As the season heats up — or cools down, for some teams — career longevity becomes a point of concern. Over the last week, it was revealed that two young pitching prospects, Shohei Ohtani and Michael Kopeck of the Angels and White Sox, have substantial UCL tears in their elbows that will require surgical repair.
The UCL is the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. The UCL is responsible for stabilizing the elbow, which is especially important when throwing 90+ mph or throwing 90+ pitches every five days. Fortunately for pitchers, there is a operation named “Tommy John” that has seemed to be a miracle surgery of sorts, as many pitchers have done the surgery and never had a UCL issue again in their career.
Ohtani has been playing at the major league all season, pitching and hitting for the Angels. It was thought earlier in the season that Ohtani would have to have Tommy John to repair his tear, but he rehabbed and came back to play some more.
Last week, Ohtani’s tear was diagnosed again and Tommy John was recommended by doctors to repair it. So, naturally, the Angels shut him down for the season – right? No. Actually, he played in their game just a couple hours later and hit TWO HOME RUNS. Ohtani’s hitting prowess may actually be the biggest roadblock to his pitching career. If he continues to hit at the caliber he has this season, the Angels may move to make him their long-term DH or an outfielder.
Ohtani is hitting .287 this year with 19 HR and 50 RBI, which would be a great line for a rookie fielder, especially when considering that Ohtani will only have played in a little over half of this season’s games.
It will be interesting what the Angels decide to do.
They are out of the playoff race for this year, so, on the surface, shutting Ohtani down seems like it would be the smart thing to do, unless you’re going to change his career projection and just make him a hitter.
The White Sox also have a young stud pitcher and a big decision to make. Michael Kopech, their No. 1 prospect, was also diagnosed with a UCL tear last week. Kopech is a very young guy who throws very hard. He has regularly ticked 100 mph in his journey to the MLB and has said in interviews that his goal is to throw 110 in an MLB start. That’s a lot of force to exert on an elbow, so it makes sense that he’s already done the damage.
The initial projection is that Kopech will have Tommy John and be out the remainder of this season as well as all of the next. It will be interesting to see how the White Sox handle this amongst their “rebuilding” effort. With their No. 1 player down, will they change the plan? I guess that depends on if they even have a plan in the first place. Unfortunately, for the other half of Chicago baseball fans, no one is sure what that plan looks like.
It’s unfortunate to see young guys struggle with these injuries, but it is part of the game. Kopech will be back in the bigs pitching, and it remains to be seen how well he’ll come back and if he’ll ever reach his potential. Ohtani has put the Angels in a very different boat. They already have a player they know can hit very well. Does fixing his elbow so he can pitch potentially hurt his hitting abilities?
Only time will tell how both sides will handle it. Either way, these guys should be top-shelf stars in the MLB in a few seasons.