The pitch-count problem: How cultural convictions are ruining Japanese pitchers

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. 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.

When word of Anraku's exploits filtered out from Koshien Stadium, the reaction depended on proximity. Nearby, in the Japanese baseball culture that equates pitch count with superiority, Anraku was a hero. Far away, in an American baseball culture that has seen more elbows and shoulders blow out than ever before, Anraku was the picture of excess. For a man who bridges the societies, Anraku represented something much more unsavory.

"This is child abuse," said Don Nomura, a longtime agent who today advises Yu Darvish. "Where is the guidance? Where are the people looking out for him? Where is his coach?"

Anraku's coach at Saibi High School is a man named Masanori Joko. In an interview with Sankei Newspaper, translated by Japanese journalist Hiroko Abe, he said: "Considering his future, I didn't want him to be overwhelmed. I've been in anguish throughout the tournament."

Certainly Joko understands Anraku is no normal pitcher. Only a handful of 16-year-olds in the world touch 94 on the radar gun. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, and with a year of high school remaining, Anraku is already a favorite of major league scouts, who wonder if he can grow into the next Darvish. His right arm  today is worth millions of dollars, tens millions if he improves, hundreds of millions if it stays healthy.

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Throughout the year, Joko had held off on pitching Anraku excessively, saving him for Koshien. Anraku's last name means comfort, and that is what he represented to Joko: a blanket onto which he could hold tight in a one-and-done tournament that turns teenagers into national stars and coaches into great leaders of men. Joko, then, wasn't about to take this moment from his protégé. If Saibi was going to win, it was going to win with Anraku pitching.

"He's the one who has led the team to the final," Joko said. "I wanted to respect what he wished to do."

Silly though it may seem to consider the wishes of a teenager as anything more than fanciful, Koshien is baseball's Hunger Games. Players find ways to survive. This was not just about fame or team or culture. Tomohiro Anraku chose to pitch again and again for another reason. One for which his arm may pay the ultimate price.

In Japan, there is no greater compliment for a baseball player than to be called Kaibutsu. It translates to Monster. It is reserved for big, strong players who perform at otherworldly levels during Koshien. If you're too handsome or waifish, they'll call you Prince or some other nickname. Monster is special.

This week, the Japanese papers started referring to Tomohiro Anraku as Kaibutsu.

Fifteen years ago, Koshien minted another Kaibutsu. His name was Daisuke Matsuzaka. In his quarterfinal game, he threw 250 pitches over 17 innings. The next day, he pitched in relief. The day after, he threw a no-hitter in the finals. The Seibu Lions chose him with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He spent eight seasons dominating Japanese baseball. The Boston Red Sox paid $103.1 million for six years of Matsuzaka. In the fifth year, at 30 years old, his elbow blew out and required Tommy John surgery. He couldn't make the Cleveland Indians as their fifth starter out of camp this year.

"Almost every talented player throughout the history of Japanese baseball is abused," Nomura said. "Matsuzaka is a great example. He's 32 years old. He should be on top of his career. And he's going to Triple-A."

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There is a sentiment in Japan that goes something like: Eggs thrown at the wall that don't break are called superstars. Pitchers, accordingly, are told to push, push, push – to be that superstar. The regimens of Japanese pitchers are legendarily excessive – hundreds of throws daily, even on off-days – and represent what many in baseball see as the halcyon days before pitch counts infiltrated the game and seemingly had no effect on reducing arm injuries.

It's an agree-to-disagree discourse between the United States and Japan. The Japanese cannot provide any science or data or logic to back up their methods because they don't want any. The sentiment is not that they're superior; it's that if pitchers work hard enough to perfect their mechanics, they will. It's a lot like the 10,000-Hour Rule, only science and data and logic do seem to evince that muscle and tissue and joints and cartilage and ligaments used hour upon hour will indeed break before perfection can be achieved.

"When I was coaching junior high school baseball in the late '80s and early '90s," Nomura said, "I was arguing with the league that we should limit our 14-, 15-year-old kids to 60 pitches and no back-to-back games. They opposed. They said it wouldn't be competitive. I said competition can come from numerous ways. You don't need one ace to throw every game. The reason I won four straight championships is I had four pitchers. By the end, their ace has got nothing, and we're just hitting the crap out of the ball. It makes simple sense. You have more pitchers to go deep into the game.

