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THE HOT CORNER: Rookie watch in full swing

by Jim Allen (Apr 21, 2011)

Much of the fun every spring is seeing how the new guys do. Last autumn, several highly touted pitchers turned pro, and three of them made their debuts this past weekend.

A rookie's debut is the first piece of a puzzle that will, in time, describe his career. When all the pieces are in place, it is tempting to look at the whole picture and think we could have seen how it was destined to turn out from the start.

At the beginning, however, no matter how much scouts may rave about a player, the future is never clear. After all, so many big-name amateurs barely make a dent in their first pro season, and some quality players don't make an impact for years.

As rookies, most players are simply not ready to compete in the Central or Pacific leagues. This is most frequently the case with players coming out of high school. It is a rare teenager who can hold his own with veteran professionals.

In the past 25 years, just two pitchers out of high school won 10 or more games in their first year. Daisuke Matsuzaka won 16 and Masahiro Tanaka 11. One famous rookie prospect, Masumi Kuwata, won 173 career games, but just two in 1986 as a rookie.

A year ago, the marquee rookie was high school pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. After he turned his back on several major league clubs in 2009, six teams named him as their first-round draft pick.

The Saitama Seibu Lions won Kikuchi's rights, signed him and witnessed a media circus descend on their spring camp. Kikuchi, however, was hurt and pitched in just two minor league games all year.

"Last year, there were 30 reporters following him around all spring," the Lions' Jose Fernandez recently told The Hot Corner. "This year, he's invisible."

This year's favorite is Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters righty Yuki Saito. But no matter how poorly Saito pitches this year, it's unlikely he'll ever be invisible.

That's because, like Matsuzaka, Tanaka and Kuwata before him, Saito was a Koshien Stadium superstar in high school.

Daisuke Araki is a great example of how this works. Araki's fame as the ace of Tokyo's Waseda Jitsugyo High School made him a Yakult Swallows icon--despite an injury-plagued pro career that saw him win just 39 games.

Although he has never managed, Araki is always a top candidate to be Yakult's next skipper. He has been a successful pitching coach, but the popularity he won as a teenager is part of the equation.

Saito, too, starred at Waseda Jitsugyo, following not only in Araki's footsteps but those of Sadaharu Oh, as well. Before becoming a legendary power hitter, Oh was a Koshien pitching hero.

The confluence of history, charisma and Saito's epic victory at the 2006 national summer high school tourney made him a household name.

Saito made his pro debut on Sunday. With more polish than pop, he went five innings in a win over the Marines. After his second fastball soared into the stands, Saito kept his heater out of harm's way.

"He got by mixing up his breaking stuff," Fighters skipper Masataka Nashida said. "It was his first game and first win, so I think we can give him full marks."

On Friday in Hiroshima, Yomiuri first-round pick Hirokazu Sawamura allowed two runs in 6-2/2 innings but got no decision after the Giants' bullpen blew a one-run lead in the eighth inning.

Sunday saw Carp righty Yuya Fukui, another top draft choice, win his debut. Saito's Waseda university teammate held the Giants to two runs in seven innings.

Most successful rookie pitchers are like these three, top draft picks out of university or corporate league ball. Of the 31 pitchers with 10 first-year wins since 1986 years, 27 were premium picks.

Another joy of spring is that there are always exceptions to the rule.

One rookie with a chance to buck the trend is the Lions' second-round pick Kazuhisa Makita. A 26-year-old submarine right-hander, Makita made mincemeat of the SoftBank Hawks for 7-1/3 innings last Friday in Fukuoka.

Makita could be the next Shunsuke Watanabe or he could be the next Hayato Nakamura, who threw three shutouts as a rookie in 2001 but finished his career 15-18.

It's still too early to tell about this year's freshman class, but it's going to be fun watching as we see more and more pieces of the puzzle.


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