Japan reacts to pitch limits

I scanned Japan’s twitterverse for opinions on the pitch restrictions that Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation plans to implement for its spring tournament next year. There’s a lot and here is a sample of the most common threads.

@hoyu412 writes: I’m opposed I suppose. This rule favors private schools who stockpile pitchers. We’ll see fewer pitchers who create legends at Koshien like Matsuzaka, (Yuki) Saito and (Kosei) Yoshida. Suguru Egawa’s strikeout record will never be surpassed. We’ll no longer praise those pitchers with stamina who avoid injury.

@kaichi4280 writes: Perhaps the problem is more about proper mechanics than pitch counts. Care for arms has progressed since the old days. There’s no mistaking this rule will give an advantage to private schools. I hope this arrangement doesn’t spread nationwide. I’m opposed.

Most of the tweets I’ve seen appear balanced and understanding of the need for arm health. If these rules were to expand nationwide, opponents fear the elimination of any possibility of no-hitters and legendary performances, the dominance of private schools — which is more or less already the case. One sentimental tweet asked: “Are you going to deny a boy his last chance at glory and leave him with a lifetime of regret because he needs to be yanked off the mound after throwing 100 pitches?”

@fukuda_yu2 writes: I agree with the pitch limits. People who love baseball like things the way they are, but the views that this will favor private schools or hinder the development of act pitchers are too short-sighted. The root of the problem is decreasing baseball participation. It’s great that there are baseball clinics but we need the courage to change the fundamental system. Our chance to adapt for the future is now.

A lot of those in support of changes to the system admit it that it will take getting used to, but generally say, “How can you talk about fairness and developing ace pitchers, when this is about the health of each and every individual.”

Under the heading MBGA, there was this response in English:

Arms control comes to Japanese high school ball

Japanese high school baseball, where epic feats of pitching endurance are as much a part of the narrative as who wins or loses, will get a new look next spring, thanks to the efforts of Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation.

The local federation will prevent pitchers in next spring’s prefectural tournament from starting an inning after throwing 100 pitches. That’s it. No recommended rest, no reduced limits for pitchers on short rest.

But for Japan, this is radical stuff.

A Kyodo News story reported Saturday that the prefecture acted because too few youngsters are signing up for high school ball. After forming a committee to look into the problem, it was decided that one way to maintain participation in the sport was to keep players healthy.

“If we ruin fewer talented players, the level of Japanese baseball will improve.”

Dr. Kozo Furushima, head of Keiyu Orthopedic Surgical Hospital

reported Saturday that the prefecture acted because too few youngsters are signing up for high school ball. After forming a committee to look into the problem, it was decided that one way to maintain participation in the sport was to keep players healthy.

The story cited MLB’s “Pitch Smart” guidelines, which you can find here. The story also quoted Dr. Kozo Furushima, whose hospital in Gunma Prefecture is a go-to for Tommy John surgeries in Japan.

“If we ruin fewer talented players, the level of Japanese baseball will improve,” Furushima said.

Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama was also quoted by the Kyodo story, saying, “There will be a lot of objection to this (pitch limit) but I want them to give their best shot.”

Pitch smart risk factors:

  • The American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) found that adolescent pitchers who undergo elbow or shoulder surgery are 36 times more likely to have routinely pitched with arm fatigue.
  • ASMI found that players who pitched more than 100 innings in at least one year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured than those who did not exceed 100 innings pitched. Every inning — whether it be during a game or showcase event — should count toward that threshold.
  • ASMI also found that pitchers who competed more than 8 months per year were 5 times as likely to suffer an injury requiring surgery. Pitchers should refrain from throwing for at least 2-3 months per year and avoid competitive pitching for at least 4 months per year.
  • Daily, weekly and annual overuse is the greatest risk to a youth pitcher’s health. Numerous studies have shown that pitchers who throw more pitches per game and those who do not adequately rest between appearances are at an elevated risk of injury. While medical research does not identify optimal pitch counts, pitch count programs have been shown to reduce the risk of shoulder injury in Little League Baseball by as much as 50% (Little League, 2011). The most important thing is to set limits for a pitcher and stick with them throughout the season.
  • Pitchers should avoid pitching on consecutive days, if possible, irrespective of pitch count. According to Yang et al., pitchers who pitched on consecutive days had more than 2.5 times greater risk of experiencing arm pain, compared with pitchers who did not pitch on consecutive days.