"Anraku is the same thing. He had nothing. And he's not gonna make it to the pros with how he's abused. It just pisses me off. It's not because I want to sign this kid. You have a very talented athlete, and they're destroying it. This guy can make a living in baseball, and you're basically taking that opportunity away. It's like anything. If you're a singer or artist, you can't abuse your gift. That's the responsibility of adults."

It is impossible to argue with Nomura's points. And yet he cannot counter these truths: Everyone in Japan now knows who Tomohiro Anraku is. They know his arm is strong. They believe his mind is even stronger. Ten days ago, he was a kid from the northwest of Ehime Prefecture. Today, he is a national celebrity, Kaibutsu, Mr. 772, the kid for whom Japanese teams will pay far more money now than they ever would've. And he was able to fulfill his one true wish better than he could have imagined.

Over the nine days of Koshien, Anraku threw 46 innings. The most innings a major league pitcher threw in a single month last season was 48 1/3, by R.A. Dickey in June. The most by a non-knuckleballer: 46, from Hiroki Kuroda, a Japanese starter, who did so on 633 pitches.

Baseball's evolution to a game in which more than 120 pitches from a starter connotes danger and managers carry 13 pitchers on a 25-man roster is a direct reaction to an unsolved mystery: the arm. We know how it breaks. We still don't know why it breaks or when it's going to break or what is going to break. There is no greater mystery in sports than the arm.

It's why last year baseball hemorrhaged more than half a billion dollars for players on the disabled list. It's why in 2010, when high school pitcher Dylan Bundy threw 181 pitches over a doubleheader for his Owasso (Okla.) High School team, scouts at the game sat mouth agape at the coach and player's willingness to flip a finger at the new convention. Bundy learned otherwise when the Baltimore Orioles drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2011. He spent most of 2012 on an innings limit and threw just 105 1/3 innings in his first minor league season. He is currently on the disabled list with elbow tightness.

Following Anraku's 232-pitch game on March 26, he threw 159, 138, 134 and 109 pitches. Surely others at Koshien have thrown more. Just none in the era of extreme caution and fear.

"This is completely off the charts," said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute whose studies on youth arms prompted Little League to enact pitch counts. "It goes against everything we do in sports medicine in America. There's talk about how things are done differently in Japan, which clearly they are. But humans are still humans. It doesn't make any sense. Is an 80-pitch count perfect or 120 or three days' or four days' rest? There's no perfect number. But it's inconceivable this can be reasonable."

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In a study released 2½ years ago, ASMI reported that after following nearly 500 baseball players for a decade it found pitching more than 100 innings in a calendar year increased risk of significant injury – either elbow or shoulder surgery or something that ended a career. While the sample was small and consisted of players only from Alabama, its findings reinforced ASMI's long-held notion that it's not necessarily the type of pitches a child throws that can be harmful but the number.

"The way humans are built, whether you're a 16-year-old or an old guy like me, your body needs 48 to 72 hours to recover from muscle fatigue and damage," Fleisig said. "If you have a big pitching workout or run distance, if you're fatigued where you have lactic acid and your muscles are sore, you need time to recover. If you pitch fatigued and come back in a day or two, your damage on your elbow and shoulder will add up. It won't be new. It's just compounding.

"Small damages will add up to big injury. They always do."

It's about the family. That's what Nomura believes. Coaches will abuse an arm until a parent says to stop. It's why he thinks Darvish is different. Not because he's special or blessed or mechanically flawless. But because his dad knew better.

Farsad Darvish was born in Iran and went to school in the United States, and as much as Japan has influenced him in more than two decades living there, the mentality of Koshien – costs be damned – made no sense to him. Farsad knew from a young age that Yu was special, and even though he sent Yu to Tohoku High specifically for its baseball program, he would not let the pressure of Koshien change the handling of his son. Over two Koshien tournaments in the spring and two more in the summer, Darvish started 12 games. He threw 92 innings.

"The father was very protective," Nomura said. "Here comes the parental guidance, the Western mind. I've known the father since Yu was in high school. We talked about being abused."

