overly alarmed by the latest news on Ohtani, who was diagnosed with a first-degree sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament by a doctor in Japan, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. But nobody should be too quick to dismiss it as nothing, either.

Pitchers have elbow strains all the time, and Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler responded to the report with a statement saying the team's MRI of Ohtani's elbow "was consistent with players his age."

However, pitchers his age (23) get hurt all the time, too, and more and more of them end up needing Tommy John surgery that costs them an entire season. Some of those Tommy John injuries begin as UCL sprains.

While no one is suggesting Ohtani needs such surgery now—or that he will definitely need it in the future—it's fair to wonder whether we're all expecting a little too much from the player dubbed the "Babe Ruth of Japan."

The talent is real, but so is the challenge Ohtani faces now that he is coming to the major leagues after signing with the Angels last week. The first challenge will be getting on the field and staying there.

A Japanese baseball official who knows Ohtani well said that while it would be wrong to consider Ohtani fragile, he performed best when he wasn't overworked. The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters never had him start more than 24 games on the mound, as they tried to strike the right balance between pitching and hitting.

"I was never concerned about his health going forward," said one National League scout who has followed Ohtani's career. "But I do think his durability will be challenged being a dual-position guy."

Ohtani did have some injury issues during his five professional seasons in Japan, but he didn't miss any games with arm or shoulder injuries. The most significant injury was a right ankle problem suffered running the bases in the 2016 Japan Series. Ohtani missed the World Baseball Classic in March and ended up with only  231 plate appearances and five games on the mound for the Fighters, before undergoing surgery in October.

He's far from a physical wreck, but he made fewer starts as a pitcher than guys such as Masahiro Tanaka, Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka in their years in Japan's major leagues and had far fewer plate appearances than players such as Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui.

The Angels were happy to put Ohtani in their rotation and their lineup. But keeping him in both could be a big challenge.
The Angels were happy to put Ohtani in their rotation and their lineup. But keeping him in both could be a big challenge.Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

He's a two-way player, if by that you mean he can both pitch and hit at an elite level. But if you're thinking he can hold down a full-time spot in a rotation and anything close to a full-time spot in the lineup, well, he never did that in Japan, even in a shorter season with more built-in off days. The Japanese baseball official said Ohtani might be best if used on the mound once every 10 days or so, with eight games as DH in between.

Ohtani's history was well known by the major league teams interested in signing him. The elbow issue wasn't a surprise, either, given a report available to all major league teams said he had a platelet-rich plasma injection in October, as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated first reported Monday.

They knew, and they still wanted him. And they were right to want him because of the talent and the unique circumstances that made him a bargain. The Angels paid Ohtani only a $2.3 million signing bonus, in addition to the $20 million posting fee paid to the Fighters, and he'll play for the league-minimum $545,000 salary as a rookie in 2018.

As Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports tweeted after Passan's report Tuesday night:

Heyman is right on both counts. Ohtani's unique ability on both sides of the ball makes him a $200 million talent, even if the elbow is a risk (and we don't know how big a risk it really is). The Angels, who have had trouble keeping pitchers healthy, have a big job ahead trying to keep this one on the mound.

One answer could be a six-man rotation, which would give Ohtani a more similar experience to what he had in Japan. It's a serious consideration, according to what Eppler told reporters at the winter meetings this week in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Ohtani played in international tournaments for Japan, but he missed the WBC last spring because of an ankle injury.
Ohtani played in international tournaments for Japan, but he missed the WBC last spring because of an ankle injury.Sports Nippon/Getty Images

"I can tell you medically, that I have had reputable doctors and biomechanists say that a six-man would be advantageous when rehabilitating players," Eppler said. "These are professionals who went to school for this and have dedicated their lives to studying these things."

None of those professionals has yet come up with a way to keep pitchers healthy. Ohtani and the Angels face the further challenge of keeping him healthy while he is expected to perform more and at a higher level than other pitchers. Remember, the ankle injury that cost him much of last season happened while running the bases.

He's doing things others don't, which is one reason so many of us can't wait to see him play. I know I can't. After all, I planned a trip to Japan last March in part because of the chance to see Ohtani.

I never did see him. He was hurt.

Hopefully it wasn't a sign of things to come.

                 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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