Hitoki Iwase reached a relief milestone a week ago when he became the third pitcher to save 250 games in Japan. Although he doesn't throw extremely hard and didn't become Chunichi's closer until he was 29, Iwase is a sign of good things to come in Japan.
Dragons pitching coach Shigekazu Mori said Saturday that Japanese teams have long considered closers to be perishable goods, effective for three years before they need to be replaced.
Yet, Iwase is different.
"He has back and neck trouble, and has had to learn to take extreme care of his body on and off the field," Mori told The Hot Corner on Saturday.
On Tuesday, the 35-year-old equaled Kazuhiro Sasaki's 252 domestic saves. Shingo Takatsu leads Nippon Professional Baseball's list with 286. Sasaki also saved 129 major league games for the Seattle Mariners, while Takatsu saved 27 for the Chicago White Sox.
Adding Japan and American totals, Sasaki leads the pack with 366, Takatsu is next with 313 and Iwase third with 252. Masahide Kobayashi, who saved six games for the Cleveland Indians, has 234.
Japan's best closers have been a grab bag: one-year wonders, converted starters who are solid for a few seasons, brilliant young men who flame out early and late comers who prove remarkably consistent. What you don't see yet are pitchers having careers like those of the best relievers in the States.
Major League Baseball's all-time leader is Trevor Hoffman, with 596 saves. Hoffman began closing when he was 24 and has had nine seasons with 40 or more saves.
Closers' careers here have lagged behind because of Japan's former quixotic obsession with complete games--something that has gradually fallen by the wayside.
Sure, managers still face media questioning after yanking a starting pitcher, but it no longer provokes outraged inquisitions. These days a manager can satisfy questions by saying he was sticking to his plan or that the starter had thrown a lot of pitches even if his total barely broke 100.
As the culture of closing develops here, teams will gradually learn how to keep their big bullpen guns healthy longer, and elite relievers will eventually begin to have careers like those in the majors.
Iwase, who has been at the top of his game since 2005, is an indication that things are getting better in Japan's bullpens.
One positive change is a move away from having relievers throw in the bullpen every day. One team after another is allowing relievers to opt out or perform more oversight.
"It depends on how each individual feels," Mori, a reliever during his playing days, said. "If he pitched the day before or feels something wrong, he won't throw. I'm not in the bullpen during the game, but the bullpen coach and I talk constantly and monitor each pitcher.
"Iwase knows his body so well that he knows when it's OK to throw and when it isn't."
Brian Warren, who relieved for the Chiba Lotte Marines from 1998-2000, said that when he arrived, relievers threw long bullpen sessions every day. Then-manager Koji Yamamoto, however, exempted Warren and before long the task became optional for others. Yasuhiko Yabuta has said he and his teammates continued to throw every day, but a safety net was in place. Marines pitchers could potentially opt out.
When Hiroshima Carp closer Katsuhiro Nagakawa had American manager Marty Brown keeping watch, he was effective for four seasons. It is probably a coincidence, but with Brown managing elsewhere this season, Nagakawa has dropped off the radar screen.
No team would benefit more from a more enlightened approach than the Hanshin Tigers. Three of the four best relief seasons over the past 25 years belong to Kyuji Fujikawa, but whatever efforts the Tigers have made to protect his future are failing.
Last season was Fujikawa's worst as a closer and 2010 has been a step down from that. He's still hard to hit, but the steady decline should be a clue to the Tigers that something is wrong. Hanshin is usually the last to figure anything out, so by the time the Tigers change their stripes, things will be right in bullpens around the country.