The Riddle (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 9:59AM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 2:15PM
When Matsuzaka's pictures came back, the Red Sox were shocked at what they saw. The MRIs were whistle-clean.
"He's a freak," Daniel says, "one of those rare guys that doesn't come around often."
Says Valentine, "I think he will do fine if he doesn't become Americanized. I think they are smart guys in Boston and they 'get it.' But there will be a time when everyone will be writing that he needs to throw more fastballs. The reason so many pitchers throw so many fastballs is because they can't throw their other pitches over the plate with quality. This is one of this kid's strengths."
Farrell, the pitching coach, met with Matsuzaka in January to establish the rough guidelines of a training program. The Red Sox, he said, would make all their resources available to him, and Matsuzaka could adopt whatever elements he chose. "It's been about 80 percent his program, 20 percent ours," Farrell says.
For instance, before Farrell allowed the 103-pitch bullpen session, he won a compromise by having Matsuzaka skip his normal 300-foot toss session the day before. Francona says Matsuzaka will not be throwing in the bullpen after he has been removed from a start, a practice the pitcher sometimes followed in Japan. "I'd be looking for a job the next day [if I let him]," says the manager.
Why don't American pitchers throw as much as Japanese pitchers, or even as much as they used to? The rise of the offensive power game in the majors has made pitching more strenuous than ever; the degree of difficulty in getting through lineups today is much higher than it was 25 years ago. But one club that studied the drop in the American pitching workload found the tipping point to be manager Billy Martin's 1980 A's. Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman -- all of them in their 20s -- completed 93 of their 159 starts that season. Each broke down in subsequent years. The media attention given to Martin's strategy and the pitchers' injuries sent a shiver through managers and clubs. No one wanted to be labeled an arm-killer. A new conservatism grew that eventually led to the development of the specialized modern bullpen, which picks up the innings that once belonged to starters.
Further, as orthopedists such as Frank Jobe, the pioneer of Tommy John surgery, advanced the field of sports medicine, baseball received additional support for the practice of treading lightly with pitchers. Says noted orthopedist Lewis Yokum, "My philosophy, going back to training with Frank Jobe, is that a pitcher has only so many bullets in his arm.
"What we see from a lot of draft picks out of California and Florida is that they get hurt because they're throwing year-round. I like to say, 'Give me a snowfall.' Let them have an off-season."
Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson discourages Little Leaguers with strong arms from pitching at all. He has frowned on his major league pitchers' throwing to bases in routine spring training drills because such throws run counter to the "saving bullets" philosophy.
Managers also know the media's "pitch-count police" will set off alarms if a starter is allowed to throw more than 120 pitches in a game. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, tabulates the ominous-sounding Pitcher Abuse Points, which boils a pitcher's health risk down to a numerical score based on pitch counts. The Diamondbacks' Livan Hernandez rang up the most points last season, 42. (He also led the majors in 2004 and 2005 -- and has never been on the disabled list.) Matsuzaka blew away that total with 176 points in Japan last year, and that was down from a whopping 284 in 2005.
Valentine, who formerly managed the Texas Rangers and the Mets, admits that he too coddled pitchers in the majors, though it took understanding the Japanese throwing philosophy for him to see the error of that accepted practice. "The Japanese pitchers have superior mechanics," Valentine says. "They also have wonderful balance and core and foundation strength. They work the small muscle groups, and [Americans] work the large ones. The large ones make you look better.
Valentine allows most of his starters to throw 200 bullpen pitches a day in the spring. "They have been doing it forever and have not broken down," he says. On the day before a starter takes the mound, he'll throw 90 pitches in the pen and, Valentine says, "have [his] best fastball in the ninth inning" the next day.
"What we feel we know in the States is that fatigue and bad mechanics lead to the operating table," Valentine says. "Yet we don't throw enough to counterbalance fatigue, and the ideas some of the coaches have there are just plain wrong."
Still, the Red Sox and Boras are concerned that pitching in the majors, with a more grueling schedule and deeper lineups, will exact a toll. Matsuzaka was part of a six-man rotation in Japan, where every Monday is an off day, thus making him a once-a-week pitcher. (Last season he made only one start with five days' rest and the remaining 24 with at least six days' rest; he'll normally get only four days off with Boston.) And working on less recovery time, he'll most likely have to work harder to get through lineups that have more power than those in Japan. "He was so dominant in a lot of the games [in Japan]," says Farrell, "he didn't tax himself."
Says Lucchino, "We're trying to take a more Japanese-like philosophy [while looking] at the long-term perspective."
Says Boras, "The greatest concern is ensuring his health not just this year but over the life of the contract and beyond. The history of the Japanese [starting] pitchers who have come here is of concern."
Nomo had three good years for the Dodgers before he was traded at 29 and released at 30, triggering a journeyman's career. Irabu was done at 33. Kaz Ishii was done at 32.
"I'm going to do my best, doryoku, to keep my pitch count low and be able to pitch into the later innings," Matsuzaka says. "I personally feel very ready to accept the major league system."
Says teammate Curt Schilling, who's entering his 20th season, "He is a big league ace in the making. The question is, Does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at 39?"
Matsuzaka, the eight-pitch wonder with the diversionary delivery, is a riddle to big league hitters. The even greater puzzle, however, is what happens when two pitching philosophies collide, when doryoku meets the pitch-count clicker? Even the great Matsuzaka, for all the assuredness upon his face, cannot know the answer until time slowly reveals it.