Shohei Ohtani underwent surgery today to address the UCL tear in his right elbow, according to a statement released by his agent Nez Balelo. The exact type of the surgery (whether a Tommy John procedure or an internal brace) wasn’t specified by Balelo or Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the procedure.
“The ultimate plan after deliberation with Shohei was to repair the issue at hand and to reinforce the healthy ligament in place while adding viable tissue for the longevity of the elbow,” Dr. ElAttrache said in the statement. “I expect full recovery and he’ll be ready to hit without any restrictions come Opening Day of 2024 and do both (hit and pitch) come 2025.”
Ohtani himself also commented on the situation via his Instagram page, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move for a player known for his relative lack of public statements. Ohtani’s statement: “I had a procedure done on my elbow earlier this morning and everything went well. Thank you very much for everyone’s prayers and kind words. It was very unfortunate that I couldn’t finish out the year on the field, but I will be rooting on the boys until the end. I will work as hard as I can and do my best to come back on the diamond stronger than ever. Go Halos!!”
As noted by Jeff Fletcher of the Southern California News Group, ElAttrache’s description seems to imply that Ohtani opted for a brace procedure, or at least something different than a standard Tommy John surgery. TJ procedures have a fairly set timeline of 13-15 months while brace procedures (a relatively newer type of surgery) have generally had a shorter timeline, yet ElAttrache’s statement indicates that Ohtani isn’t expected to pitch in 2024.
It is possible more information on Ohtani’s pitching status might develop as he continues to rehab, though Balelo said “the final decision and type of procedure was made with a heavy emphasis on the big picture. Shohei wanted to make sure the direction taken gave him every opportunity to hit and pitch for many years to come.” With this caution in mind, it seems possible that Ohtani isn’t planning to pitch in 2024 whatsoever, especially since he already had a Tommy John surgery in late 2018 that limited him to DH-only duty in 2019.
Ohtani still hit a very solid .286/.343/.505 with 18 homers over 425 plate appearances in 2019, with his season debut held off until May 7 due to the TJ rehab process. He then pitched only 1 2/3 innings in 2020 due to a flexor strain and also struggled at the plate during the abbreviated 60-game season, but Ohtani has subsequently rebounded with three of the most uniquely superb seasons in baseball history.
Since Opening Day 2021, Ohtani has a 2.84 ERA over 428 1/3 innings pitched, while hitting .277/.379/.585 with 124 home runs over 1904 PA. This two-way excellence earned him AL MVP honors in 2021, a runner-up MVP finish in 2022, and very likely another MVP trophy this season, even though his year has been cut short by injury. The UCL tear meant that Ohtani’s last start came on August 23, and while he attempted to keep going as a hitter, he hasn’t played since September 3 due to an oblique strain. The Angels announced over the weekend that Ohtani had officially been placed on the 10-day injured list, and wouldn’t play again in 2023.
Attention now turns to Ohtani’s next decision, as he’ll enter free agency with a resume unlike any other player to ever reach the open market. It remains to be seen how Ohtani’s surgery will impact his market, though even if he is unable to pitch in 2024, most pundits feel he’ll still land a record-setting deal, perhaps topping the $500MM threshold.
It is quite possible that the marketing opportunities and extra revenues available to the team that signs Ohtani will offset the extra risk of his elbow problems, as even if there is some natural long-term question about Ohtani’s arm health, he provides plenty of value even if he “only” an elite hitter. Interested clubs will obviously want as much information as possible on Ohtani’s health and rehab status before making their decision on a major contract offer, though waiting too long to deliberate might also cost a team a chance at making the signing.
There has been much speculation that Ohtani has already played his last game in an Angels uniform. Los Angeles has shown a willingness to pay big money for star talent, yet since Ohtani has been vocal about his desire to play for a winner, the Angels’ string of eight consecutive losing seasons might get him looking elsewhere, no matter what ownership might offer in a new contract. Ohtani’s free agency will be the key storyline of the 2023-24 offseason, and it isn’t a reach to say that much of the winter business around the sport might be held up to some extent until Ohtani chooses his next team.