The Shohei Ohtani Questions:
Shohei Ohtani tore his right UCL on Wednesday and is now likely for undergoing a second TJS. What does this spell going forward?
Ohtani's First UCL Problem and Recovery:
This is not the first time that Shohei Ohtani has had problems with his right ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). In the middle of his rookie MLB season in 2018, on June 8th, Ohtani was placed on the IL with a grade-2 UCL strain. He would sit out a month and return in early July in a strict hitting-only role (though he would pitch and start one final game for 2.1 innings in September). However, that offseason he would undergo Tommy John surgery.
Though Ohtani would return to the mound in 2020, he pitched in just 2 games for a total of 1.2 innings, while failing to record an out in his first start and being removed with right arm discomfort quickly in the second. He would be shut down again from pitching just two weeks into the season while continuing to bat full-time for the remainder of 2020.
He would have to wait until 2021 to get another shot at proving that a two-way player can be successful and available across a full season of MLB play.
The Past 3 Years and 2023 Injury Struggles:
Shohei Ohtani's last three seasons (2021-2023) had been very successful on the mound and in terms of avoiding injuries (he has not been on the IL since 2019). If he set out to prove that he can be a true two-way player for an extended period of time, consider the job not only done but conquered. Shohei Ohtani showed the masses that his rookie season was no fluke and he was both a top tier hitter and top tier pitcher.
Across these three seasons (2021-2023), Ohtani has started 74 games with 428.1 innings pitched and 542 strikeouts with a 2.84 ERA (152 ERA+). Up to this point, he also has played in 438 games as a batter while racking up 440 hits, 124 home runs, 286 RBI's, and an extended quadruple slash of .277/.376/.586/.962 (160 OPS+). It's remarkable what he has been able to do.
However, in late July and early August, Shohei Ohtani started to have cramping issues that went from his legs to his back to his fingers. It was clear that he was suffering from overuse and yet he was going to need to be a constant presence in the line-up and on the mound as the Angels were attempting to get to the playoffs before Ohtani became a free agent, had bought at the trade deadline, and were desperate to not have his six years go playoff-less. It was an attempt to show Ohtani they could put together a winning product (they haven't made the playoffs since 2014) in hopes he re-signs.
And then, the news dropped late on Wednesday night that Ohtani had torn his right UCL during the first game of the doubleheader earlier that day. It was quickly announced that Ohtani would not return to the mound again this season, though- much like 2018- he will continue to hit.
The Many Questions Out There:
After this news dropped, there are many questions regarding Shohei Ohtani that need to be addressed.
Question One: When could Shohei Ohtani get his second Tommy John surgery and when could he return to the mound?
If we follow the timeline from 2018, Shohei Ohtani was sidelined from pitching in mid-June (apart from one start in September) and his Tommy John surgery occurred on October 1st, or the day immediately after the season ended. I would expect that Ohtani would elect to get his second Tommy John surgery on the same timeline and before free agency begins. With the Angels season likely to end on October 1st (barring some unforeseen winning streak to make the playoffs), thus I would say he'll get the surgery sometime around October 2nd.
His timetable for return is a lot harder to predict. The first game Shohei Ohtani pitched after the 2018 TJS wasn't until July 26th, 2020. (He didn't pitch in the original spring training in February or March, 2020 before the season was delayed.) That gives us a duration of 664 days. Now, that number is likely inflated due to the 2020 MLB season being delayed until July, though it did take until 2021 for Ohtani to truly start pitching again consistently (remember: he had arm discomfort in 2020 and pitched just 2.1 innings total). If we go until his first start in 2021 spring training, that moves the needle to March 5th, 2021 or 886 days.
With an October, 2023 timeline for surgery, it should be expected that Shohei Ohtani will not return for the 2024 season. If we go with the 664 number from before, that puts us into mid-July 2025. I'll give a little leeway on the former number and say that Ohtani should be expected to return as a pitcher after the All-Star break in 2025. (For what it's worth, the 886 number moves us to 2026 Spring Training.)
Question Two: How will this affect the expected value on Shohei Ohtani's contract?
This is the biggest question on everybody's mind. Shohei Ohtani's free agency can now be seen as a team going after the best available hitter for 2024 with the potential for getting a pitcher sometime in 2025. I don't think there is any debate about Ohtani being the best hitter available for this upcoming offseason. And, I'd even argue that he would likely the best pitcher available at the 2024-25 offseason (unless Gerrit Cole opts out of his remaining 4-Years/$144 Million remaining and the Yankees don't exercise their option to add a 10th year at $36 Million to prevent the opt-out).
