Former greats weigh in on high school pitch limits

The outer limits

Since Japan’s Niigata Prefecture has announced its plan to restrict pitcher usage in its spring tournament this year, three former Chunichi Dragons pitchers, two Hall of Famers Hiroshi Gondo and Shigeru Sugishita and Masahiro Yamamoto have weighed in on the issue and expressed widely divergent views.

On Jan. 15, Gondo was announced as one of the three newest members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. The right-hander’s playing career was defined by his first two seasons. As a 22-year-old out of corporate league ball in 1961, Gondo won 35 games in his 429-1/3-inning rookie season. The following year, he pitched 362-1/3 innings and won 30 games.

Niigata’s new limits will prohibit a pitcher from starting an inning after he’d thrown 100 pitches in a game but not prohibit pitchers from pitching on consecutive days.

Save the game

“I am absolutely opposed to that (sort of restriction),” Gondo said.

“Most of those kids aren’t going to be professionals, and this will be the end of their baseball careers. You don’t want to hold them back. Besides, if you can’t pitch that much in high school without ruining your arm, there’s no way you can make it in the pros anyway.”

On the question of whether high school baseball should be about competition or education, Gondo came down solidly on the side of competition.

“You don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people playing to win,” he said. “People are going to get hurt, and you can’t alter that fact.”

I don’t want to state that as his entire philosophy on the issue, since we only spoke for a few minutes, but he certainly seemed to think that high school ball is safe enough.

Save the kids

Sugishita, whose No. 20 Gondo inherited when he joined the Dragons, wasn’t certain if Niigata’s method was the right way to go, but said, “You’ve got to do something to protect these kids’ arms.”

Yamamoto, a lock to join them in the Hall of Fame after he enters the players division ballot for the Hall’s class of 2021, was even more emphatic when he spoke on Sunday in Yokohama.

At a seminar attended by nearly 600 people that included elementary and junior high school coaches, doctors and parents, Yamamoto spoke of last year’s high school superstar, pitcher Kosei Yoshida.

At the national high school summer championship, Yoshida threw 881 pitches over six games, with four of those games coming over the final five days of the tournament.

“It’s a good thing Yoshida didn’t break down,” Yamamoto said. “But I thought that continuing like he did put the player’s career at risk.”

When Niigata’s prefectural association imposed its rules without asking the national body, the Japan High School Baseball Federation lashed out, calling the new system arbitrary and unenforceable.

But Yamamoto praised the work of Japan’s national rubber ball federation, whose guidelines limit pitchers to 70 pitches in a single game and 300 within a week.

“They have done good work to protect children’s futures,” he said.

No magic number

In a recent interview, Dr. Tsutomu Jinji, a professor of biomechanics who has extensively studied how pitchers mechanics impart movement to baseballs, said there is no magic number of pitches that will prevent injuries.

“Some people possess thicker ligaments, that can withstand more stress and torque,” he said. “Other pitchers are more flexible than others, or possess better mechanics.”

“What that means is that some pitchers’ arms will break down even with very limited usage, while others will survive much heavier workloads without any damage at all. It is possible to prevent catastrophic damage with ultrasound examinations so that pitchers whose elbows are at risk get rest, but that is not being done.”

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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