Pitchers throw a lot.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it’s kind of in the job description.
But there have been a lot of back-and-forth arguments about how many pitches young baseball players should be limited to as they are growing and honing their craft, with varied results on how an excess of throwing in their youth can affect those players and their arms later on in life. There is very little argument, however, that young Japanese pitchers throw a lot more than hurlers on this side of the globe.
Last April, Jeff Passan wrote this article on the topic of cultural convictions in baseball in Japan, and how some examples of the overusage of young arms are more analogous to child abuse than being a part of the game.
“This week at Koshien, the twice-a-year national high school baseball tournament that is to Japan what the World Series is to American baseball fans, a 16-year-old boy named Tomohiro Anraku threw 772 pitches,” Passan wrote. “During the final game Wednesday, Anraku, whose fastball reached 94 mph earlier in the tournament, labored to crack 80. It was his third consecutive day starting a game and his fourth in five days, and those came after his first start of the tournament, in which he threw 232 pitches over 13 innings.”
Even for those unfamiliar with the particulars of baseball, I’m sure you can tell that is a lot. Those numbers are large. Currently the standard in Major League Baseball is to have starting pitchers throw only once every five days in a game situation, with side throwing sessions in between. On the day of a start, those starters are often limited to pitch counts of somewhere around 100 pitches, give or take 10 or even 20, depending on the situation and how the game is going.
On Friday, a young Canadian high schooler threw 157 pitches over 11 innings in a tight game – obviously, it went into extras – at the Mickey Mantle World Series. My immediate reaction was, “WHY DID YOU THROW SO MANY PITCHES?” I can’t believe his arm didn’t fall off, really.
Admittedly, I don’t know what it’s like. I have never played in games as important as that one was to that player and the rest of his team. I’ve never been in a situation where anything was really on the line for any of the squads I played for. My team’s biggest tournament took place just across the border in Buffalo, New York and I’m pretty sure the only reason we came close to advancing was because of some technicality that knocked another team out of qualifying for the next round of play at the Disney World complex in Orlando. And we still didn’t make it.
It’s easy for me to say that those young players will have more important championships ahead of them – maybe even someday playing with a World Series on the line at the game’s highest level – and that they shouldn’t push too hard now for what it might take away later. But what if this is it for some of those guys? If any of those players are as good as I was – I wasn’t terrible – their high school playing days might be the end of their careers on the diamond.
Earlier this season, I spoke to Stanford freshman and Pac-12 Rookie of the Year Cal Quantrill about a similar situation on the Road to Omaha, as his team fought for a College World Series berth. The Cardinal Opening Day starter threw a complete game against Indiana State on the Friday, allowing just one run on four hits with two walks and six strikeouts. His coaches brought him back out on the Monday in relief against Indiana on just two days’ rest.
“The most important part is [my] arm is perfect and was before the game and after the game, so that’s good,” Quantrill said. “It’s important that people know that this wasn’t forced on me. We had real good talks about it. They were more cautious than I was, absolutely. They asked me, they asked me [again] honestly; they kept trying to figure out how I actually felt.
“None of the coaches are out here to hurt us but at the same time, sometimes people forget how important this is to us. And really, two days’ rest for me – coming from high school and what I’ve been doing the last couple years – wasn’t that bad. I was throwing harder on Monday than I was on Friday.
“Most importantly, the coaches and I had a very open dialogue, Coach [Rusty] Filter, Coach [Mark] Marquess and I, and I was honest with them. I told them what I was able to do that day and we were put in a situation where I was able to come in and close it out, which was a ton of fun. I haven’t relieved in a long time.”
Stanford’s coaching staff made sure to discuss the situation with Quantrill multiple times in multiple ways, in order to make sure that he wouldn’t be hurt and that he wouldn’t be placed in an unwanted situation. But there was never any doubt in the righty’s mind that he was going to be out on that mound again. It was just that important.
