Baseball: AL Rookie of Year talk reignited as Ohtani set to pitch

Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, pegged as an early contender for American League Rookie of the Year honors prior to an elbow injury in June, has reignited the debate with news of his scheduled return to the mound on Sunday.

The 24-year-old Los Angeles Angels rookie will start in the finale of his team’s four-game series on the road against the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros, likely with a tightly restricted pitch count.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he is «very excited» to see Ohtani making his first pitching appearance since June 6, but also tempered expectations for the hurler coming back from a Grade 2 sprain in his ulnar collateral ligament.

«Obviously, I don’t know if we could put those expectations that we had for Shohei when he really hit stride (on) what he’s going to come out and do for Sunday,» Scioscia was quoted as saying in U.S. media. «Hopefully, he’s going to get back to that.»

Though Ohtani has been used as a designated hitter since returning from the DL on July 3, blasting nine of his 15 home runs in that time, his Rookie of the Year chances have dwindled to some extent due to his long absence from pitching.

«Ohtani is very likely the underdog,» national baseball reporter Jon Heyman wrote in a column following news of the upcoming start.

While award favorites Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, both infielders for the New York Yankees, have mounted impressive but conventional rookie campaigns, Heyman writes, Ohtani is «an all-time talent» whose «amazing and historic» success as both a starting pitcher and power hitter in the majors is worthy of special consideration.

«Ohtani has been brilliant in both roles, even though in some sense they’ve both been cameo roles, thanks to the unfortunate injury.»

In his nine starts, Ohtani has gone 4-1 with a 3.10 ERA. He has until Thursday batted .275 with 43 RBIs after making plate appearances in 79 games this season.

If Ohtani had continued the same levels of offensive and defensive production over more games, Ken Davidoff recently opined in the New York Post, he would be the league’s runaway favorite for the prestigious award.

«Instead, Ohtani’s time on the disabled list and the Angels’ careful handling of him have turned this into a three-horse race,» Davidoff writes.

Considering the team’s midseason skid out of playoff contention, perhaps an abundance of caution with a franchise player like Ohtani is to be expected. Some in U.S. media have even suggested that the risk of putting Ohtani back on the mound this year outweighs any possible benefit.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler defended the decision in an interview with the Orange County Register.

«All of the medical data, all of the physical data…Everything has pointed to him being cleared,» Eppler said of Ohtani, who received stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injections for his elbow.

«When that ligament is good, you let pitchers pitch. Him finishing the season on the mound is a benefit to the player and the organization.»

Jim Bowden, a former general manager for the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals, pointed out in a television appearance that if ligament-replacement surgery is ultimately necessary in Ohtani’s case, it would be better for him to undergo the procedure and begin the lengthy recovery process during the offseason rather than next April.

«(The Angels) are not in the race, but they need to find out — can they count on him in the rotation next year?» Bowden said on CBS.

«One thing is for sure, (Ohtani) is in the Rookie of the Year race. He’s got five weeks to win the award. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can do it,» he added.

All — Kyodo News+

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