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THE HOT CORNER: A good time to be Ma-kun

by Jim Allen (Apr 16, 2009)

The times aren't the only things changing. When Masahiro Tanaka completed his second straight start on Tuesday night, Golden Eagles skipper Katsuya Nomura likened the 20-year-old to one of Japan's pitching greats, the late Kazuhisa "Iron arm" Inao.

Six times, Inao led the Pacific League in innings, five times in games and ERA. Four times he led the league in complete games, games finished in relief and wins. It's hard to project anyone having a career like that these days.

As a 19-year-old rookie for the Nishitetsu Lions in 1956, Inao pitched 262-1/3 innings. At that time, the game's core doctrine was still to push players--and starting pitchers in particular--beyond their limits. With runs and home runs at historic lows in the mid-1950s, those limits are almost impossible to comprehend these days.

In 1956, the PL's league ERA was 2.63, the Lions' team ERA 1.87. The Central League ERA was 2.45, the lowest in either league's history. The pitching probably wasn't as good as it is now, but the game favored pitchers. Instead of one bad team in each league, there were usually two or three filled with easy outs.

When the PL reduced its schedule in 1957 from 154 games to 132, Inao started 33 games and relieved in 35. In comparison, Tanaka has started less than a fifth of the Eagles games and relieved once in two seasons.

That doesn't make Nomura's comparison wrong, but it does make it hard to evaluate. That being said, Nomura played against Inao and would know as well as anyone whether Tanaka might develop like Inao.

One of the joys of sports is seeing superior young players and imagining what they might be capable of as they mature. With pitchers, however, this can be an exercise in pessimism.

When Nomura managed the Nankai Hawks and Yakult Swallows, he got tremendous results from young starting pitchers. Few, however, became quality veterans. The exception has been Kazuhisa Ishii. The southpaw was 56-31 in eight seasons before the age of 27, and is 92-77 since.

Compared to him, the Swallows quartet of Tatsuji Nishimura, Kenjiro Kawasaki, Tomohito Ito and Yoichi Okabayashi went a combined 163-125 before hitting the age of 27 and 90-90 after that, including a 6-9 record after the age of 30.

With the skipper's track record in mind, hearing him talk of a young pitcher's prowess is enough to give you the creeps. But while Nomura talks a tough game, he seems as aware as the next guy of the dangers faced by giving pitchers workloads their bodies aren't ready for.

When the majors changed several rules in 1970 to end eight years of pitching domination, one quality young arm after another shattered under workloads that had been normal a decade earlier.

Mark Fidrych, who died Monday, was the poster boy for the epidemic. His career disintegrated after completing 24 games as a 21-year-old in 1976. By the mid-1980s, every major league team had adopted a five-man rotation to combat the problem.

For some reason, Japan went from a system in which an ace was expected to start and relieve to a six-man rotation.

Complete games have not disappeared from the landscape, but recent awareness to potential dangers and the pressure to develop quality bullpens have drastically curtailed high pitch counts.

In 1997, pitchers threw at least 170 pitches 12 times; over the last three seasons, this has happened twice. Starts with 150-169 pitches were six times more frequent in 1997 than in 2008.

In terms of workloads, the most similar recent pitcher to Tanaka is Daisuke Matsuzaka, who also endured some grueling battles in high school and some real excesses under his first pro skipper, Osamu Higashio. Although it is too early to tell about Matsuzaka's future health, Red Sox sources say his first physical with the team showed no signs of damage.

But the kind of pitch counts Matsuzaka endured in 1999 and 2000 are now beyond the fringe, even under Nomura, who has proven able to change with the times.

These attitude adjustments mean we can probably talk about Tanaka's future without worrying too much about whether he'll be healthy enough to pitch past the age of 27.


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