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Today whenever baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani even hints at feeling pain, the whispers return: “Is Shohei injury-prone?” The answer quite honestly is no, he is not. He just had very poor luck his first few years in Major League Baseball.
Before and after that rough stretch of 2018-2020, Ohtani dominated the competition at the very highest levels of baseball play. Why he was hampered by so many injuries, from minor to very major, over such a short period remains a mystery.
Injury-prone? We think not. Here’s a brief summary of Shohei Ohtani’s injury history.
To summarize why this is even being discussed, here is the progression of major events in Shoshei’s professional baseball career:
- Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league debuted in 2013
- Played in NPB from ages 18 to 22, with no significant injuries
- Reported an elbow strain after signing with the Los Angeles Angels at the end of 2017
- Started the 2018 season, in which he played in 114 games and was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year, primarily has an outfielder/hitter (only 10 of those games was as a pitcher)
- Diagnosed with ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) damage reported at the end of the MLB season in 2018
- Played exclusively as a designated hitter (DH) in 2019
- Missed last 3 weeks of 2019 season for surgery to repair the bipartite patella in his knee
- In pandemic-shortened 2020 season he played in 46 of 60 games
- In 2020 pitched 2 games before diagnosed with an elbow flexor strain, for which he was shut down from pitching for the rest of that season
- Return to full strength in 2021, wins league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for his play in 155 games
That’s a lot of things to happen to someone in their first quarter-century of life. It’s difficult to try to compare his career with that of any other major leaguer through history.
Ohtani basically went from a can’t-miss prospect to a hurt budding star; to a professional baseball player with doubt; to someone at the very top of their profession.
Perhaps only a single professional athlete’s career kind of looks like Shoshei’s ~ and the break in dominance was not due to injury. Michael Jordan skipped 2 seasons of basketball to play minor league baseball. Then he returned to the exact same level of dominance as before.
Only, Shohei Ohtani never played minor league baseball. He jumped to the MLB at age 23 in 2018, to a significant amount of hype. It was Ohtani’s total media exposure that made his absences due to injury more noticeable.
Fans had to anxiously wait to see if Ohtani would reach his full potential.
Prior to the major leagues, Ohtani played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan’s Pacific League, for 5 years. His statistics show he played full seasons in each, including 104 games in 2016 due to his team’s deep run into the playoffs (all the way to Japan’s championship series).
In all, Shohei played 414 games in the Japan leagues over 5 years, without significant injury.
Then he played in 114 games in the MLB in 2018, before the mysterious injury bug struck.
Why Did Shohei Ohtani Get Injured Early in His MLB Career?
No one knows why certain MLB players get hurt often, while others seem to be “Iron Man” like Cal Ripken. However, there are a few things that have been known to contribute to baseball injuries, which Ohtani may have been impacted by:
- Wear. Shohei played over 400 games of professional ball by the time he reached the MLB. Tack onto that many more innings playing high-level youth ball, and even adult tourneys like the World Baseball Classic, and some might say he was overworked for a few years. He represented his country in several international tournaments.
- Games. The MLB season has many more games (162) than the Japanese leagues (144) each year
- Culture. In Japanese youth baseball training, pitchers are asked to throw more than their American counterparts ~ as many as 300 pitches a day. There has been speculation that this practice resulted in many Japanese pitchers getting hurt early in their MLB careers
- Ball. The baseball used in Japan is slightly smaller than those used in MLB games, pressing some to speculate on how this impacts imported pitchers
- Height. Shonei Ohtani is tall (6’4”), causing more torque on his joints especially the knees during hitting swings and the pitching delivery
- Fatigue. Shohei’s body does not get the rest time enjoyed by other “normal” players, because he plays the field and hits, or pitches, in nearly every game
It should be noted that due to Ohtani’s talents and potential, clubs are quick to keep him off the field for “precautionary” reasons.
Often, people compare Ohtani with baseball immortal Babe Ruth, in that both could pitch and hit with excellence, not just one or the other like all other MLB players.
The difference is, Ruth was an actual 2-way player only in his early career with the Boston Red Sox. In reality, he did both only during his final year with the Red Sox.
From 2015 to 2017, Ruth played only as much as 67 games out of a 154-game schedule ~ because he was almost exclusively a pitcher. He played 42 games in 1915, 67 in 1916, 52 in 1917, and 95 in 1918.
Through the 1919 season, Ruth hit only 20 home runs for the Sox. Starting in 1920 with the New York Yankees, he was inserted into the outfield as an everyday player, performing in 142 games and hitting 54 home runs when he could focus only on hitting.
Only 14 of his 714 home runs occurred when he was in the lineup as a pitcher. Ruth played 15 more seasons in the outfield for the Yankees, and a final one with the Boston Braves.
The only significant time Ruth lost to playing was in 1925, and that was not related to ball playing. That season he was limited to 98 games due to intestinal and other issues related to his hard-partying off-season rituals.
So it actually is rather difficult to compare the immortals, as Ohtani from Day 1 in the MLB has played both ways.
What some baseball insiders might find fascinating regarding Ohtani’s injury run of 2018-2020 was that he still played in a majority of games for his team.
The record shows he played in 114 of 162 games (over 70%) in 2018; 106 games (about 65% in 2019; and 46 out of 60 (77%) during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
It is notable that most pitchers miss at least an entire season after Tommy John surgery to a throwing arm, and often much more. Ohtani had the advantage of playing solely as a designated hitter in 2019, after the fall 2018 surgery, which got him back on the field must faster than those who only pitch.
So you could say that during his first 3 seasons in the MLB, Ohtani only missed significant time in 2019 ~ because he skipped a lot of playing opportunities by not pitching. That he still played in over 100 games is amazing.
Playing “both ways” and doing it very well is what made Shohei Ohtani a superstar. It’s what fans come to see, and what they expect: the potential for a monster home run, or striking out batters into the double digits.
Many former MLB players have never seen anything like it, including former Yankees star C.C. Sabathia, who named Ohtani as the best baseball player ever.