Of Nagekomi and Pitch Counts
July 26, 2013
There is a terrific article by Chris Jones in ESPN The Magazine on the culture of high school baseball in Japan.
The article centers on the prodigious pitching talent of 16-year-old Tomohiro Anraku and his performance at Koshien, a high school baseball tournament that happens twice a year in Japan and is like “the Super Bowl and the World Series rolled into one.” Jones also explores the differences between the experiences of high school baseball players in Japan and the West; including the differences between culture, tradition, and medical science. More pointedly, Jones questions whether Japanese youth baseball customs ruin the arms of young pitchers.
Referring to the high number of pitches that kids are forced to throw at Koshien, Jones writes: “A growing number of Japanese observers, like [Kazuhisa] Nakamura, the old Yomiuri Giants scout, have begun to feel a kind of creeping dread — the way our watching football now comes with its own brand of guilt.”
Some other excerpts:
This spring, Anraku single-handedly carried Saibi [High School ], from his hometown of Matsuyama, representing Ehime prefecture, to the final. He stood on the mound and felt he was exactly where he should be …
… He threw virtually every pitch for Saibi at Koshien, including a 13-inning complete game in which he threw 232 pitches. But in the awful final, he fell apart, terrifyingly and completely, eventually losing 17-1, pulled only after he’d thrown his 772nd pitch over five games in nine days. His fastball was not nearly so fast; his curveball no longer broke; his slider stayed flat. Every one of his instruments abandoned him, and yet he had continued to throw until his precious right arm hung limp at his side. Don Nomura, the agent who represents [Texas Ranger Pitcher Yu] Darvish, told Yahoo’s Jeff Passan that Anraku’s treatment was nothing less than child abuse, a sentiment shared by several American scouts. Those strong words traveled over the ocean and upset many in Japan, where if anyone saw Tomohiro Anraku as a victim, he was blessed to be one. In fact, he’s been given the most coveted and celebrated title of all. He is a kaibutsu.
Anraku is a monster. Anraku is a beast.
In a country that can seem so modern in so many ways …there are also 2,000 years of history and nearly as many traditions. One of those traditions is called nagekomi. In America, nagekomi, like throwing 772 pitches in a single tournament, would be considered child abuse. Scientists would debunk it, and surgeons would decry it. But in Japan, nagekomi is important. It’s maybe even essential. It is many things all at once, but mostly it is an exercise in remembering, and it is beautiful.