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MLB free agency 2023: How long will Shohei Ohtani remain a two-way star?

As MLB's best, brightest and richest teams line up in sworn secrecy to court Shohei Ohtani, there's no need to rehash the appeal of a two-time MVP who has flipped Babe Ruth comparisons from dreamy aspirations to comical understatements. He made the leap from Japan's NPB hell-bent on becoming a true two-way player. He weathered early uncertainty and injury, and then he did it — to a degree that has melted away any and all doubts and left only wonder.

With the world awaiting his momentous decision in free agency, though, Ohtani is also rehabbing an elbow surgery that will put the pitching half of his unicorn (centaur?) act on hold until 2025. So as the 29-year-old fields contract offers that could span the rest of his career, it’s natural to start mentally projecting how many of his remaining seasons will involve both hitting and pitching.

From the jump, we know that on a hypothetical 10-year deal, the maximum number of seasons that will involve Ohtani pitching is nine. But following a second significant elbow surgery since he came to MLB, the most realistic number is lower. The question is: How much lower?

And unlike the blindingly obvious case to want Ohtani on your team, the answer is almost impossibly complicated.

Factor 1: The surgery

Like everything else about Ohtani recently, the exact nature of the surgery he had in September has evaded explanation and follow-up questions. In August, the Los Angeles Angels told reporters that Ohtani had a torn UCL in his pitching elbow. That's the injury that typically leads to Tommy John surgery, an intense but common procedure that tends to keep pitchers out about a year if it's their first. Problem: This was Ohtani's second Tommy John (if he in fact had Tommy John). His first surgery came in 2018, at the end of his rookie season with the Angels.

While the nuances are esoteric and usually unimportant to baseball fans, there are multiple surgical techniques available to doctors performing Tommy John surgery. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who operated on Ohtani and a laundry list of other MLB stars, pioneered one. Dr. Keith Meister, who operated on Jacob deGrom last season, is known for another commonly referred to as "internal brace" surgery.

The parties in the know have declined to officially put a label on this Ohtani surgery. Immediately afterward, the Angels relayed a statement from ElAttrache and Nez Balelo, Ohtani's agent.

"The ultimate plan after deliberation with Shohei was to repair the issue at hand and to reinforce the healthy ligament in place while adding viable tissue for the longevity of the elbow," ElAttrache said in the Angels’ statement.

That doesn’t tell us much. But the statement proceeded to outline Ohtani’s plan to return as a hitter for Opening Day 2024 and return as a pitcher in 2025. That timeline is optimistic but in line with recent best-case scenarios; ElAttrache performed Bryce Harper’s Tommy John surgery after 2022 — the one Harper returned from in record time. He also performed Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler’s second Tommy John in 2022, a key part of this equation. Buehler flirted with a return to the mound late in 2023, about 13 months after surgery, but ultimately shut it down without rejoining the major-league team.

Balelo’s statement (unsurprisingly) emphasized Ohtani’s long-term ambitions — speaking effectively for an audience of general managers and team owners.

"The final decision and type of procedure was made with a heavy emphasis on the big picture," Balelo said. "Shohei wanted to make sure the direction taken gave him every opportunity to hit and pitch for many years to come.”

Given Ohtani’s history — he left Japan in search of a challenge before he could earn his fair market value in MLB, he found his greatest success as a two-way player by absorbing a less restricted workload — there’s little doubt that he’s sincere in his plans to both resume and sustain his career on the mound. Still, the two-time Tommy John club remains a relatively unexplored frontier, especially for starting pitchers.

Even a decade ago, a second surgery often meant the end of your career or permanent bullpen residence for those who made it back. That’s not exactly the case any longer. World Series champ Nathan Eovaldi — a high-velocity arm — has piled up the best years of his career since returning from a second Tommy John in 2018. Starting pitcher Mike Clevinger came back from a second operation ahead of 2022, making 46 starts the past two seasons. And Chicago Cubs starter Jameson Taillon has racked up three full seasons, 476 innings and a free-agent deal since recovering from his second surgery.

Alas, this sample remains vanishingly small, and every single example has complicating details that make an Ohtani comparison next to impossible.

Eovaldi had made it nine years between his two surgeries but has managed only one season in which he eclipsed 150 innings. Clevinger's velocity was down precipitously when he came back in 2022, and he made it only about halfway back to his previous normal in 2023. Taillon revamped his delivery during the rehab process, and while he has stayed healthy, he hasn't performed up to his previous standards. Prior to the second surgery, he notched a 3.67 ERA (12% better than average by park-adjusted ERA+) and 3.55 FIP across 466 MLB innings; since returning, he has a 4.33 ERA (3% worse than average) and 4.31 FIP in 476 innings.

Factor 2: The health risks of pitching

The reality is that many of the highest-profile test cases for a second Tommy John surgery are still in the wilderness of rehab and recovery. Shane McClanahan, Buehler, deGrom and Ohtani are the most decorated arms to attempt this path. Tampa Bay Rays starter Drew Rasmussen, who had two Tommy John surgeries in quick succession prior to making the majors, is now working on coming back from a third major elbow procedure, this one of the internal brace variety.

