Passing the 160-pitch test

Koji Watanabe

The other day, a Japanese pitcher named Masahiro Tanaka lost a baseball game.

In case you haven't been following the story (I wasn't), this was actually BIG NEWS. For one thing, it was a big game: Game 6 of the Japan Series. For another, Tanaka hadn't lost a game in a long, long time. More than a year. In the regular season this year, he went 24-0 in 28 starts. He, like Yu Darvish before him, essentially is too good for the league. It's as if Clayton Kersh-- No, not him. It's as if Derek Holland or James Shields got sent back to Triple-A for a season and didn't pout about it.

Or maybe you have been following the story. Anyway, that loss the other day comes with a nifty little wrinkle, as David Waldstein mentions in The New York Times:

Tanaka, who has drawn a great deal of interest from major league baseball teams, threw 160 pitches in a 4-2 complete-game loss to the Yomiuri Giants, which sent the Japan Series to a Game 7 on Sunday.

--snip--

Several teams, including the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers, have been scouting the 25-year-old Tanaka and are expected to bid heavily if Rakuten makes him available, as many expect it will.

It is unlikely that Tanaka’s 160 pitches will scare off teams, although it might make them nervous. It is not unheard-of for pitchers in Japan to have such high pitch counts, but most M.L.B. teams frown on the practice because they fear injury.

I suppose there's a fine line between "scaring off teams" and "making them nervous" ... But while I'm reading this, a question comes to mind: If Tanaka's 160-pitch outing doesn't dissuade Major League Baseball teams from gambling (say) $100 million on him, why won't they occasionally let their own pitchers throw 160 pitches? If Tanaka can throw 160 pitches and remain healthy enough to justify a huge investment, why can't (yes) Clayton Kershaw throw 160 pitches in a game?

That's mostly a rhetorical question. My first thought was that if Clayton Kershaw would never need 160 pitches; that is, it's difficult to imagine a situation where he's thrown 160 pitches in nine innings and given up four runs. Japanese pitchers nibble a lot; traditionally, Japanese baseball players have been non-aggressive, which I'm guessing means you don't challenge hitters with a fastball when behind in the count. Rather, try to hit the corner; if that doesn't work, worry about the next guy.

Or maybe that was just in this game. It's just that 160 pitches seems like a lot. Still, while it's hard to imagine Kershaw throwing 160 pitches in a game and giving up only four runs in nine innings, it's not hard to imagine Kershaw throwing 160 pitches in 12 or 13 innings. Except of course such a thing would never be allowed, even if he didn't seem at all tired and was still throwing his best stuff. Because he might get hurt.

Which brings us back to the original question: If you're worried about the possibility of Kershaw getting hurt, why not Tanaka? And maybe the answer is that you are worried about Tanaka getting hurt ... until he doesn't get hurt. Maybe American baseball people do believe that Clayton Kershaw and the rest of them might be able to throw 160 pitches in one game -- just as Nolan Ryan did -- but nobody wants to find out which ones can't.

Tanaka might have passed the test; we'll see about that next spring, I guess. But it's a test that will not, cannot be administered in big-time North American professional baseball.

Coda: Twenty-four hours after throwing those 160 pitches, Tanaka came back and earned the save in Game 7 with a scoreless ninth inning. Kershaw, Shmershaw.

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