Jan 29, 2015
Striking Out Conventional Theories

By R.J. Anderson

When Daisuke Matsuzaka joined the Boston Red Sox this spring, the Japanese pitcher brought with him eight different pitches and a training regimen the likes of which many American baseball coaches had never seen. With little regard for in-game pitch counts and post-game icing, Matsuzaka also has a much more aggressive between-start throwing routine than his American counterparts. These training tactics seemingly fly in the face of traditional western philosophies that call for bringing a young pitcher along slowly and limiting how much and how often they throw. Critics, however, wonder just how long the 26-year-old Matsuzaka can keep up his prolific workload before he eventually breaks down.
The legend of Matsuzaka began when, as a high schooler in Japan, he threw 250 pitches as part of a 17-inning complete game performance. The 17-inning game came during a stretch that saw the teenager throw 54 innings in 11 days. Throughout his seven-year professional career in Japan, Matsuzaka says he was never lifted from a game because a manager felt his pitch count was too high. In fact, he says, Japanese coaches never gave him a pitch count limit or even kept track of the number of pitches he threw and that they only pulled him from a game if he looked tired or was getting hit hard.

Perhaps almost as amazing as his eye-popping stamina is Matsuzaka’s eschewing of post-game and post-workout shoulder and arm icing–a staple and a priority in any Major League clubhouse where. As Sports Illustrated points out, “relievers are known to ice after facing only one batter in a game. However, not Matsuzaka,” wrote Tom Verducci.

He didn’t ice after he threw 103 pitches in the bullpen the second time he stepped on a mound in spring training in 2007, more than twice the number of even the heartiest of his fellow Red Sox pitchers. He didn’t ice after one of his twice-weekly 20-minute long-toss sessions, when he throws from the rightfield foul pole to the leftfield wall–a distance of about 300 feet–while taking only one step to load his arm. (Most pitchers throw half that distance.) In past years with the Seibu Lions, he wouldn’t ice even after his frequent 300-pitch bullpen sessions, a program that would have been grounds for dismissal for any major league pitching coach who allowed it.

Former big league manager Bobby Valentine, who has been coaching in Japan for the past three years, says after watching Matsuzaka and other Japanese pitchers develop, he is convinced “we do a bad job of coaching in the U.S. for pitchers.” Eddie Bane, the scouting director for the Los Angeles Angels told Sports Illustrated the success of Matsuzaka and Japan winning last year’s World Baseball Classic indicates that U.S. coaches should take a closer look at the Japanese approach.

“Their philosophy is, if you’re a pitcher, you need to throw,” said Bane. “It makes sense to me. We’re training our pitchers to throw less. And nobody wants to try anything different. If [Matsuzaka] is this good, we might want to take a look at it.”

Vern Gambetta, President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a frequent contributor to T&C, weighed in on pitcher development in recent entry on his blog. Gambetta, who for nine years was Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and later Director of Athletic Development for the New York Mets, says for too long American coaches have been pampering pitchers.

“We have put the pitcher on a pedestal and forgotten to train him,” says Gambetta. “Then we marvel at the extent and severity of the injuries that continue to occur. In reaction to these injuries, we have them throw less. We must train them to tolerate the demands of pitching. We must recognize the demands of pitching as a ballistic explosive activity and train for those demands.”

Gambetta says the amount of throwing Matsuzaka does during bullpen and long toss sessions does not seem unreasonable because the pitcher has progressed to that level over a long period of time by throwing a lot as a child and a teenager. A problem Gambetta sees with American pitchers is that as youngsters, they pitch too much and do not throw enough.

When young players are developing, Gambetta says they need to simply throw–anything from footballs to rocks. Instead of constantly practicing pitching, Gambetta feels young players should just play throwing games where they use different arm angles and positions of the body. He says those exercises will prepare them to pitch down the road.

“Instead, we train them in a phone booth by teaching them a narrow range of throwing skills called pitching mechanics and lock them into that movement repetitively and then wonder why they get sore and hurt. In essence we are cloning pitchers so they all look alike,” Gambetta continues. “There is no model, let them find their pattern and then condition them to withstand the forces.”

Orthopedist Lewis Yocum, MD, Team Physician for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, told Sports Illustrated that his philosophy is that a pitcher “only has so many bullets in his arm” during his career. He says that he has seen a lot of draft picks out of California and Florida get hurt because they throw year-round.

Rick Peterson, Pitching Coach for the New York Mets, also buys into the saving bullets philosophy, so much so that he frowns on his pitchers throwing to bases in routine spring training drills. Peterson also discourages Little Leaguers with strong arms from pitching at all.

When discussing Matsuzaka and his routine, many baseball experts point to other Japanese pitchers who preceeded him in the Major Leagues as cautionary tales. Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Kaz Ishii all made their big league debuts with much fanfare, however, none of these players were effective after their early-30s.

Curt Schilling, a starting pitcher on the Red Sox told Sports Illustrated,

“He [Matsuzaka] is a big league ace in the making. The question is, Does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at 39?”

Despite his respect for Locum, Gambetta feels the philosophy that a pitcher has only so many bullets in his arm is absurd and not based on any science. Gambetta says the saving bullets philosophy reminds him of what people said before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier– that there are only so many heartbeats, so don’t use them up by training hard!

Gambetta talked about his philosophy for training pitchers in an article that appeared in T&C four years ago. Here are five basic rules he follows:

• Build the pitcher from the ground up. You can’t launch a cannon from a canoe, build strong legs.

• Train toe nails to fingernails–train all the links in the chain to produce and reduce force.

• Train for power and explosiveness, not endurance.

• Train the core as a relay center. The trunk positions the arms and transfers force from the legs.

• Focus on the big picture–recognize that that the shoulder and elbow are the last links in the kinetic chain.

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