But even pitchers who don't experience elbow-specific setbacks put themselves through rigorous physical paces every time they take the mound. No one has the magic formula for understanding, much less predicting or preventing, pitching injuries, but studies have connected velocity and injury risk. The harder you throw, the harder it is to stay in the rotation.

Since his 2021 return to the mound, Ohtani’s 96.4 mph average fastball velocity ranks eighth among starters who have thrown at least 1,500 fastballs. Only 28 pitchers, out of 147 who meet the criteria, average 95 mph or more on their heaters. Among that group, durability is the exception, not the rule. Even one of the most notable workhorses on the list, Miami Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, went down in 2023 and required Tommy John surgery.

All of this builds to a logical conclusion: Ohtani’s days as a regular MLB pitcher are numbered. Besides, even in the two-way glory of the past three seasons, his arm was already less impactful than his bat.

In theory, a full season from a starting pitcher involves more opportunities to affect a game than a full season from a designated hitter. Gerrit Cole faced 821 batters in his 33 starts in 2023, while even the most durable hitters typically top out around 725 plate appearances (Marcus Semien led baseball with a remarkable 753 last season).

In practice, though, Ohtani is accumulating more value on the hitting front. Here’s how the breakdown looked the past three seasons.

Since 2021:

Batting: 1,904 plate appearances, 157 wRC+, 15.5 FanGraphs WAR

Pitching: 1,724 batters faced, 151 ERA+, 10.9 FanGraphs WAR

Now, admittedly, different WAR models view that split differently — it’s basically even at Baseball-Reference — but all of them include the basic fact of a positional adjustment that dings Ohtani for slotting into the lineup as a designated hitter most days (and thus not contributing on the field). That said, given his speed and general athleticism, it feels like a safe bet that a healthy Ohtani who wasn’t preparing to pitch every sixth day could play the outfield, perhaps in a very valuable way.

What his career looks like going forward, however, includes one known layoff from pitching and the obvious risk for more. If you view the split of his entire MLB career thus far, it looks like this.

Full MLB career:

Batting: 2,871 plate appearances, 146 wRC+, 19.9 FanGraphs WAR

Pitching: 1,951 batters faced, 142 ERA+, 11.8 FanGraphs WAR

Ohtani’s hitting results, on a rate basis, have been slightly more spectacular than his pitching results, and he has been able to execute that side of his game far more frequently.

That, in a nutshell, plants the seeds of speculation — in what is otherwise a vacuum of information about Ohtani — that he will someday give up one side of his game and that it will be the pitching. That's what logic dictates, and it's what several team executives speaking to the Athletic's Ken Rosenthal predicted earlier this week.

“I think he will come back. I think he will pitch very, very successfully for a period of time,” an AL executive said. “What I need to understand is, what is his desire to pitch? How long does he want to pitch? Nez is going to say one thing. But at the root of it, I think this guy’s a hitter. I think that’s what he loves. I don’t know how long he wants to pitch and how long he can successfully continue to do that.”

Factor 3: The utterly unique circumstances of Ohtani

The completely unfamiliar math that applies to Ohtani and no one else is this: The next time he encounters a roadblock to pitching, will he choose to endure the suffering and the absence required to pitch again?

Keep in mind that he won’t begin his next stint on the mound until he is approaching 31 years old. And then, if this free agency lands him on a team that — unlike the Angels — actually competes for postseason glory, he might have competitive considerations that disincentivize surgeries or methodical rehab routines.

While whichever club signs Ohtani will be in his thrall, to some extent, the team will likely also have a breaking point at which it encourages Ohtani to embrace full-time position-player status. If, hypothetically, he maintained roughly his average level of performance with the bat and on the bases but gave up pitching and took up right field, his overall value would not take the hit you might expect. Simply by standing in right field and grading out as an average defender, Ohtani’s WAR over roughly a full season would figure to increase by at least one win per season, likely more. If that coincides with an ability to remain in the lineup and remain aggressive on the bases, he could rack up MVP-caliber 7-to-9-WAR seasons without pitching.

And if Ohtani exceeds expectations by either improving as a hitter with more time to focus on the craft and/or proving to be a good fielder, the apex example isn't that difficult to envision. It's something like Aaron Judge's historic 2022 campaign, the only one to top Ohtani for MVP during his two-way tour de force.

That two-way run lasted three seasons before his elbow gave out this time. The next one will occur while Ohtani is in his 30s and possibly in a totally different set of team circumstances. No one should doubt his will or his capacity to defy expectations, yet the chances of the full-throttle two-way experience lasting longer on the second go-around can’t be more than a toss-up.

If forced to set such an expectation, three more years — 2025 through 2027 — feels like an appropriate (and impressive) horizon for reevaluation. If Ohtani bounces back from this surgery in similar fashion to his first one, he will throw somewhere between 350 and 500 innings. If he handles things a bit more conservatively or encounters more smaller interruptions with an aging arm, perhaps 300 innings is the total.

And if any of those innings come at the expense of an MVP-level hitter? Well, that’s when Ohtani’s bat and athletic ability, the prospect of witnessing his all-around talents in a more conventional form, become the greatest obstacles to finding out how long he could stretch out his pitching career.

At that point, though, we would have to recognize the quandary as a gift, a sign that his already unbelievable feats have shocked and delighted the baseball world twice over.