Let's first take a worst case scenario to get a baseline for a Shohei Ohtani contract and assume that over the rest of his career, he'll never be able to pitch again. Ohtani's pure WAR as a hitter for this season has given him +5.6 bWAR and +6.3 fWAR (so far). If we go on the basis that 1 WAR = $8 Million that means his value this year has been between $44.8 Million and $50.4 Million. Though we still have another month to go in the season, I don't think we can run with the idea that Ohtani will continue to lead the MLB in OPS year-in and year-out.
Instead, if we take his average from the past 3 seasons he gets a total of +13.9 bWAR and +15.1 fWAR, a total of $111.2 Million and $120.8 Million, or an average of $37.1 Million and $40.3 Million respectively per year. Let's take the average of all of this and get a year-to-year value of about +4.8 WAR and $38.7 Million. If we assume he'll sign a 10-year contract and over the length of that contract he'll decline by 10% each year, his overall value would be $251.6 Million while he would produce about +31.5 WAR with his bat.
Ohtani is also a huge marketing asset and I believe could easily bring in $10 Million per year in additional revenue from ticket sales, jerseys, and corporate advertisements (to name a few things) with the team. (I actually believe this is a huge understatement, but I want to keep things simple.) From this alone, let's add an additional $100 Million on a 10-year contract to bump his value to $351.6 Million as a minimum.
Now, let's play a different scenario and assume that after the All-Star break in 2025, Shohei Ohtani comes back as a starting pitcher and continues down a similar path. Over the past 3 seasons, he has been worth an average of 4.7 bWAR and 3.7 fWAR. Let's follow the similar framework as above, and say he'll produce an average of 4.2 WAR as a pitcher (giving him half credit in 2025) and then see a drop off of 20% each year in value. (His 2 Tommy John surgery background isn't promising.) If we run with this, he'll be worth an additional +16.8 WAR as a pitcher for a value of $128.6 Million.
If we add his hitting WAR and the extra $100 Million from his ability to generate off-the-field additional value, we have a contract that comes out to being 10-Years/$480.3 Million.
That's insane. And it also feels and seems reasonably obtainable. Here is my chart for these values:
Question Three: Is a future with the New York Yankees possible?
To put it simply, I would say no. It doesn't make sense for the Yankees to go after Ohtani given the current state of the roster. Between just Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, the Yankees already have too many players who are or will need to be utilizing the DH role consistently. Remember: Aaron Judge is signed for another 8 (!) seasons after this one which covers his ages from 32 to 39. With the toe injury this season, Judge has played 48 games in the outfield and 24 as a DH. Before too long, Judge becoming the everyday DH is a real possibility.
Even if the Yankees were able to distance themselves from Giancarlo Stanton (and finding a trade partner for him would seem to be an impossible task between his no-trade clause, contract, and production) it would be a hard thing to make it worthwhile to sign a full-time DH for 10 years alongside Aaron Judge.
Also, keep in mind that Shohei Ohtani wants to win. In his 6 MLB seasons, his team has yet to make the playoffs. At the current moment, Yankees are not in a position to be primed to make a run at a World Series any time soon. Add in the rumors that Ohtani desires not to play on the east coast and the possibility of Ohtani in Yankees pinstripes is a long shot in more ways than one.
Question Four: How would I use Ohtani? (Hint: Change his pitching role)
This isn't a pressing question on anybody's mind, but I recently saw an incredibly interesting take about how a team should use Shohei Ohtani going forward in order to utilize him best as the two-way player he is. And, it seems to be like the smartest possible idea.
When Ohtani comes back and ready to pitch in 2025, turn him into a reliever. More specifically, a closer. Sign him to a contract contingent on him agreeing to make the switch to a bullpen role and make him the closer.
It would allow him to start every game as a DH and allow a team to get the most value out of his most valuable skill: hitting. If you see my chart above (and his career stats), Ohtani is and will continue to be a more valuable hitter than pitcher. However, his ability to pitch is something that also adds a ton of value that is generally indefinable.
Turning Shohei Ohtani into a closer also makes a ton of sense. As a DH, even if he got brought into the game to pitch, he would be able to continue to bat, just in the pitcher spot (as his team would lose the DH spot). This would also give whatever team signs Ohtani to take the most advantage out of Ohtani as they'd be able to get the most value out of his bat and use him to finish out close games.
Think about it this way: on Ohtani's starts, the team has to hope that he is able to pitch many innings to hold the other team to a place where his team has to also show up. That's a lot to ask. Instead, Ohtani would only ever come into games where his team has already shown up and they are looking for a tie to be held or a lead to be finished out.
A top-tier closer on the open market fetches a pretty penny too. I don't think a role change would hinder the value of a contract coming his way much (if at all). And, finding a replacement closer is a much easier task than finding a new ace of a pitching staff, if Ohtani was to get hurt. It would provide the most insurance for the team signing him and could also serve as a way to keep Ohtani involved with the game the most.
What do you think? How you do feel this injury is going to affect Shohei Ohtani in terms of contract and future production?