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THE HOT CORNER: Protecting arms for the future

by Jim Allen (Dec 16, 2010)

Baseball people are fond of saying one can never have enough pitching. Given that star pitchers are vulnerable to career-threatening elbow and shoulder injuries, there is good reason for this bit of conventional wisdom.

It's no exaggeration to say that if a manager can both develop pitchers and keep them healthy, his team is a good bet to succeed for several years. Indeed, the Atlanta Braves dynasty of the 1990s was founded on the consistent year-in, year-out performance of starters Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.

When the 2003 Fukuoka Daiei Hawks won the Pacific League behind a rotation core of Kazumi Saito (20-3), Tsuyoshi Wada (14-5), Toshiya Sugiuchi (10-8) and Nagisa Arakaki (8-7), they appeared to have the baseball world on a platter.

Half of that quartet, however, has since fallen on hard times. Saito was finished in 2007 at the age of 29. Arakaki hasn't won a PL game since 2008, when he was 28.

So what is being done to prevent today's young pitchers from washing out early? Japan's answer has been to follow the U.S. example.

After young major league pitchers began dropping like flies in the 1970s, clubs began adopting a five-man rotation to give pitchers an extra day of rest.

In 1989, analyst Craig Wright and pitching coach Tom House published "The Diamond Appraised," which analyzed this issue in some depth. Wright concluded that high pitch counts by young pitchers contributed to shortened careers. Wright believed the five-man rotation did not prevent injuries because pitch counts remained unchecked.

The influence of Wright's ideas in regard to pitch counts gradually spread through the major leagues and to Japan.

A few years ago, a Japanese manager who lifted an effective starter after eight innings would have been greeted by a postgame media inquisition. Writers and editors nurtured on the cult of the complete game, offered managers little slack if a pitcher was prevented from going the distance.

But now, when Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara says he goes to the bullpen because of a starter's pitch count, reporters nod their heads in knowing agreement and move on to the next topic.

The change in attitude has been gradual, and probably has much to do with the new status of the bullpen. It's no longer just the closer, as evidenced by the fact that Dragons middle reliever Takuya Asao finished second in this year's Central League MVP voting.

Hara, of course, is not the only skipper to have bought into the idea that monitoring pitch counts is the way to go, since high totals have dropped across the board here over the past 15 years. In 1996, 4 percent of starts resulted in 150-plus pitches. This year, the figure was 0.5 percent.

Baseball men here and in the States are converging on the idea that preventing extremes is a good thing in games, but the subject of what happens in practice remains a hot-button issue.

Japanese pitchers have bridled when major league clubs have prohibited the marathon bullpen sessions (nagekomi) that are a tradition here. In 2009, Daisuke Matsuzaka slammed the Boston Red Sox's ban on nagekomi.

After Chiba Lotte won this year's Japan Series, reports appeared that part of the Marines' success came from nagekomi, accusing former manager Bobby Valentine of having banned the practice--something he himself vehemently denies.

"When a pitcher is far enough along [in spring training] and his balance and core strength are sufficient, I don't have a problem with nagekomi," Valentine said Sunday by telephone.

"I'm not for it or against it."

As for pitch counts in games, Valentine says observing a pitcher's mechanics is far more critical to protecting his arm than relying on a number.

"What you want are coaches who understand what they're seeing [from the pitcher] and that they apply common sense," Valentine said. "Improper mechanics leads to fatigue."

By depending on a number, it allows a coach who misses signs that his pitcher is losing it to say afterward that his man's pitch count was still low.

"Pitch counts are the protect-your-ass part of the balance," Valentine said.


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