More about peak values

Having a lot of information at your finger tips doesn’t necessarily mean you know what’s going on.

I was reminded of this again on Friday, when doing a story about Yuki Yanagita’s new contract with the SoftBank Hawks. He revealed that he will be paid 570 million yen ($5.11 million) next year — which on the surface would make him the highest-paid Japanese player in team history.

And though I have given Yanagita first-place MVP votes three times over the past four years — the fourth went to Shohei Ohtani in 2016 — I’d never noticed that he’d led the Pacific League in both on-base percentage and slugging average the past four seasons.

Yanagita entered the season as one of only three players to have managed that feat for three straight years. With his fourth, he surpassed Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima. Next in line is Sadaharu Oh, who did it not five or even six straight years, but 11, so that record, like so many of Oh’s is safe.

Since delving into peak performance the past few days as a way of analyzing Hall of Fame candidates, I was curious how Yanagita’s past five seasons — I’d used five-year averages of win shares — stacked up all time. What I found was not entirely surprising.

Yanagita has averaged 32.6 win shares since 2014. The only recent player to better that figure was Hideki Matsui from 1998 to 2002. The only contemporary player to come close is, not surprisingly, Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada.

Aside from Matsui and Yanagita, no player has had as good a five-year stretch since Oh (1973 to 1977). Oh turned pro out of high school in 1959 and his career was winding down, but he was still a dominant hitter. But basically, what you get is a list of Hall of Fame pitchers in NPB’s dead-ball 1950s and a bunch of Hall of Fame hitters from the early 1960s.

This shouldn’t be a surprise because the talent depth in NPB in the 1950s and 1960s was vastly worse than today, and the best players towered over the competition to a greater degree than they have since. Still, it was only a few players, Oh, Nagashima, Japan’s greatest catcher Katsuya Nomura, Japan’s all-time hits leader Isao Harimoto, Kazuhiro Yamauchi and three great pitchers, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao and Shigeru Sugishita.

When Yamada had his huge season in 2015, I estimated it was the third or fourth best season in NPB history, but since then it hadn’t occurred to me how rare his and Yanagita’s accomplishments have been in the context of today’s game.

Why not Boomer?

Former Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Matt Winters, commenting on my Hall of Fame vote, said in a tweet: “You need Boomer in there somewhere.”

The answer, of course, is that no one lets me decide who is on the ballot. For the record, Boomer, LeRon Lee and Don Blasingame were all recently dropped from the expert’s division ballot, where Randy Bass is still going strong. The reason for this is not clear. Another guy who failed to make it in the expert’s division, former Lotte third baseman Michio Arito, was laughingly excluded.

There are few candidates in the Hall of Fame who were better players than Arito, yet he, Hanshin Tigers shortsop Taira Fujita and Lions outfielder Masahiro Doi, three guys who are more than qualified, are no longer qualified for election.

But just for curiosity’s sake, where does Boomer rank in terms of peak performance — as measured by his best five-year win shares average? The answer is 12th all-time among foreign registered players who had five-plus seasons. I’d suspected Tuffy Rhodes had the highest peak value of any foreign player in NPB history, but Rhodes ranks fourth — although he is No. 1 in career value. See the list below of the top-20 five-year peaks among foreign players in NPB.

A lot of things could be wrong with the model that produces these, but it seems reasonable that the honor of the first foreign player in Japan’s Hall of Fame went to the deserving Wally Yonamine. It seems also clear that Tuffy should be No. 2. Alex Cabrera was knocked off the ballot last year when he received just 2.7 percent of the vote. That may well indicate that player popularity with the media is a key factor.

1st ballot Hall of Fame voter

Eighteen players to choose from and seven votes.

I’ve noted in several recent posts that the membership of Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame is badly skewed toward pitchers, first basemen and outfielders. That will change within the next 10 years when Tadahito Iguchi and Kazuo Matsui are on the ballot, since they were among the most valuable players in the game during their heyday.