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The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters drafted Darvish, a stroke of good fortune. Their manager was an American, Trey Hillman, and while the workload mirrored most Japanese pitchers – Darvish regularly threw more than 120 pitches, the major-league red-alert threshold – starters there go only once a week. Beyond that, Fighters management understood Darvish was an asset, and if his elbow or shoulder blew he would be worth far less to a major league team.

Darvish stayed healthy. In 2011, the Texas Rangers paid $51.7 million for his rights and gave him a six-year, $60 million contract. In his first start of the season this week, Darvish came within one out of a perfect game. And while the Rangers fret about their investment, it's a concern more rooted in the volatility of pitchers in general, not of one who has been mistreated.

"I asked [former major leaguer] Aki Otsuka about the mindset about how much guys throw, starters throwing between innings during games," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "And essentially what he said was they look at it almost in the reverse. We see it as limit the pitch count, limit the strain on the arm. They see it as perfect your mechanics so there's no flaw in your delivery and you can throw more without putting yourself at risk. It's almost like survival of the fittest. The guys with the best deliveries and with the least stress on their arm can continue on."

Scouts from around baseball went to Koshien to see Anraku, even if the likelihood of his arrival in the major leagues was more than a decade away. Two who were there filed reports with the word "abused," one of which was preceded by "severely." It's difficult to apply a Japanese mindset when scouting for an American team.

And yet through his experience with Darvish, Daniels tries to do that. Because he understands that what is abuse to us is a virtue to them. And what is a national obsession to us may look barbaric to them.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm not minimizing it," Daniels said. "[But] I'm sure they look at high school football and some of the injuries we have and say, 'I can't believe they let their kids do that.' "

A boy named Koichi played high school baseball but never made it to Koshien, so when he was in college, he worked part-time in a kiosk at the stadium. A girl named Yukari came to work at the kiosk, too. They started talking. Both adored the twice-annual baseball tournament more than anything.

Tomohiro Anraku's parents fell in love at Koshien.

"I wanted to bring good memories," Tomohiro told reporters in Japan, "to the two people who first told me about baseball."

Anraku throwing 772 pitches over five games in nine days was about fame and team and culture, sure, just as it is for anybody. It was also about family. Yu Darvish's family cared about his future. Tomohiro Anraku's does, too, of course, just as any family does, but it also cares about Koshien, because Koshien means more than it does to just about anyone else.

During the finals, his mother said: "He has been working so hard until today and finally he came to the final. I want him to pitch through the end. He is young. I believe we are going to win."

And his father told him to pitch "with a high hand," because the mound places him atop the field. In reality the pitcher is but 10 inches higher than everyone else; in the throes of competitiveness, he can feel atop a mountain.

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Surely Tomohiro Anraku imagined himself on Mount Fuji after Saibi's first game. For 13 innings, he dueled Ryota Shimoishi, inning for inning, pitch for pitch, run for run. Shimoishi threw 219 pitches. If not for the run that gave Saibi a 4-3 victory, Anraku could've been Shimoishi, one-and-done, preparing for Summer Koshien.

Only he won that game, and then another four days later, and one two days after that, and the day after that, and it brought him to the finals Wednesday, where his mom was cheering and his dad rooting and all of Japan watching. His father imparted some wisdom to him that day: "Even though someone pulls you down, you can just stand up again."

He stood on the mound, atop his world, ready to deliver as he had before. Then his arm said no. Yukari had made Tomohiro eat vegetables as a kid so he could grow strong, and Koichi had insisted he throw 10 straight strikes before they moved onto the next drill when playing catch, and all of that was for this moment. They imbued him with love for this game and this place, and strong as both were, strong as he was, nature remains undefeated.

By his 109th pitch of the game in his sixth inning, Anraku was done. His fastball fluttered. The elite pitcher of the 232-pitch game looked like an average high schooler. He allowed nine runs. The pitchers who relieved him yielded eight more. Saibi lost 17-1. Anraku was a hero still. Just not one with a Koshien title.

There is time for that. Anraku is a junior. He gets another Koshien this summer and two more in 2014 before his professional career starts. Three more shots at a championship. Three more opportunities to prove his coach right. Three more chances to make his parents proud. Three more occasions to test the limits of the arm and hope against all hope that he really is the monster everyone wants him to be.

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