Shohei Ohtani is About to Benefit From 1 New MLB Rule Change

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Shohei Ohtani

Special rules for special players?

It may look like Major League Baseball is showing favoritism toward a high-profile player by approving a new rule for the 2020 season. But while addressing the situation of intriguing two-way player Shohei Ohtani benefits the player and the Los Angeles Angels now, the latest rule change also sets the table for when inevitable similar situations crop up in the future.

For the time being, however, Ohtani’s case is unique in the sport and the Angels are catching a break that will also require a small sacrifice on their part if they intend to take advantage of the rule change.

Angels signed Shohei Ohtani as a dual-threat

Shohei Ohtani, now 25, pitched and played the outfield for five seasons in Japan, where the combination a fastball topping out at 102 mph and his hitting caught the attention of MLB teams when the Nippon-Ham Fighters posted him.

The Los Angeles Angels won the bidding and Ohtani started for them in their 2018 opener, won his debut on the mound that week and was perfect through six innings in his next appearance as a pitcher.

The combination of pitching and hitting, including home runs in three consecutive April games, made Ohtani a media sensation and gate attraction. He ended his MLB rookie season with a .285 batting average, 22 home runs, and 61 RBIs at the plate to go with a 4-2 record and 3.31 ERA on the mound. He fanned 63 batters in just 51 2/3 innings.

Unfortunately for Ohtani, he also aggravated arm problems along the way and pitched in only 10 games. Reports leaked out shortly after he signed with the Angels that Ohtani had been treated for an ulnar collateral ligament sprain in his right elbow. He was placed on the disabled list after an early-June start with more problems in the elbow but did return to active duty as a hitter.

In September, doctors determined the injury was too extensive to heal satisfactorily on its own and recommended that Ohtani undergo Tommy John surgery.  

Shohei Ohtani’s arm injury is behind the change

With the diagnosis and surgery coming so late in the year, pitching would be out of the question for Shohei Ohtani in 2019. However, he was able to play in 104 games and produced another solid batting line that included 18 homers, 62 RBIs, and a .286 average.

Ohtani continued to work on his elbow rehab throughout the year but suffered a knee injury that required surgery in September. Even without that setback, the Angels were going to be cautious about Ohtani’s return to the rotation in 2020. The team intended to ease him into a routine during spring training and was contemplating ways to limit his innings for the year, possibly through a combination of not pitching him until May and resorting to a six-man rotation to spread out his starts.

Not pitching him in April will be problematic if the Angels intend to use Ohtani as their designated hitter to open the season. Though he would be under the watchful eye of the club’s medical staff while in Los Angeles, the best way to get him back up to full speed as a pitcher would be to build up arm strength by making a series of rehab starts in the minors.

New MLB rule includes an obstacle for Angels

Until now, a player doing a rehab stint in the minors could not simultaneously be on the active roster of the parent club. However, that changed in the offseason as MLB owners agreed to an accommodation for two-way players like Ohtani.

The new rule will allow the Angels to place Ohtani on their injured list as a pitcher while remaining eligible to play in the field or serve as the designated hitter. Theoretically, he’ll be able to throw for the Angels’ Triple-A team in Salt Lake City or Single-A affiliate in San Bernardino one day and hit in the majors the next, assuming the travel logistics can be worked out.

The downside for the Angels is that Ohtani will count against the big-league roster even on days when he is in the minors, leaving their bench short by one man those for those games.

Though the rule change helps only the Angels at the start of the 2020 season, it will eventually come into play as other MLB teams try to make maximum use of their own two-way talents. The Tampa Bay Rays believe pitcher Brendan McKay has the talent to help them at the plate, and the Cincinnati Reds know for a fact that pitcher Michael Lorenzen can do so.

Lorenzen, who is entering his sixth season in the majors and has had previous elbow problems of his own, is a career .235 hitter who belted four home runs in just 31 at-bats in 2018. In a victory over the Philadelphia Phillies last September, Lorenzen joined Babe Ruth as the only MLB player to hit a homer, record the victory as a pitcher, and play in the field in the same game.