Roki Sasaki hasn’t pitched for over a week now, but the flood of stories about his feats, about the controversy around the scientific approach being taken toward his development, and even about his little confrontation with an umpire has not subsided.
We owe a debt of gratitude to an article by Akira Hirao posted on the AU web portal. Hirao went to some length to document the efforts taken by Sasaki’s high school manager Yohei Kokubo and the Lotte Marines, and also dug up some of the comments after Sasaki was benched in Iwate’s 2019 Prefectural final.
I joked to my podcast partner John E. Gibson that Sasaki’s perfect game would no doubt have some of Kokubo’s 2019 critics saying “I told you so” because Sasaki was so good in his April 10 perfect game that his arm must have been impervious to harm as an 18-year-old.
Kokubo revealed in 2019 that Sasaki’s bone density was low for a boy his age, and this apparently was not just a random finding. According to Hirao, Kokubo had all his players tested to learn the how vulnerable their bones, ligaments and joints were so that their growth would not be stunted by excessive loads without sufficient rest.
Before he became a teacher, Kokubo attended Tsukuba University, where his manager, Takashi Kawamura, was a pioneer in the application of biomechanics. After university Kokubo played independent pro ball in the United States and Japan.
When Sasaki didn’t pitch in the Iwate final, Japan’s curmudgeon corps sounded off.
Speaking from his weekend soapbox on TBS’ Sunday Morning, Isao Harimoto ripped into Kokubo, according to Nikkan Sports, “He (Kokubo) played independent ball in America. He thinks in the American way. In America, these (pitchers’ arms and elbows) are thought to be consumable goods (prone to wearing out). In Japan, we pitch and pitch and become stronger. The thinking is completely different.”
This is another example of “this is correct because it’s the way we do it,” as opposed to this is worth doing because we actually have evidence.
It’s baseball bullshit.
Harimoto went on:
“He (Sasaki) threw 129 pitches two days before, but he’s only thrown four times in qualifying. He’s only thrown something like 430 or 450 pitches in total. Last year, Kosei Yoshida threw 800!“
Then Harimoto spoke about the need to subject pitchers to stress.
“Thinking about his future, it would be better to have pitched him. So many pitchers who have done tremendous things retain the physical memory of pitching in stressful circumstances. You can’t make it easy.”
Dr. Kozo Furushima, who performs numerous Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgeries every year as he keeps busy repairing the damage the “You can’t make it easy” crowd inflicts on childrens’ arms and elbows via youth baseball, rejected the argument that if Kosei Yoshida can do it, so could Sasaki.
“Every individual is different. Daisuke Matsuzaka could throw as many pitches as he did because he was blessed with an extraordinarily thick ligament in his elbow. Not everybody is built that way, just like not everyone has the body type needed to win an Olympic medal in the 100 meters,” Furushima said when we spoke a few years ago at his clinic in Gunma Prefecture.
Hirao related the comments of Japan’s curmudgeons in chief, Tatsuro Hirooka, who lamented Kokubo’s sitting Sasaki when winning the final meant a trip to Koshien.
“Koshien is a dream, and not just for the school boy ballplayers. The players parents and siblings and their regions also invest their dreams in this. But they let go of that when they were just one last step away,” Hirooka said.
“Is it possible that pitching him more could hurt him? Injuries occur as a result of either poor pitching mechanics or a failure to care for the arm afterward. If his mechanics were poor, it would be impossible for him to throw 160 kph.”
Some people who are very well respected in the field of biomechanics have told me that proper form allows nearly endless repetition without injury, but Furushima rejects that when it comes to the stress involved in competition.
“There is a limit to how much an arm can take, although nobody knows what it is. If you pitch too much you will damage it beyond the point of it’s ability to recover simply through rest,” Furushima said.
After Sasaki didn’t pitch on July 29, 2019, Hirao said both Ofunato High School and the Iwate Prefectural High School Baseball Federation were flooded with complaints and that former Ofunato players called for Kokubo to be replaced.
Matsuzaka’s manager at Yokohama High School, Tomonori Watanabe, said that as long as Sasaki wasn’t already hurt, keeping him out of the game to prevent an injury that hadn’t happened was hard to comprehend.
But he had his supporters, including Yu Darvish, current Giants pitching coach Masumi Kuwata and Hitoshi Tashima, then manager of high school powerhouse — and Ichiro Suzuki’s current winter time hangout — Chiben Wakayama High School.
“If that game breaks him, then it also breaks his path to pro baseball,” Tashima said.
Although Sasaki badly wanted to go in the draft to the Nippon Ham Fighters, the team that took an open-minded approach to Shohei Ohtani’s development, it’s hard to argue that he wound up in the wrong place.
Masato Yoshii, currently the Marines’ pitching coach, but then the coordinator, was also Ohtani’s coach in 2016 when he had his breakthrough two-way season with the Fighters. That year, Yoshii also earned his masters degree in physical education from Tsukuba University, where his advisor was Kokubo’s manager, Kawamura.
The Marines have continued a rigorous program to build up Sasaki’s strength while monitoring him for excessive stress, and when Sasaki ran his perfect-inning streak to 17 on April 17, Iguchi was asked about all the guff his pitcher’s high school manager had taken and called Kokubo “a hero.”