Why are Japanese Baseball Pitchers Breaking Down?

Fans of the Texas Rangers, the Texas-based baseball team, were downcast after learning that their ace Japanese pitcher, Yu Darvish, will remain on the disabled list and not play a game during the entire 2015 season because an elbow injury required surgery.

As baseball writers on both sides of the Pacific were struggling to absorb this unpleasant development, they suddenly realized that their hero’s trials were not an isolated incident. Of the seven Japanese pitchers now playing in the US Major Leagues, four will have had elbow operations known as “Tommy John surgery.” Two others, Yankee star Masahiro Tanaka and Koji Uehara of the [Boston Red Sox] have not had the surgery yet but have been troubled by painful elbows.

Tommy John is a surgical procedure in which a ligament from another part of the body is grafted onto the elbow to replace the damaged one. It usually takes about a year to fully recover, which is why Darvish is out of play this. Most return to the same level of play.

Tanaka, the Yankee’s prized acquisition, missed half of his rookie season due to a torn ligament which as yet does not require surgery. Tanaka has made a good come back this year so far striking out eight batters over seven innings against Tampa Bay.

Another sad story is Daisuke Matsuzaka, known as “Dice-K” who played for six seasons with the Boston Red Sox but had Tommy John surgery in his fifth year. Last year he was sent to the minors, playing half a season for the Columbus Clippers, a Cleveland Indian farm team. He returned to Japan this year and plays for the Softbank Hawks of the Japanese pro league.

The growing concern over elbow injuries to pitcher is not limited to the Japanese players. For many years the Major Leagues averaged about a dozen or more Tommy John surgeries a year, but they spiked to 36 in 2013, sparking concerns about an “epidemic”.

These players represent tremendous investments for their home teams. The Texas Rangers shelled out about US$100 million for Darvish, half of it as a posting fee to compensate the Nippon Ham Fighters for the loss of his services, the other half for Darvish himself.

Much debate in sports writer circles concerns the causes for this “epidemic” especially among the Japanese players. Many point to the wear and tear the pitchers received very young while playing in high school at a young age. High school baseball is to Japan what high school football is to Texas, an obsession. For two weeks in the spring and later in the summer, Japanese turn their attention away from professional baseball, and a lot of other things, to watch the high school championships.

A total of 4,000 schools are winnowed down to 49 that face each other in Koshien Stadium, the grand cathedral of Japanese baseball located near Osaka and normally the home field for the pro team Hanshin Tigers. The final games are televised nationally, and draw some 800,000 fans to the various venues, a kind of attention that surpasses anything the pros do.

Several big time players, such as Darvish, made their name in the Koshien. Players pinch some of the holy dirt of the infield to keep as a lifetime memento.

Marathon pitching performances are common at the high school level in Japan. Dice-K as a high school player threw 250 pitches over 17 innings in 1988 right on the heels of 148 pitches the previous day as an 18-year old pitching for his high school, Tanaka pitched in 180 innings, considerably more than the average 18-year-old in the average pitcher on American college teams or in the minor leagues.

The newest phenom, Tomohiro Anruku, threw 772 pitches in the final playoffs of the 2014 Koshien season. He is also capable of throwing 90 mph-plus fastballs even though he is only 16.

“Pitching limits should be introduced as soon as possible” says Masuni Kuwata, a former star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants. However, the whole idea of pitching limits at the high school or even the professional level remains controversial.

American managers tend to pull their starting pitchers when they get near the 100-pitch mark, even if pitching well. But it is not a requirement. It is a requirement in the World Baseball Classic, although that may come more from managers not wanting overstress valuable players in what many still consider a side show than any concern over injuries.

Japanese high school baseball training sessions are notoriously harsh, a harshness which often extends well into the professional leagues. Many coaches of the high school teams believe the pitch count issue is a myth and that with proper throwing technique pitchers can avoid elbow injuries.

Add to that the pervading feeling that for the young samurais punishing pitch counts, not to mention extreme training exercises, build character. Also few of the high school players will go on to lengthy careers in the major leagues, so coaches are not too concerned with the long-term impact of so many pitches.

The Japanese professional leagues have had some success in keeping elbow injuries down by maintaining a six-man pitching rotation, instead of five that is more common in American teams. The extra day of rest between pitching assignments apparently helps considerably.

American managers however, have resisted going to the six-man rotation, because the addition of even one more pitcher to their 25-man teams can mess up the roster. Japanese managers can bring in auxiliary pitchers that are not on the roster, strictly speaking.