It had long been a fundamental tenet of the Japanese game that baseball players should practice longer and harder than their counterparts in the U.S. Introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by visiting American professors , besuboru or yakyuu (field ball) as it is also known, was heavily influenced by the Japanese martial arts with their emphasis on endless training and development of spirit. An integral part of preseason practice were drills that forced a player to his limit like the 1,000 fungo drill, which took two to three hours, and nagekomi where a pitcher threw until he couldn't throw anymore. These drills built stamina and confidence but there was also zen element to these exercises: It was necessary to wear a player out to strengthen his fighting spirit, to teach him that he can do more than he thinks he is capable. In this way were players born who performed great feats.
Two of Japan's top pitchers in history , Kazuhisa Inao and Hiroshi Gondo bore enormous workloads. Inao, who pitched for the Nishitetsu Lions in the 1950's and 1960's, averaged nearly 350 innings a year over his first eight seasons in the game. He had won 30 games three times and 42 in 1961. In the 1958 Japan Series, he had pitched in six of seven games, and this after appearing in 18 of 25 contests down the stretch. He had inspired a saying, "Kamisama, Hoteksama and Inao sama. (God, Buddha and Inao). Gondo, for his part, won 35 games in his rookie season 1960, for the Chunichi Dragons pitching a record 429 innings, and followed that with 30 wins the following year. His heroics gave rise to a poetic mantra of his own, Gondo, Gondo, Ame, Gondo, Ame, Ame, Gondo, Ame, Gondo Ame. (Ame-pronounced "ah-may" means rain). But, Inao was finished as a full time starter in 1964 at the age of 26 and Gondo was out of baseball in 1965 at age 25, both with damaged arms.
But neither complained.
"Many times my arm and fingers ached with pain, " Gondo recalled, "But I could not refuse my manager's request. the manger wanted me to pitch and I could not say no."
"Heart is the most important thing," said Inao, rejecting the suggestion that he was overworked.
In the early 1980's Choji Murata, an overworked ace pitcher for the Lotte Orions, busted a ligament and traveled to Los Angeles to become the first Japanese to undergo Tommy John surgery, courtesy of famed surgeon Doctor Frank Jobe. In a subsequent series of interviews with the Japanese media lectured Japanese pitchers and pitching coaches on overthrowing in games and practice. "The human arm is not a piece of rubber," he said, referring to Murata's habit (and the habit of many of many other Japanese hurlers) of throwing 100 pitches everyday on the sidelines, "It was not designed to throw a baseball and must have 3 to 4 days rest after pitching a nine inning game of 100 pitches or more."
As Japan began to produce MLB stars-starting with Hideo Nomo in 1995 and become more familiar with the US way of doing things, pressure arose to reexamine the traditional system of throwing hundreds of pitches a day and pushing players to the point of physical collapse. As a result, things began to change.
Now, it is not unusual for Japanese starting pitchers to throw once a week and often go light on practice in between during the season (although nagekomi-marthon pitching to build stamina, confidence, fighting spirit and refine control) is still popular in spring camp and pitch counts during the season are not nearly as restrictive as they are in MLB.
Says Itaru Kobayshi, general manager of the 2014 Japan Champion Softbank Hawks, "Our starters now only throw 40 to 50 pitches in practice between starts. Sadaharu Oh, our honorary chairman, thinks our pitchers should throw a lot more in training than they do. But most of the younger generations believe more in science than spirit,"
A number of high schools have also instituted pitch counts both in games and in practice Softbank's Kobayashi, "We drafted a pitcher in 2012-he was our second round pick- who had never thrown over 100 pitches in his life, either in a game or in practice. The coaches had to push him to do it. "
Now, ironically, it is Japanese who are now giving advice to Americans.
In the past five years MLB teams have lost more than $1 billion due to highly paid pitchers being on the DL. Last year, according to one end-of-season survey, one out of every three current MLB pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery. In 2014, there was a record number of such TJ operations necessitated by ligament damage. This was far in excess of what the NPB experienced.
When Masahiro Tanaka went on the DL in July with a partially torn UCL the America media focused on Pitcher Abuse Points from the 160 pitch games Tanaka pitched in Japan and Tanaka's overuse of the split-fingered fastball in MLB. The split-finger is notoriously hard on the elbow and Tanaka threw it twice as often as he threw it in Japan.
However, Yu Darvish stepped forward to argue that, in this case, it was the American system that was the cause of the problem. In an interview with reporters at the All-Star game in Minneapolis that occupied the entire front page of Japan's popular Nikkan Sports and was prominently featured in other Japanese sports dailies, Darvish said that the root of Tanaka's arm troubles was not throwing the splitter or throwing too much in Japan but having to switch from throwing once a week to pitching once every five days.