To review,  here is this winter’s players division ballot, with the percentage of votes received in last year’s ballot:

  • Kazuyoshi Tatsunami 2B 65.8
  • Shingo Takatsu RP 45.9
  • Masahiro Kawai SS 35.9
  • Kenjiro Nomura SS 28.5
  • Tuffy Rhodes OF 22.8
  • Hiroki Kokubo 3B 21.7
  • Masumi Kuwata SP 21.2
  • Takuro Ishii SS 19.3
  • Kenji Jojima C 14.1
  • Shinji Sasaoka SP 9.5
  • So Taguchi OF 7.9
  • Norihiro Akahoshi OF 5.4
  • Kazuhisa Ishii SP new
  • Shinya Miyamoto SS new
  • Tomonori Maeda OF new
  • Takeshi Yamasaki IB new
  • Shinjiro Hiyama OF new
  • Alex Ramirez OF new

My picks were:

  1. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami
  2. Shingo Takatsu
  3. Tuffy Rhodes
  4. Hiroki Kokubo
  5. Takuro Ishii
  6. Kenji Jojima
  7. Alex Ramirez
The 15 position players on this winter’s ballots,  ranked by career win shares.
The four pitchers on this winter’s ballot, ranked by career win shares.

The big debates were between closer Shingo Takatsu and starter Masumi Kuwata, and between outfielders Tomonori Maeda and Alex Ramirez. 

Kuwata won a Sawamura Award as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher, but in historic terms his career would be one of the weakest among starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Takatsu was a solid — if not dominant — closer on a team that won five pennants.

Ramirez finishes behind Maeda in career win shares and was not as much a complete player as Maeda was a youngster before injuries took their toll on his career. But Ramirez had a much-higher peak ceiling and won two straight Central League MVP awards.

Some other notes:

  • Tatsunami, even at his peak, was never considered one of the league’s elite players. He never led the Dragons in win shares in any one season. His genius was in being really good for a long, long time, and that’s worth something.
  • Takatsu is a relief version of Tatsunami, a very good reliever for a long time in a generation when closers were usually burned out after a season or two.
  • Rhodes should be a stronger candidate than he has been. He was a league leader in an offensive category 18 times. No player has ever led his league in as many as 16 categories and not been elected to the Hall of Fame.
  • Kokubo was a leader on both the first Hawks dynasty in Fukuoka under Daiei and the second under SoftBank before his retirement.
  • Takuro Ishii was a very similar player to Tatsunami, but with more defensive value and fewer extra bases.
  • Jojima was Japan’s premier catcher from 1999 to 2005 during his time with the Hawks, then spent four years in the majors before returning to play at a high level for the Hanshin Tigers. 

On second thought, I looked at each position player’s highest peak, by measuring their average win shares over each five-year period of their career (see table below). The surprise for me here, is not that Rhodes and Jojima are head and shoulders above everyone else but that Kenjiro Nomura, whom I didn’t vote for, and Takuro Ishii, whom I did, rank so much higher than Ramirez, and that through this analysis, Kokubo becomes a corner-infield version of Tatsunami, whose peak value ranks seventh out of 14.

When you look at all of each player’s running five year averages, however, it is clear that Nomura’s extreme peak was briefer than Ishii’s. It is also clear that Ramirez and Nomura were very close in both peak and total value. The real question of who belongs and who doesn’t was not between Tomonori Maeda and Ramirez, but between Nomura and Ramirez and Kokubo.

Yusei Kikuchi vs Hawks, Aug. 24, 2018

This is the game of Aug. 24 in Fukuoka against the SoftBank Hawks. Clicking on individual players’ names will bring up their NPB English player pages.

1st inning:

  1. Kenta Imamiya
  2. Taisei Makihara
  3. Yurisbel Gracial
  4. Yuki Yanagita

2nd inning:

  1. Nobuhiro Matsuda
  2. Akira Nakamura
  3. Seiji Uebayashi
  4. Takuya Kai
  5. Tetsuro Nishida
  6. Kenta Imamiya

3rd inning:

  1. Taisei Makihara
  2. Yurisbel Gracial
  3. Yuki Yanagita
  4. Nobuhiro Matsuda
  5. Akira Nakamura
  6. Seiji Uebayashi

4th inning:

  1. Takuya Kai
  2. Tetsuro Nishida
  3. Kenta Imamiya

5th inning:

  1. Taisei Makihara
  2. Yurisbel Gracial
  3. Yuki Yanagita

6th inning

  1. Nobuhiro Matsuda
  2. Akira Nakamura
  3. Seiji Uebayashi

7th inning:

  1. Keizo Kawashima
  2. Tetsuro Nishida
  3. Kenta Imamiya

8th inning:

  1. Taisei Makihara
  2. Yurisbel Gracial
  3. Yuki Yanagita
  4. Nobuhiro Matsuda
  5. Akira Nakamura