When Shohei Ohtani returns to the mound next year, as it seems likely he will, it probably won’t have the fanfare of his arrival. Ohtani came to these shores hitting dingers and throwing serious smoke from the mound, and somehow in the back of your mind but steering your acknowledgement anywhere else you knew that something like this couldn’t last. It’s simply too much at one time, and of course it wasn’t too long before his elbow went twang.
Ohtani has been rehabbing his elbow after offseason Tommy John surgery throughout the campaign, even while DH-ing since the middle of May when he came off the injured list. The plan is for him to have a normal offseason and to pick up in spring training as a starter and DH again. Of course, the question is will this be enough for the Angels.
Even with his plus-fastball, Ohtani was something of a mid-rotation starter. He had a 3.57 FIP which gets toward #2 range, but will he be able to maintain that if he can no longer use his split-finger? That’s a pitch that’s been linked to serious elbow stress, and he might have to drop it to keep his ligaments intact long term. Maybe not, but those aren’t questions we’ll get answered until next season.
You can’t go very far without hearing whispers that Gerrit Cole is desperate to head home to California in the offseason as a free agent, and the Angels are no less anxious to bring him home. Anaheim (never calling them LA) haven’t had a frontline starter since God knows when. Put it this way, Jared Weaver is their 4th-leading pitcher in career WAR. It’s not exactly a hallowed history.
Adding Cole and a returning Ohtani would certainly boost the Angels, but would it ever be enough to catch the Astros? The past three seasons, the Angels have been 21, 23, and currently 26 games behind the benchmark in the whole AL, much less the AL West. Are there any combinations of moves a team can make to make up 20 games in one offseason? Probably not.
Which means a multi-season project you’d have to think. Which Ohtani can be a part of, but he does require a team to be built a little differently. The Angels went to a six-man rotation last season to accommodate what he was used to in Japan, as well as maximize the amount of days he can DH. He doesn’t on the day before, or on, or after he pitches, so essentially he can DH about half your games. Perhaps they can play with the day before or after, but even in a best case scenario he’s only hitting two-thirds of your games. Which means another player has to rotate into the spot, and possibly another into the field, and every team would like that depth and flexibility but it doesn’t just grow on trees.
As a hitter only, Ohtani has been pretty weird this season. He’s been absolutely crushing the ball in terms of the contact he makes, with basically a 50% hard-contact rate and an average exit velocity of 92.5 MPH. Both marks are top-1o in the league. And yet Ohtani has seen a 72-point drop in his slugging from last season to this. And that can mostly be attributed to half of his contact being on the ground. You can get a lot of hits that way, Ichiro had a few, but it’s hard to pile up a lot of bases that way. His 6.1-degree launch-angle is one of the lowest in the league.
Pitchers have used their fastball more to the outside on Ohtani this year, which might be a reason his slugging is so much higher when he goes the other way. But his slugging when pulling the ball this year to drop 223 points. Like we said, weird. Maybe that has something to do with the elbow?
That will be the key for Ohtani next year, at least at the plate. If he can start turning on balls again, and make himself dangerous to all fields, then he can be a decent supporting act for Mike Trout in the coming years. If he continues to try and spell his name on the infield grass and dirt, he’ll only be a passable DH moving forward.