By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- Like the air coming out of a balloon, Japanese baseball fans let out a collective groan with the recent news that New York Yankees rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka had a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow.
Though he no doubt had fans of rival teams in Nippon Pro Baseball that didn't like him when he starred for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for seven seasons, once he set his sights on the big stage in the major leagues and began succeeding, he became a source of national pride like his predecessors Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui had been.
Storming out of the gate in New York like he did, the 25-year old Tanaka was frequently a topic of talk around the water cooler and garnered huge headlines in Japanese sports newspapers and on television here each time he took the mound.
Following up on his 24-0 record with the Japan Series champion Eagles last season, Tanaka was adding to his air of invincibility with his sensational 11-1 start with the Yankees and was in strong contention for both the American League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award honors.
But when Tanaka struggled in his last four starts, going 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA, it was clear that something had changed.
Had batters begun to figure the hard-throwing right hander out?
Or was something else going on?
The question appeared to be answered following his last outing (against Cleveland on July 8), when Tanaka complained of soreness in his elbow. After being put on the DL, Tanaka flew to Seattle to be examined by team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad, who diagnosed a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament and prescribed six weeks of rest and rehab.
Speculation in Japanese baseball circles has not been in short supply as to why Tanaka, a native of Itami in Hyogo Prefecture, is facing his current predicament.
Former Yomiuri Giants star pitcher Masumi Kuwata (who himself underwent Tommy John surgery nearly 20 years ago), believes the high number of pitches Tanaka threw during his high school days had caught up with him.
"I think Tanaka has shown the mileage on his arm and paid the price for his workload over the years," said Kuwata on television.
Kuwata, who played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of his career, has long been a critic of the number of pitches Japanese high schoolers are required to throw.
As Japanese analysts try to ascertain the cause of Tanaka's injury, focus is being centered on several possibilities.
"I think there are three reasons for Tanaka's situation," says Fumihiro Fujisawa, the president of Association of American Baseball Research and a longtime analyst on both NHK and cable television in Japan. "First is that he is pitching on four days or rest between games instead of one week like in Japan.
"Second is that he has thrown too many split-finger fastballs with a harder and larger ball than he pitched with in Japan.
"Third is that he has just thrown too many pitches in both high school and pro baseball here. An example of this was in Game 6 of the 2013 Japan Series (against Yomiuri), when he threw 160 pitches (and lost), then came back and got the save in Game 7."
Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who penned You Gotta Have Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro, thinks that Tanaka's over-reliance on his favorite pitch could well be the culprit behind the injury.
"The initial temptation is to blame over-pitching in Japan," notes Whiting. "But there is another argument being made, that the reason Tanaka hurt his arm is that he threw his split-fingered fastball too much. He threw it twice as often in MLB as in Japan (25% of his pitches vs 12%). The split finger puts a strain on the elbow and shoulder, especially if you throw it hard as Tanaka does.
"I think Tanaka felt pressure to perform," says Whiting. "He was so highly paid, and the Yankees needed him to be the ace. So he went to his splitter more."
With pitch counts so prevalent in MLB now, Whiting points out that the different cultures of the majors and NPB are at play in the equation.
"There are some pitching coaches in the NPB who will tell you that throwing a lot is only injurious to the arm only if your form is no good and you are out of condition," comments Whiting. "The Rakuten pitching coach (Yoshinori Sato) is one of them. He thinks the American obsession with pitch counts is a bad thing.
"You also hear criticism in Japan that MLB pitchers throw too much with their upper body, which hurts the arm. Japanese can throw more because they use their lower body as well as upper. However, there are also Japanese coaches who believe rest is important."
Rakuten Eagles team president Yozo Tachibana also weighed in, saying he was "surprised by the large number of split-fingered fastballs Tanaka was throwing this season." This opinion coming from a man who saw Tanaka rack up a phenomenal 99-35 mark with a 2.30 ERA during his time with the club based in Sendai.
Fangraphs cites three Japanese pitchers as throwing the most split-finger fastballs in the majors this season -- Seattle Hisashi Iwakuma is tops with 27.1 percent, Tanaka next at 25, and Yankees teammate Hiroki Kuroda at 23.8.
The Dodgers' Dan Haren is fourth on the list with 16 percent, far off the ratio with which the Japanese trio utilizes the pitch.
Despite struggling in his last four outings, 6-2, 205-pound Tanaka was tied for the MLB lead with 12 wins and had an ERA of 2.51 when he was placed on the disabled list. His injury has interrupted what could have been a very special season.
"I think fans in Japan and the U.S. are equally disappointed," says Whiting of Tanaka's injury. "He was on his way to a dream season -- Cy Young and MVP. What Americans find unusual is that Tanaka saw fit to apologize."
Like Matsui before him (after breaking his wrist in 2006), Tanaka issued a formal apology to Yankee fans for being unable to pitch.
"I want to apologize to the Yankees organization, my teammates and our fans for not being able to help during this time," Tanaka said in a statement. "I accept this injury as a challenge, but I promise to do everything I can to overcome this setback and return to the mound as soon as possible.
"As recently announced from the team, I will be going through some treatment and rehab on my injured elbow over the next several weeks," Tanaka said. "I give everything I have every time I take the ball. With that, I also know that there will always be a risk of injury when playing this game that I love.
"Right now I feel that the most important thing for me is to keep my head up, remain focused on the task at hand and devote all my energy into healing the injury in order to come back strong."
The majors have seen a record number of pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery this season, this despite strict pitch counts by teams. Some doctors are attributing this to pitchers throwing too hard, while others believe year-round play in youth leagues isn't giving kids enough chance to rest their arms.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had Tommy John surgery in 2011, once tossed 250 pitches in a 17-inning victory in 1998 for Yokohama High School at Japan's national championship tournament (Koshien). Therefore it comes as no surprise that extreme workouts here are still prevalent.
"My grand nephew plays for Komazawa High (in Tokyo)," says Whiting. "He practices six hours a day after school, and nine on days when there is no school.
"Pitchers are required to throw 200 pitches a day three times a week, all year. It's recommended they throw 100 on the other three days. They get one day off a week. High school coaches in Japan will argue if the core mechanics are good, then a pitcher won't hurt his arm throwing every day."
So as the baseball world on both sides of the Pacific waits to find out Tanaka's fate, the trepidation continues to build.
"Even though it is unclear what is really going to happen to Tanaka, people here are worried about him and hope he returns to action sooner rather than later," states sports writer Kaz Nagatsuka.
Some feel that if Tanaka needs to have the major operation, he might as well get on with it as it would be at least one year to before he could pitch again.
"I think if he needs Tommy John surgery," says Fujisawa, "the sooner, the better."
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Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 19 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations in the NBA and NFL Europe.