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The Sho Must Go On
Ohtani's elbow and the mystique of "what if?"
It was April 26, 2017, and Eric Thames was the toast of baseball.
Thames was once known as a roster-fringe journeyman who had yet to distinguish himself at the Major League level. Now he had returned from three years with the NC Dinos in Changwon, where he ranked among the Korean Baseball Organization’s top three in both homers and OPS in each season and was named the 2015 MVP after he went 40/40.1 The Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a three-year, $16 million deal to return to MLB for the 2017 season. It was hardly superstar money, reflecting the industry skepticism about how his KBO performance would translate to the big leagues. Still, it was a remarkable achievement for a veteran who played for three separate organizations’ minor-league affiliates without getting a call-up in his last season of stateside ball.
Three weeks into the season, Thames hadn’t just maintained his prodigious KBO production against what is commonly considered better competition; he had surpassed it. Twenty games in — conveniently meeting my Angels-call-up-Mike-Trout threshold for when a hot streak lasts long enough to be a potential breakout — Thames was batting .371 and led MLB with 11 homers (on pace for a record-obliterating 89 over 162 games) and a 1.411 OPS (the post-integration record is 1.422, set by Barry Bonds in a year when he was intentionally walked 120 times). By FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement model, Thames had been the best player in baseball. The return of a thought-washed-up 30-year-old after an overseas rejuvenation was an incredible underdog story that threatened to upend conventional wisdom about the talent gaps between MLB and other leagues around the world.
Then his hamstring tightened up. Thames struggled out of the batter’s box in the seventh inning of a 9-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds. He initially tried to walk it off but had to be pulled from the game an inning later. Thames downplayed the injury to reporters and kept his word to return to the lineup the next game, but a few weeks later he admitted that he had been playing through continued soreness that may never have abated. In hindsight, this was the inflection point in Thames’ season. He hit 20 homers with a .781 OPS in 117 games the rest of the year, a more-than-respectable offensive performance that was nonetheless fathoms beneath how he played out of the gate. He remained a decent but not superlative hitter for the duration of his Brewers contract, and was out of the Majors for good after 2020.
I remember watching Thames leave the field that day and recognizing it as the start of a what-might-have-been. With hindsight the potential timeline-fork is even clearer. Obviously the odds of a healthy Eric Thames keeping up anything like that torrid pace were virtually nil: A player whose previous claim to fame was putting up gaudy numbers in a league so hitter-friendly that they switched to a less-bouncy ball shortly after probably wasn’t the second coming of Babe Ruth. Even a bullish evaluator would have conceded that there’s virtually no modern precedent for a player maintaining that kind of performance. Call it regression to the mean, the league figuring guys out, or the equilibrium enforced by the baseball gods, but it always comes. Yet because Thames turning back into a pumpkin so clearly corresponded to a freak injury — he batted .161 with just one extra-base hit over his next eight games — there will always be that little shadow of doubt. What if he had stayed healthy?
There are few original superlatives left to describe Shohei Ohtani.
Major League Baseball hasn’t been the same since Ohtani left Japan to sign with the Los Angeles Angels (forgoing millions of dollars to compete stateside at age 23 instead of waiting two more years to transfer from the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization under a different set of rules). By the end of his 2018 rookie season he had already established himself as the best two-way player of my lifetime, hitting for a 31-homer pace with a .925 OPS and pitching to a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts. Injuries kept him off the mound and hampered him at the plate in 2019 and 2020, but by 2021 it was Shotime. His 46 homers and .965 OPS ranked third and fifth in the Majors, respectively, while his 3.18 ERA in 23 starts made him the ace of the Angels’ staff. He also finished eighth in MLB with 26 stolen bases. FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s WAR models both deemed him the best player in the game, and the voters of the BBWAA were unanimous in naming him the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Incredibly, he was even better in 2022, pairing comparable offensive value with true dominance on the mound — his 2.33 ERA ranked fourth in the AL — even as his accomplishments were overshadowed by Aaron Judge’s historic 62-homer season.
This year, Ohtani kicked things into a still-higher gear. He leads the Majors with 44 homers (good for a full-season pace of 56) and his 1.074 OPS is 66 points higher than second-place Mookie Betts’. Virtually every mainstream measurement of holistic batting value rates him as the best hitter in the game. On the mound, he also has the second-highest strikeout rate (31%) and second-best ERA (3.14) in the AL. By midseason he had already jumped out to an unprecedentedly large lead in league WAR. Thames’ case as a modern-day Ruth was tenuous, but Ohtani’s two-way accomplishments may have surpassed The Bambino’s.
(As an aside, the increasingly popular narrative that Ohtani’s simultaneous excellence on both sides of the ball far exceeds Ruth’s two-way talent makes me wonder if the most-revered player in baseball history is somehow underrated. Sure, Babe Ruth didn’t become Babe Ruth until after he became a full-time hitter, but from 1915 through 1919 he was the best hitter in baseball on a rate basis and posted a 2.16 ERA while averaging over 230 innings pitched and plate appearances per year. It’s fair to consider how much harder the game is now than it was 100 years ago, especially given the racist system that kept many of the top players out of the league in Ruth’s time, but judging century-old players by how they would fare if they were dropped into the Majors today is so reductive as to be uninteresting — the bar is low enough that even Eric Thames probably cleared it. Ohtani may well be better, even relative to their respective times, but at least it’s arguable.)
