Just four days after the Los Angeles Angels signed Shohei Ohtani, news broke that a physical revealed some damage in the UCL in his throwing arm. More specifically, Ohtani has a first-degree sprain in his right elbow, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.
This certainly wasn’t the news people expected to see given how highly sought out Ohtani was. With that being said, clubs were informed of his elbow issues prior to the negotiation process and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the right-hander will undergo Tommy John Surgery in the near future.
In Jeff Passan’s article, Angels General Manager Billy Eppler states that Ohtani underwent the physical and the club is encouraged by the direction of his health. It’s also expected that Ohtani will continue his normal throwing program and should be ready to pitch in 2018. In a separate piece by Jeff Fletcher, a study points to Ohtani being likely to make a full recovery. In other words, it’s noteworthy that Ohtani has UCL damage but it doesn’t appear to be all that serious.
Sports Illustrated reported that Ohtani underwent a PRP injection in October, which was the first potential sign that the right-hander had some issues going on. PRP injections are becoming more common in the baseball world, with the most obvious example being Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. In 2014, Tanaka opted to rehab his damaged UCL rather than undergoing Tommy John Surgery and he has stayed healthy and successful since that time.
Tom Verducci also addressed the increased usage of PRP injections and noted that starters such as Chris Sale and Zack Greinke utilized these injections. In some cases, treating the inflammation in the elbow is enough to bring the pitching elbow back to full strength. In other cases, the pitcher continues to damage the elbow with more pitching and ends up needing to opt for surgery.
Most pitchers with some sort of UCL damage do end up getting surgery due to the nature of the ligament itself. Elbow injuries have been on the rise for years, due a variety of factors. While there’s no proven risk factors, there appears to be a strong correlation between fastball velocity and Tommy John surgeries. Ohtani averaged 97.5 mph on his fastball in 2017, which obviously puts him in the upper tier of pitchers and likely increases his risk for surgery.
The Angels are quite familiar with UCL problems themselves, as they’ve seen Garrett Richards, J.C. Ramirez, Tyler Skaggs, Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney deal with tears in their elbows, with the latter three undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Richards and Ramirez, however, opted for rehab and have seen moderately positive results, although Richards did deal with right biceps inflammation for much of 2017.
Ohtani’s talent is through the roof, as many know by now, but it is worth noting he’s had an injury-riddled 2017 season. On top of receiving the PRP injection in October, he also had surgery on his right ankle, which limited him to just 25 1/3 innings in 2017. Ohtani is just 23, however, and given that he’s under control for six cheap seasons, there is still a lot of surplus value with him. This recent development makes his storyline all the more interesting heading into 2018.