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Shohei Ohtani won't pitch this season after major elbow surgery, but he can still hit. Here's why

PHOENIX (AP) — Shohei Ohtani is unique in Major League Baseball history, a two-way Japanese superstar who can excel as a hitter and a pitcher, sometimes in the same game.

But for the 2024 season, Ohtani will be just a hitter.

That's because Ohtani is recovering from an injured elbow ligament — the ulnar collateral ligament — that often leads to a procedure colloquially known as Tommy John surgery. Ohtani has been vague about the exact procedure he had last September, but the Dodgers do not expect him to pitch until 2025.

Typically, pitchers who have Tommy John surgery miss at least a full calendar year. Most of that time is spent carefully rehabbing the elbow so it can withstand the unusual torque needed to throw a baseball 90-plus mph.

Hitters — including Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper — also occasionally tear their UCLs and require Tommy John surgery, but their recovery is much quicker.

Ohtani, who signed a record $700 million, 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December, could still have a huge impact in the batters' box this year.

HOW DID OHTANI GET HURT?

Ohtani — who spent his first six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels — left the pitcher's mound abruptly in the second inning of his start against the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 23 after throwing 26 pitches. Later that night, Angels general manager Perry Minasian confirmed that Ohtani had an injured elbow ligament and wouldn't pitch again in 2023.

The two-time Most Valuable Player is no stranger to serious arm injuries. He had his first Tommy John surgery in 2018, following his stellar rookie season. That kept him from pitching in 2019 and most of 2020 before he returned full-time to the mound in 2021.

There have only been a handful of MLB players who have had Tommy John surgery twice and returned as effective pitchers.

WHAT CAN OHTANI DO THIS SEASON?

If his first spring training game is any indication, Ohtani's hitting won't be hampered by his recovery.

Ohtani smacked a two-run homer in his third exhibition at-bat on Tuesday as the team’s designated hitter.

A torn ulnar collateral ligament is a serious injury for a pitcher or fielder because it affects throwing a baseball, but it’s not quite as problematic for hitters.

Throwing a baseball puts particular stress on the UCL as the arm rapidly pivots from being externally rotated to internally rotated. That's not a concern during the baseball swing — especially for players like Ohtani and Harper, who throw right-handed but bat left-handed. Their injured right arms lead the way when they swing, a less taxing motion for the elbow ligament.

Last season, Harper returned to the lineup as the designated hitter a little more than five months after Tommy John surgery, wearing a brace on his right elbow. Ohtani is roughly five months removed from the elbow surgery he had in September.

WHY DID THE DODGERS STILL GIVE HIM $700 MILLION?

The Dodgers — and all other 29 MLB teams — knew about Ohtani's elbow injury during his free agency. That didn't stop Los Angeles from spending $700 million to add him to the roster.

Among the reasons: Ohtani should still be able to pitch again starting in 2025, theoretically giving the Dodgers a two-way player for nine of his 10 seasons under contract. But even if he can't always pitch, his bat is among the game's best. He had a .304 batting average, 44 home runs, 95 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 2023, which helped him land his second MVP award.

If Ohtani eventually has to quit pitching, he's athletic enough to play first base or even the outfield.

Ohtani is also unique in that he's a global phenomenon — with legions of fans around the world, particulary in his native Japan. His marketability rivals some of the world's biggest sports stars, including soccer standouts Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, along with NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

All those eyeballs on Ohtani mean lots of advertising and merchandise dollars for the Dodgers.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

David Brandt, The Associated Press