If you're a baseball nerd to some extent, you've probably heard of the Koshien, the tournament that stars some of the best high school baseball teams and is the most popular sporting event in Japan. You've probably heard of the absurd amount of pitches thrown by the kids participating in there.
During the entire 2016 summer contests, I put the number of pitches thrown by every single hurler, in every single game, in a spreadsheet. After hours of scrutinizing said spreadsheet, I had some thoughts and takeaways to share.
First, here are the five highest pitch counts by individual pitchers in individual outings.
|1||Makoto Adewa||Matsuyama Seiryo||R||8.2||187|
|3||Mizuki Hori||Hiroshima Shinjo||L||12||177|
|4||Kaito Fujimoto||Kyusu Kokusai||R||8.2||164|
|5||Yu Watanabe||Jinsei Gakuen||L||9||153|
As tracked in the table, the highest total of pitches in a single game during the tournament belongs to Makoto Adewa, a half-Japanese, half-Nigerian righty whose Matsuyama Seiryo saw a first-round elimination after he gave up a walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning, on his 187th pitch. For comparison's sake, no big-league pitcher has exceeded a pitch count that high, at least in Baseball Reference's Play Index's database, since Sandy Koufax, who threw a whopping 205 pitches in a 13-inning complete game in 1961. Note that Adewa's first word after the loss was "sorry" to his catcher, for allowing the walk-off hit.
In terms of innings pitched, the single-game leader was Mizuki Hori, who threw all 12 innings on 177 pitches in Hiroshima Shinjo's first round game. For him, it wasn't his first 170-plus-pitch outing, as he had thrown 172 pitches in the final game of regional tournament, two weeks prior to his 12-inning grind at Koshien. His summer lasted a couple more games, as he threw 90 and 103-pitch complete games on four- and one-day rests, respectively.
Adewa and Hori, both of whom are expected to be selected in the NPB Draft this coming fall, are no exceptions.
Take Hiroto Hirabayashi of Amagasaki. His coach, who pitched in four years in NPB in the late 1980s, put an adverse amount of work on him. The right-hander arrived at the tournament with 760 pitches in 57 innings logged over a 13-day span in regionals. Hirabayashi tossed 183 more laborious pitches in 10 innings in the first-round game, a 5-4 loss that eliminated his school. With his stuff — a four-pitch mix including a mid-80s fastball — he certainly has a future in levels above high school. But after the abusive wear he put on his arm, it won't be a surprise if he's never the same again.
The problem is, Hirabayashi is far from the most abused pitcher this summer. Most of the time, it's someone whose school had a deep run. This year, it was Kento Onishi, who single-handedly propelled his Hokkai team all the way from the first round of the regional tournament to the Koshien final, the equivalent of collecting all seven Dragon Balls for every high school baseball player in Japan.
During that time, spanned from June 29th to August 22nd, Onishi amassed 80 innings (out of team's 93 total defensive innings), 39 of which came in the Koshien. In five Koshien starts, two of them on zero-day rest and another on one-day, the righty threw a grand total of 527 pitches and completed four games (as you can see in the table below). His pitch count total was the second-highest mark among any pitcher in the tournament. On the morning of the final, Onishi reportedly felt soreness in his elbow (shocking, huh?). Still, he started the game with the help of pain pills, only to get knocked out in the fourth inning, leaving the bases loaded without an out.
|Game round||Innings||Pitches||Days rest|
This is not a rare sight in the Koshien. In fact, 20 of 90 total starts came on three days of rest or less. Due to its single-elimination format, the kids are forced to be back on the mound on short rest as they go deeper into the tournament.
You may think that throwing softer than their major-league counterparts helps them recover quickly. Most of the pitchers in the tournament sit in the low-80s range with their fastballs, some even slower. But things are no different for those who do throw hard. Tatsuya Imai, arguably the best high school arm in this coming fall's draft class equipped with a blazing 94-mph fastball, matched Onishi in terms of starts and exceeded in terms of total number of pitches (614). He, too, started two games on zero days rest and another one on one day (tracked in the table below). If Imai, whom many NPB clubs consider a first-round talent, suffers arm injuries in professional ball, it's not hard to imagine the workload he logged in the summer of 2016 will become the thing to blame.
|Game round||Innings||Pitches||Days rest|
Other upper-echelon pitchers, such as lefties Naruki Terashima and Koya Takahashi, racked up a borderline insane number of pitches as well. Terashima of Riseisha, one of the powerhouse schools in Osaka who have produced multiple NPB regulars, tossed 137 and 148 pitches, respectively, in his first two starts, the latter of which included an 80-minute rain delay. Hanasaki Tokuharu's Takahashi, delivered 148 and 149 pitches in first two starts. Both southpaws were defeated in the third round.
In his well-documented book "The Arm", Jeff Passan encapsulated the chapter about youth baseball scene in Japan with a sense of coming considerable changes. Yes, there are a few people trying to turn the ship around. But the reality is, the vast majority of kids and coaches are still obsessed with going the distance and winning the Koshien, and rightfully so, at least in their minds. "I'm not satisfied because I didn't complete the game," said Yokohama right-hander Shoma Fujihira, another potential first-round arm after the first round game, in which he tossed a 6.2 innings of one run ball while striking out 13. He didn't have to, as he had thrown 108 pitches and his team was leading 7-1 when he exited the game. What the young hurlers in Japan need is someone or something that can unwash their brains. The problem is still there, rooting deep in the Far Eastern soil.