He wasn't getting proper rest, said Darvish, that was the main cause. "Four days rest is too short," he said, "You need at least five to heal the inflammation. With six days rest you can also pitch longer into the game. 120 - 140 pitches is not unreasonable." He added that he thought the change-up and the forkball were harder on the arm than the split finger.
Darvish himself missed the last two months of the 2014 season with arm trouble.
Shortly after that, a Japanese orthopedic surgeon Daisuke Nakai opined to the Wall Street Journal that Americans have bad mechanics. "Americans count on upper body strength to propel the ball," he said in a video interview, "whereas Japanese who sometimes aren't as strong, use their entire bodies, including their legs, reducing strain on the arms."
Koji Uehara, whose money pitch is the split finger, echoed that view in an interview with the Tokyo Broadcasting System saying, "All breaking pitches put a strain on the elbow. It's a question of form, of using the entire body."
For many Japanese, this is an interesting turn of events. As a reporter for the evening tabloid Yukan Fuji, Osamu Nagatani put it "If Darvish had made his remarks several years ago, he would have been roundly condemned by both Japan and US media" for being so outspoken. For many years now, the American system of using starting pitchers-roughly 100 pitch limits followed by four days of rest was thought to be the last word.. But now, with this outbreak of damaged ligaments, maybe the American approach isn't so great after all. Maybe Japan knows better."
There are, in fact, a growing number of Americans with knowledge of or experience in Japan who are willing to argue the value of the Japanese approach. In an article appearing earlier this year on the website Sports On Earth, entitled "The Joys of the Six-Man Rotation", former MLB pitcher Brian Bannister who played briefly in Japan praised the "extended recovery cycle" for pitchers in Japanese ball with its characteristic six days of rest, its accompanying massages and its practice of long, leisurely soaks in alternating hot and cold water. Bannister also lauded the pregame warm up system in NPB as better than that of the Americans, saying "The standard practice session and pregame dynamic warmup in Japan is extremely thorough in both duration and number of unique motions....this makes sure the body is warm and stretched out prior to throwing.
He further praised the weight training approach of the Japanese which avoids "beach muscle" bodies by focusing on a balance of the muscle development."
However, it should also be noted that despite these changes in the Japanese approach to baseball, the old way has not exactly disappeared. There is still a tension between the traditional ways of doing things and more modern approaches, particularly in high school baseball.
U.S. media gave extensive exposure to high schooler Tomohiro Anraku, who threw 772 pitches in nine days at the spring version of the national high school tournament held at Koshien Stadium in Kobe, a year ago, labeling it 'child abuse' in some quarters. But that is routine for the annual spring and summer tournaments where it is commonplace for ace pitches to throw four complete games in four days as the tournament reaches climax.
Glenn S. Flesig, research director at the American Sports Institute in Alabama, who, among others things, said "100 - 200 pitches a day is far too much for adolescent and adult pitchers. Compare it to smoking.
(The rules for the California Interscholastic Federation limit game pitches to 130 per week, with recommendations that a pitcher who throws 76 pitches be required to rest for a minimum of four days.)
The problem in Japan, however, is that the media and the public in Japan glorify Koshien style demonstrations of fighting spirit as heroic, so few high school teams have limits on pitching. The summer tournament, in which teams emerging victorious from the 49 prefectural elimination tournaments, meet in a single-elimination tournament lasting two weeks to determine the national championship. It is Japan's version of the NCAA basketball tournament. Supporters of this system complain that cutting back on training and instituting strict American-style pitch counts would take away what is special and unique about the Japanese game which centers on discipline self-sacrifice, perseverance and team spirit.
Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance in the 1998 Koshien summer tournament is considered one of the greatest feats in the history of Japanese sports. He pitched 250 pitches in 17 innings, following a 148 pitch performance the previous day. Then two days later he pitched a complete game no-hitter to lead his team to victory.
Equally revered was the performance of Yuki Saito in the 2006 summer tourney: Saito threw 948 pitches in 69 innings to bring his school a championship, defeating archrival (and future Yankee) Masahiro Tanaka in the final game. Without such displays of endurance and suffering, you will hear, the Koshien tourney would simply not be the same.
In fact, Matsuzaka was recently quoted as saying that he personally enjoyed throwing as many as 200 pitches a day in high school and that it didn't hurt him at all-although he does now say that he thinks it is important for coaches and mangers to take control and educate the players on how much the body can withstand. Matsuzaka's high school pitching coach still makes his pitchers throw more than 100 pitches a day in practice-everyday of the year. "If a student's motion is flawless," he said, "then it's not a strain on the body." At Komzawa High School in Tokyo, a major schoolboy power, pitchers are expected to throw 200 pitches every other day of the year.