Then, this week, the dagger: Ohtani has a torn right ulnar collateral ligament. The injury immediately ends his season as a pitcher, and may require him to undergo his second reconstructive procedure (better known to baseball fans as Tommy John surgery) with a long road to recovery. It is a crucial inflection point in the career of one of the most-incredible athletes ever to don a pair of cleats. And however it shakes out, millions of fans will be left to dream about what might have been.
The first what-if in the wake of Ohtani’s injury is just how incredible his 2023 season would have been if he continued pitching. He can still swing a bat and his MVP trophy is already being engraved regardless — both premier public WAR models have him over three wins ahead of the next-best player in the AL — but Ohtani is having a tell-your-grandkids-you-saw-him-play kind of year, and it’s been a thrill to see him run up the score. His 3.14 ERA is third-best in the American League. Could it have gone even lower? He didn’t allow an earned run in any of his last four starts.2 What’s more, at 132 innings pitched, he will fall short of the traditional 162-IP qualifying threshold for the ERA title even if the pitchers ahead of him (Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray) regress down the stretch and close Ohtani’s mere 19-point deficit. Future leaderboard-browsers who don’t change the default filters may miss that he pitched at all.
Then there’s the matter of Ohtani’s impending free agency. Two months from now, the biggest bidding war in the history of American sports will commence as an unprecedented player begets an unprecedented contract. That a billion-dollar payout has been bandied around in team offices, even facetiously, gives a sense of how bananas his market was expected to be. Cut that in half and he still clears the record for the largest free agent deal in league history by nearly $150 million. Now, interested teams will have more hesitance. Undergoing Tommy John would mean not pitching (and likely being limited as a hitter) in the first year of his forthcoming mega-deal. Even in the best-case scenario where he avoids the procedure for now, suitors may be wary of heightened risk going forward — Ohtani himself tried alternative treatments in 2018 before his first UCL reconstruction and ultimately still went under the knife. Ken Rosenthal, one of the best-connected reporters in the game, thinks an historic $500 million commitment is in still play. But how high a price could Ohtani have commanded if he were fully healthy? Now we’ll never know.
Most tantalizingly, there’s the mystique of his long-term trajectory. Just as his teammate Mike Trout before him (in a process I remain fascinated with), Ohtani has clearly established himself as MLB’s best player. Depending on how heavily you weigh career longevity and the league’s ever-escalating baseline of talent, that means he already has a credible claim as the greatest player of all time. And that’s before you factor in the coolness factor of Ohtani’s singular excellence on both sides of the ball. Yet we haven’t really seen him at the height of his powers for very long. As Ben Lindbergh, one of Ohtani’s most-devoted chroniclers, noted this week, injuries have already cost us the chance to watch a large chunk of his ostensible prime pitching years, especially for American fans who did not know to follow his early career in Japan. I know I’m not alone in having planned to spend the next decade or so watching Ohtani chase career milestones and cement his legacy. Could he even still continue to get better?
Now the future too is in jeopardy. Tommy John is harder to return from the second time, so there’s no guarantee that he’d return to the mound in 2025 looking like his old self. It would also mean choosing between risking rehabilitation complications by playing out next year as a hitter or sitting out the season altogether. Popular speculation seems to be dancing around the possibility that Ohtani could give up pitching altogether and focus solely on hitting, which is less strenuous on his body and has been the stronger side of his game in five of his six MLB seasons. If this is the end of Ohtani’s run as the best player in the game or a two-way star, it won’t be for the usual reasons — that the league figured him out, or that it’s nearly impossible to play the Major League level on both sides of the ball — but the cruel hand of injury. Even if he returns at something close to full strength, in the meantime we’re left wanting.
Somewhere out in the multiverse there’s a world where Ohtani’s exploits are limited only by the rules of the game itself. To us it’s just fan-fiction.
Two days after the UCL Tear Heard ‘Round the World, Ohtani returned to the Angels’ lineup as a hitter. This alone was incredible. Ohtani has nothing to prove. His team’s playoff hopes are vanishingly slim. His MVP Award is already sewn up. Even in a sport defined by a culture of showing up every day and toughing it out, no one would have begrudged him taking some time to clear his head.
But this is not a mere mortal. This is Shohei Ohtani. And not only did he suit up, but he reached base four times in five plate appearances — including a 115 mph laser off the wall for a double.
Maybe Ohtani will once again disprove his doubters and pick up right where he left off in due time. Like Ted Williams and Bob Feller, future fans will fill in the holes in his stat sheet with their imaginations. Maybe, true to his title of Ruth’s heir, he will fully apotheosize after giving up pitching, leaving the baseball world to ponder how many homers he would have hit had he never bothered with his erstwhile primary position. Maybe Ohtani’s 2023 season was his supernova and his star will never again shine this brightly. No matter what, we’ll always be left to wonder: What if?
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“OPS” stands for on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, a commonly used middle-ground statistic that expresses a batter’s skill more accurately than batting average but is far simpler to calculate than, say, weighted runs created plus. “40/40” (or the equivalent with any like round number) refers to a season in which a player both hits 40 home runs and steals 40 bases, demonstrating a rare combination of power and baserunning ability.