Catching up with Tomohito Ito

I’ve been a fan of Tomohito Ito ever since he was one of the best pitchers of the early part of the Yakult Swallows’ 1990s dynasty.

The first time we spoke, about 10 years ago, when he was coaching with the Swallows, I asked what happened to his arm, even though I remember how he became radically inconsistent after a 1993 rookie season in which he had a six-week stretch where he threw between 140 and 160 pitches like clockwork.

His answer: “Too many pitches.”

Since then, having learned from former Swallows pitcher Tony Barnette how much Ito as a coach had helped shape his success in Japan, I cornered the coach during his time with the Eagles. And for the past two years, he’s been back with the Swallows, where a pitching transformation occurred.

Talking with DeNA catcher Hikaru Ito Sunday, about the differences between the Pacific and Central Leagues, Ito said PL pitchers are much more likely to pound the zone, while the most common CL approach is to attack corners and get batters to chase.

“Except for Yakult,” he said. “I like their approach and my inclination is to go after hitters the way they do.”

A week ago at Seibu Dome, I asked Ito about how the Swallows transformation occurred.

He said that pitching aggressively goes against the cultural grain of Japanese baseball. Because challenging batters in the strike zone from the get-go increases the chance of giving up first-pitch hits, pitchers can open themselves up to criticism from their coaches and managers.

Ito, not surprisingly, said he had no desire to be a coach once his playing career ended and still thinks his humanistic approach might get him fired one day by those who see coaches’ role as enforcing conformity in a top-down baseball hierarchy of the kind he lived with when he was a player.

“I definitely didn’t want to be a coach,” he said recently. “As a player, it seemed the coach’s job was ordering guys around to do the things the old-school said they should do. That didn’t suit me. Coaches in Japan had to adopt a certain tone, and that wasn’t me.”

“So I do it my way, working with players to find out what they need, what they are trying to do, and start from there. There’s always a possibility, of course, that putting the players first, instead doing it top down, will get you fired, but if that happens, I’m OK with that.”

He said things have changed a whole lot since he was a player, a move that has been speeded up by a new wave of managers, including the guys who’ve managed against each other in the Japan Series the last two years, Orix’s Satoshi Nakajima and Yakult’s Shingo Takatsu, who have adopted a player-first approach.

“First of all, those new guys have been getting results in this new fashion, too. It’s not just about me saying, ‘just keep throwing strikes,’ but if one looks at the big picture, at the numbers and the overall data, it backs that up. If the players look at that and get it, then I’m happy.”

“When I watched the Swallows pitchers, it looked like they feared giving up hits, so I told them, ‘First of all, let’s challenge hitters in the zone and not worry about giving up hits,’” Ito said.

“You want to get into pitchers’ counts. How do you do that? You think about the first pitch, how you go about getting a strike, how you go about getting the count in your favor. You go over it thoroughly with a pitcher. The first part of that (throwing first-pitch strikes) is dealing with giving up hits. The batting average on first pitches gets higher. Can you pitch without being afraid of that, without wavering?”

“If you keep challenging batters, you’ll get ahead in counts if they foul off pitches. When you get into pitchers’ counts, batting averages drop, and walks decrease. But for that to happen, I have to tell them giving up hits is OK. Keep challenging the batter diligently, and take an aggressive approach.”

He said Swallows’ right-hander Cy Sneed has meshed perfectly with what the team is trying to accomplish.

Shameless self-promotion alert

Cy Sneed is the guest on this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast. Have a listen.

“That foreign pitcher works aggressively for us, but for Japanese pitchers, giving up hits typically makes (coaches) angry with them, and they get told, ‘just don’t throw it in the zone pitch after pitch,’ so they are discouraged from doing that.”

“When you’re challenging batters in the zone, you need to command the ball within the zone. But even more important is commanding changes of speed, so that you can throw strikes with the same or similar pitches but at different speeds. That can really mess with a batter’s timing.”

On the other hand, Ito said, giving up hits can be a good thing in the long run, provided one looks at it the right way.

“Giving up a hit doesn’t have to only be a negative, because it can lead you to a different way to attack a batter. That gives you more options, so you can turn that negative into a positive. There are many ways to get a strike, and adding that next way to your repertoire makes you stronger and stronger.”

“If it’s a batter who’s going up there to hack, then you don’t have to throw a strike. Because in Japanese pro baseball you keep facing the same batters again and again, it forces you to be better. I think that’s one of its appealing features. But you have to start with a plan and then build on it.”

Ito’s plan starts with a disavowal of baseball’s hierarchy.

“Typically, it’s the manager at the top, then the coaches, with the players at the bottom. But the way I look at it, I’m on the same level as the players since we’re all trying to learn how to improve and be better.”

“I don’t know if what I’m doing is the right way. You don’t know that until you try. If I’m doing it wrong, then I’ll quit. Until then, I want to keep studying and learning.”

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