This way of thinking still exists In the pro ranks. Newly appointed manager of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Dave Okubo, a devotee of the 1,000 fungo drill, and other aspects of the traditional Japanese system, says that the American obsession with pitch counts is a bad thing. Interestingly, while Bobby Valentine, who initially opposed the Japanese system during his early years as a manager with the Chiba Lotte Marines, eventually came to allow high pitch counts and nagekomi, in camp, if a pitcher's core mechanics and conditioning were in top form, in subsequent years coaching in Japan. In the spring of 2014, a number of NPB pitchers threw nagekomi sessions in camp that would make American coaches wince. Among them were Daisuke Miura of Yokohama who threw 311 pitches on February 16 in camp and Takuma Achira of Chunichi, who threw 341 on February 25. (That same spring infielder Takahiro Kakizawa passed out while undergoing a 1,000 fungo drill and required a cardiac massage from a trainer.) A Yomiuir Giants infielder swung the bat 2,044 times during one eight hour session.
Said Shigetoshi Hasegawa, the former Angel and Mariners pitcher, "Honestly, Japanese guys have better mechanics than Americans," he said, "You know why? Because they throw (so) many balls. If you don't have good mechanics, you're done."
How this will all play out remains to be seen. In youth baseball, for example, many Japanese coaches, players and doctors have come to support the placing limits on pitching. The Japanese Society for Clinical Sports and Medicine, for example, has, since 1995, recommended limits of no more than 50 pitches a day for Japanese 11-12 year olds and 200 pitches a week (although it is not clear how many Little League coaches actually follow them). This compares unfavorably to rules in the U.S. limiting 11-12 year olds to 75 pitches per game and 100 per week.
Officials of Japan's High School Baseball Federation, which oversees the enormously popular annual summer Koshien high school baseball championship, says they are now considering whether to introduce such measures as pitch counts, and perhaps, take steps to limit long extra-inning games, but a nationwide survey conducted in mid-2014 revealed most fans and participants prefer high school baseball just the way it is.
Tradition dies hard and so it seems that for the foreseeable future, the old and the new will continue to run on parallel courses.
It has been scientifically proven that the more pitches a pitcher throws over the count of 100, the less effective he is...I believe the reason there are so many TJ surgeries is that pitchers these days are throwing each pitch as hard as they possibly can.
Masumi Kuwata , the former Yomiuri Giants pitching star who played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of his career. The 5' 9" Kuwata was a high school star who led his team PL Gakuen to five appearances at Koshien during the early 1980's, winning the title twice, and twice pitching four complete games in four days. "I'm not a big guy so I had to conserve my arm, both in games and in practice," he told me at a dinner last year, "If the manager ordered me to throw 200-300 pitches in a day after school, as he sometimes did, I would not always do it. At times, I would go off behind the gym and relax then come back a couple of hours and tell him I was finished. That's how I survived high school. Of course, on my first day in camp with the Giants, I was told to throw 300 pitches and I had to do it, Everyone was watching."
Kuwata is among those in Japan who supports introducing pitch limits as soon as possible. He suggests schools adopt a system whereby a sophomore can only pitch up to five innings a game, a junior six and a senior seven.
"The key to doing nagekomi," said Masanori Murakami, who pitched for both the SF Giants and Nankai Hawks "is not to throw at full speed every pitch and limit the number breaking pitches that put a strain on the elbow."
U.S. baseball experts are not sure what is driving this latest run of injuries. Some say it is because more youth are playing yearround. Many others say it is because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. There have been subsequent calls for new measures to cope like the implementation of a 10-man rotation and the use of advanced medical technology to monitor health, such as handheld ultra sound imagers and portable MRI's to measure physical wear and tear on a pitcher's arm between innings.
MOVE? Of course, there are veteran Hall of Fame pitchers like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Gregg Maddux who eschewed pitch counts and maintain that modern day MLB pitchers are babied and should be pushed to throw more so as to strengthen their arms.
Seaver threw on three days rest his entire career and completed approximately half of his starts during his prime, while Ryan once threw 259 pitches in a game, 242 in another and 235 on yet another occasion. He also liked to throw batting practice between starts.
Maddux had a habit of throwing a complete simulated game on the sidelines between starts. All three pitched into their 40's, hardly ever went on the DL and won 300 career games. "If you set limits," Ryan was quoted as saying, "you lower people's ceilings."
Equally important, some would say, all three had superb body mechanics., unlike say Steven Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale Others argue that the Seavers and the Madduxes and the Ryans are special individuals, the exceptions to the rule and that most pitchers who attempt to copy them will only wind up hurting their arms.
In the Rakuten Golden Eagles month long autumn camp, which began November 1, with dawn to dusk workouts and evening practice indoors, new manger Dave Okubo instituted something called the 15 minute drill. Batters have to stand in against two BP pitchers, who alternate, delivering a ball every 2 seconds for the 15 minute period. The batters are exhausted by the end (and I imagine the coaches who have to do the throwing as well). I wonder how the MLBer's would feel about doing something like that. Okubo also said he is a big fan of the 1,000 fungo drill and promised regime of no days off for the coming year.