National high school tournaments are a major affair in Japan.
Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish thrived on the big stage. Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old righthander who is the top pitcher in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball and may head to the major leagues next season, first emerged as a high school pitching sensation when he broke Matsuzaka's high school strikeouts record.
Last year it was Shintaro Fujinami and Shohei Ohtani who captivated scouts before becoming first-round picks in NPB, with Fujinami throwing a complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts in the championship game of "Summer Koshien," the national high school championship in Japan, in front of a crowd of 46,000.
Now meet the next Japanese high school pitching phenom: Tomohiro Anraku.
You won’t see Anraku pitching in a professional game next year. Or the year after that. That’s because Anraku is a 16-year-old sophomore righthander at Saibi High in Ehime Prefecture, with a fastball that already touches 94 mph and potential that could make him a millionaire if he were to sign as an international free agent.
Pitching on Tuesday in "Spring Koshien," Japan's major spring national high school invitational tournament, Anraku made a name for himself with his talent and his pitch count, throwing 232 pitches in a 13-inning complete game. Anraku allowed three runs in Saibi's 4-3 win, struck out 13, walked five and surrendered 10 hits (see the condensed game video at the end of this story).
At his best, Anraku's fastball ranged from 88-94 mph. His 74-78 mph curveball is still inconsistent, but he shows feel to spin the pitch and it could become an above-average offering in the future. He's 6-foot-1, 185 pounds with a drop-and-drive delivery, excellent flexibility and coordination. Like many Japanese pitchers, he wraps his wrist in the back of his arm action and his control is still erratic, but it's a scouting report that makes him one of the best 16-year-old pitchers on the planet.
But 232 pitches in one game?
In Latin America, 16-year-old amateur pitchers might not throw 232 pitches in a month, let alone one game. Teenagers in their first pro seasons are treated with extreme caution. Orioles righthander Dylan Bundy is baseball's best pitching prospect and one of the strongest, best-conditioned athletes in the minors. Yet in his first pro season out of high school last year, Bundy wasn't allowed to pitch in the fifth inning of a game until his seventh start on May 14. All season, he made just two starts in which he threw at least six innings.
With Anraku, there are already concerns about the future health of his shoulder because of the way he delivers the ball, concerns that are only amplified in the minds of some scouts because of his pitch count.
"Pretty impressive," said one international scout, "but they kill those kids there."
Some are calling his 232-pitch game outright abuse by his coach. Other scouts aren't convinced that the single-game pitch total itself amounts to abusive usage. As another international scout pointed out, "It's more concerning if he hasn’t thrown that much in the past and all of a sudden started increasing his workload drastically or did not give his arm enough rest in between his outings." Japanese throwing programs often emphasize throwing frequency.
Some scouts even think that what looks like an extreme workload in the modern era might be more beneficial than the way pitchers are handled in U.S. pro ball. When Matsuzaka was 17, he pitched a nine-inning complete game in a national high school tournament, then came back the next day and threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning complete game. After throwing an inning of relief the next day, Matsuzaka came back a day later and fired a nine-inning no-hitter in the championship game.
Yet the majority of personnel with major league organizations are likely to cringe. Anraku is even younger than Matsuzaka was at the time, and he clearly was tiring (what 16-year-old wouldn't be?) by the end of his outing. His velocity dipped to 86-89 mph late in the game, he started to rely more on his offspeed pitches as his fastball diminished and he looked noticeably fatigued. Believers in high pitch counts argue that pitching tired teaches a player to compete without his best stuff and learn to make adjustments. Critics think it’s an arm-shredding practice that sends kids to the operating table.
Other countries in Asia in which players have racked up enormous pitch counts by modern standards have taken measures to limit the workload of their young arms. South Korea has gotten away from daily tournament schedules and shifted toward a weekend-oriented system with weekend pitch counts. The Koreans also use the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) extra-inning rules of putting runners on first and second in the 10th inning, another way to prevent 200-pitch starts.
In Japan, throwing often and throwing deep into the game--no matter how long the game lasts--is part of the baseball culture. Ryota Shimoishi, the starting pitcher opposite Anraku, threw 219 pitches for the complete game. Those pitch counts are both on the extreme end of a workload for a Japanese high school pitcher, but it's not unheard of in Japan.
Since Japanese high school players rarely sign with major league organizations, teams do very little scouting of Japanese prep prospects other than at international tournaments where prospects from other countries like Cuba, Venezuela or Taiwan are in attendance. So that means teams--even the ones with the strongest scouting presence in Asia--don't have much background yet on Anraku or his throwing program.
Barring something unusual, Anraku will spend the next two years pitching for his high school, after which he would likely become a first-round draft pick in NPB. He's already one of the best 16-year-old pitchers in the world, which would put him in line for a signing bonus in the millions if he were to sign with a major league team. The top 16-year-old righthander in Latin America last year, Venezuelan righthander Jose Mujica, signed with the Rays for $1 million. In the final signing period before the international bonus pools went into place, the Mariners signed Venezuelan righthander Victor Sanchez for $2.5 million and the Jays signed Mexican righthander Roberto Osuna for $1.5 million when they were 16 in 2011.
Yet while international players are allowed to sign at 16 once July 2 arrives, Japanese prospects rarely sign with a major league team out of high school and always wait until they finish high school before signing with a team in Japan. Ohtani stated publicly last year that he intended to sign with a major league team after he graduated high school, but he changed his mind and instead signed as a first-round draft pick of the Nippon Ham Fighters, who will allow him to continue his career as a two-way player.
For Anraku, given the posting system, major league teams might be a decade away from being able to add him to their organizations. Until then, teams in Japan will follow his development closely. Scouts in the United States will hope he stays healthy.