Thursday, August 24, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 24, 2023 -- "The Sho"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: The Sho
Vol. 15, No. 88
August 24, 2023

Wednesday in Anaheim, Shohei Ohtani walked to the mound and retired the side in order, striking out Matt McLain and Elly De La Cruz on splitters for the second and third outs of the first. A few minutes later, he stepped to the plate and hit a 442-foot homer to give the Angels a 2-0 lead.

It’s become almost routine, these twin displays of baseball excellence, the kind of thing that was rare and fluky just seven years ago. A Madison Bumgarner or Adam Wainwright might run into one now and again, and we’d enjoy the rarity, laugh at the unexpected. It was a thrill, just not one we took all that seriously, the kind of unusual moment that spices up the 187 days of a baseball season.

Ohtani changed all that.

Do you remember the first time? The Angels were careful with him as a rookie, remember, and then an elbow injury kept him off the mound for the better part of 2 1/2 years. Everything changed on April 4, 2021, a pleasant spring evening in Anaheim, the ESPN crew in for Sunday Night Baseball. Joe Maddon did something no AL or NL manager had done in a century, penciling in Ohtani in the second spot as his starting pitcher.

Two batters into the first, Ohtani threw one of those splitters, just like he did yesterday, and got Adam Eaton to swing over it on 2-2 for his first strikeout. Minutes later, Ohtani jumped on a first-pitch fastball by Dylan Cease and hit it 451 feet. A strikeout, then a homer, a few minutes apart on the clock, a few boxes from each other on your scorecard.

Ohtani made his major-league debut in 2018, but The Sho opened on that night in Anaheim. 

Ohtani would repeat the feat five times, including my favorite ones just a couple of months ago. On June 27 against the White Sox, Ohtani struck out two batters in the top of the first, then homered in the bottom of the frame. A couple of hours later, in the seventh, he did it again, striking out Andrew Vaughn for the first out, then after being relieved, hitting a solo shot in the bottom of the inning. 

These innings, four of them just this season, are the purest distillation of watching Shohei Ohtani. To strike out a major league hitter, or to hit a homer in a major league game, is the peak moment of thousands of baseball players’ lives, and the childhood dream of a hundred million more. For Ohtani, doing both was a Tuesday. 

So I hope you saw him do it yesterday, wipe out two good hitters with that devastating split, then hit his league-leading 44th homer, because it may be the last time we get to see it for a while. Shortly after that blast landed, Ohtani walked off the Angels Stadium mound with a trainer. Late Wednesday night, the Angels announced that Ohtani has a tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament, and while he can still hit -- he was the DH in the second game of the doubleheader -- he will not pitch for the rest of the 2023 season. 

Will Carroll, in his Under the Knife newsletter, was optimistic about Ohtani’s future as a pitcher:

“The course this takes will certainly affect Ohtani’s value on the open market. If a revision or even repair is needed, Ohtani might not pitch through the 2024 season. That would make him functionally just a DH, but Aaron Judge did pretty well with his free agency last off-season. Add in that Tommy John (if needed) is predictable, even in revision, and that Ohtani is likely to pitch again, at a high level, wherever he signs, if not before 2025.”

(This edition of UTK is up free for everyone.)

So maybe there are more of those magical innings ahead of us, those moments when one man could say “here it is, hit it” and a few minutes later, launch a ball over the “hit it here” sign. I hope Will is right, that come 2025 this beautiful baseball player will be throwing those splitters and socking those dingers the way he has the last three years. 

An intermission is one thing. I’m not ready for The Sho to end.