“I’m a competitor,” Quantrill said. “You’re never going to hear us say no. They knew ‘yes’ was coming the first time, and then they pushed a little bit to see how I actually felt. But honestly, I was 100 per cent. [With] the training that we’ve put in over the last couple of years, I was ready to do something like that. It was only 2 1/3 [innings] but I could have gone longer actually. It was good. It worked out perfectly and now we’re going to the next round, which is awesome.”
That wasn’t the norm for Quantrill, and the aforementioned 157-pitch performance was an anomaly for that player, and as far as I know, for his team as well. It doesn’t strike me as dangerous in the long term, but it definitely stood out. I don’t know what’s too much or not enough for a player, and I’m not sure the science has figured out what’s what to a completely distinct degree yet either, so I have to concede a lack of knowledge on the topic.
But for me, it was a reminder of one of the probably several differences between baseball in North America and baseball in Japan. I’ve talked to a few players about some of the differences before, but none had such a sense of humour about the dissimilarities and how they might have been negatively affected by them as Chris Leroux, a Montreal-born right-hander currently in the New York Yankees organization. Last year, he pitched for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows before injuring his shoulder and being sent home to rest.
“I loved Japan,” Leroux said. “It was great, the food was good, the living conditions were good; the baseball was different. They’re very talented there, don’t get me wrong, but they just hit single after single after single and I was pulling my hair out on the mound. I would look at the scoreboard and I had given up eight hits and four runs in two innings and I’m thinking, how did that even happen?
“It’s definitely different baseball. You can strike guys out a lot easier here, you can make a good pitch down and they’re going to try to hit a homer instead of just poking it through. Look at Ichiro [Suzuki] or [Munenori] Kawasaki, they hit the exact same way [in Japan], 1 through 9. It was frustrating.”
The Canadian righty also experienced a little bit of Japanese throwing culture, with a significant increase in his workload, though he doesn’t think that’s what did his shoulder in.
“Shoot, I threw a bullpen that was 75 pitches, and my bullpens here are like 20 pitches,” Leroux said. “It’s a lot different. But no [that didn’t affect my shoulder], I was trying to learn a split-finger [fastball] and that put a lot of stress on my arm. Then one split-finger, I felt a pop and just thought, I hope it’s not torn.
“I saw a lot of doctors and then came back home and saw Dr. [James] Andrews and it was just some bad tendinitis. I was pumped [it wasn’t worse]. They sent me home too, which I don’t want to say I loved, but I loved. I came home in the middle of August and just hung out and lived life. I was so excited to be home. I loved Japan but it was so far away from home.”
The distance and time difference were especially hard on Leroux because he is such a people person, and he had limited interaction with everyone he was close to at home while he was gone.
“It was so hard,” Leroux said. “I love my family, I love my friends and I love having people around me. I would think it was harder for me than a lot of people just because I love having people around to talk to. My parents came once and my brother came once with eight friends, which was cool. But other than that, no [visitors].”
Of course, the pitcher was popular with the fans, and with his light hair and bright blue eyes he stood out among the Japanese crowd, though he didn’t always understand their loyalty.
“Tokyo is the best,” Leroux said. “I loved it. I met so many cool people. It’s just tough because I want to say 99 per cent of people have no clue how to speak English. It’s crazy, and [I stood out].
“At one point, I would be walking out of the stadium trying to get to my ride and it was like I’m The Beatles or something. I gave up eight runs that night. They don’t care, they just want to touch you. And then on the other hand, you’ve got a guy like [fellow Canadian and Yomiuri Giants reliever] Scott Mathieson, who is just the best pitcher ever up there. He’s a rock star. Maybe just my style of pitching wasn’t good enough.”
Or maybe it was just different.
I can’t wait to get to Japan and see the differences for myself, but I’m hoping no one on the Canadian Women’s National Team ends up pulling their hair out on the mound. That wouldn’t be ideal.
Expect more on this topic.
Yoi yoru to kauntodaun anata no pitchi o tamotsu (this is me trying to say good night, and keep your pitch counts down, via Google Translate).