Analysis: It’s Been a Blast, but Ohtani’s Elbow Injury Shows Limits of 2-Way Stardom

Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani walks off the field after being taken out of the game during the second inning in the first baseball game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday in Anaheim, Calif.

The two-way baseball superstardom of Shohei Ohtani these past three seasons has been nothing short of absurd.

Tape-measure homers on the regular. Fastballs that hovered around 100 mph. Sometimes, just a few minutes apart.

In a sports world littered with questionable hyperbole, Ohtani’s on-field heroics lived up to every bit of the hype. It’s why there was a palpable sense of melancholy around the sport after the Los Angeles Angels announced that the 29-year-old Japanese sensation has a torn ligament in his elbow and won’t pitch again this season.

Ohtani planned to seek a second opinion before deciding if he’d have Tommy John surgery for the second time.

“A tough day for him,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said when the news broke. “Tough day for all of us.”

In retrospect, the absurdity of Ohtani’s performances and ability was only matched by the absurdity to think it could continue forever. There’s a reason the list of two-way baseball superstars is basically a two-man list: Babe Ruth and Ohtani.

Even Ruth didn’t do the two-way thing for long, and that was more than 100 years ago. The Babe was a legit pitcher and hitter in both 1918 and 1919 before becoming a full-time hitter, swatting 714 homers.

Still, with every highlight from the strapping 6-foot-4, 210-pound Ohtani, every effortless double off the wall, every overpowering strikeout, it felt like the limits of human performance didn’t apply. Last month, Ohtani left a game with body cramps and was right back in the lineup the next day, prompting one beat writer to write that “maybe they just updated his software overnight.”

But even machines break down eventually.

Ohtani will still be a coveted free agent this winter — maybe the most coveted in baseball history — but there’s little doubt the injury could cost him millions (and millions) of dollars. Some around the sport thought he might be baseball’s first $500 million man before the injury.

Now, something in the neighborhood of Aaron Judge’s $360 million, nine-year deal seems a better baseline, though Ohtani has the added benefit of being a truly international icon. There aren’t many people who can match Judge as a hitter, but Ohtani is in that discussion.

And there’s also the possibility that Ohtani returns to the mound. He’s certainly defied expectations before.

But here’s the truth: The list of successful pitchers following multiple Tommy John surgeries is pretty short. Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Tallion, Jason Isringhausen and Daniel Hudson are a handful who have had success. Current Dodgers star Walker Buehler — who recently had his second TJ surgery — hopes to join that group.

Anything Ohtani brings on the mound over the next several seasons has to be considered a bonus.

It still feels like there will be several teams willing to fork over an MLB-record deal to sign Ohtani. Even if he’s purely a hitter, there’s every reason to believe several more 40-homer seasons are on the horizon. It’s also fair to wonder if those hitting numbers could keep improving if he doesn’t have to pitch once a week. Plus, Ohtani is athletic enough to be a stellar defensive outfielder, if he ever decided to go that direction.

But for at least a few days, it’s understandable that baseball fans are mourning what was lost.

Ohtani is batting .304 with a league-high 44 homers, 91 RBIs, 97 runs, seven triples and 17 stolen bases. He has a 10-5 record on the mound with a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 132 innings while giving up just 85 hits.

That might be the best five-month performance in baseball history. Hope you savored it — because it may never happen again.

A handful of two-way prospects have been drafted over the past several years, riding the Ohtani wave that a new type of player might be on a horizon. None of them have come close to matching Ohtani’s impact. Now his injury will probably have a chilling effect on other teams trying to copy that success.

The simple reasoning: If Ohtani can’t handle the workload, who really can?

Through it all, Ohtani has also been a stellar example of hard work and a team-first attitude. He left the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader with his arm injury — found out he had a torn ligament between games — and then insisted on playing as a hitter in the second game.

The Angels have whole-heartedly supported Ohtani’s two-way endeavors since he arrived — it’s part of the why he picked Los Angeles in the first place. The results have been extraordinary. But notably, they’ve led to two significant arm injuries and no postseason appearances.

Now it’s time for the next chapter — one that might come with a new team and a new UCL.

If this is the end of Ohtani’s two-way dominance, it was quite a show.

But who knows? Betting against Ohtani seems unwise.

After all, doing the unfathomable is kind of his thing.