The late, great Yogi Berra, philosopher extraordinaire, once offered this piece of advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’’ That is about the situation the Los Angeles Angels face these days with Shohei Ohtari.
The Angels won last winter’s auction for Ohtari, who was touted as the Japanese Babe Ruth because he was the best pitcher and the best hitter in Japan, all in one enticing package. The last Major Leaguer to combine those two skills was Ruth, who had a career batting average of .342 and hit a record 714 home runs as the predominant slugger of his time after starting his career as a pitcher and posting a 94-46 record with a 2.28 earned run average.
Ohtari was a two-way star in Japan over five seasons, batting .286 with 48 home runs and 166 runs batted in as a hitter and posting a pitching mark of 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and a 100 mph fastball for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Major League baseball salivated over his prospects and the Angels were thrilled when he decided he wanted to play on the West Coast. What’s more they got him at a bargain price of a $2.3 million signing bonus and the major league minimum salary of $545,000. There was one small problem. Ohtari arrived with an aching right elbow that required a platelet-rich plasma injection to ease the pain.
Nevertheless, Ohtari’s two-way talents were welcomed in LA to considerable excitement and the program worked for a while. He won his first start with six strikeouts in six innings and two days later, he hit his first home run. He took a perfect game into the seventh inning of his second start.
In August, he had a two-home run game against Cleveland. That came in the midst of a nearly three-month hiatus from pitching after he broke down in June. The diagnosis was a sprained elbow, bad news for any pitcher. Ohtari returned to the mound on Sept. 2 but never made it out of the third inning. Three days later, doctors recommended Tommy John surgery to replace a damaged ligament.
Not so fast, Ohtari said. He wanted to finish out the season as the Angels designated hitter before deciding on the surgery. And just to punctuate that decision, he went 4-for-4 with two home runs the day after the doctors said he needed the surgery.. He hit a couple of more homers, pushing his season totals to .290 with 19 homers and 53 runs batted in.
Then an awkward slide home as he tried to score on a wild pitch resulted in a right thigh contusion that gave him another injury to worry about.
Now comes decision time for Ohtari and the Angels. Tommy John surgery means he can’t pitch next season. Can he hit while his elbow heals? That is still to be determined.
It should be noted that the eminent Mr. Berra also once noted, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’’