Darvish joins growing list of Japanese pitchers with major injury woes
MAR 14, 2015 BY WAYNE GRACZYK､The Japan Times
Sad, isn’t it? Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish faces season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Darvish is the latest name on what has become too long a list of MLB and NPB hurlers to undergo the arm repair procedure that takes a year or more off a player’s career. Moreover, it seems a lot of Japanese pitchers who have gone supposedly healthy to the majors in recent years via free agency or posting ran into trouble and required TJS.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyuji Fujikawa went through it. Now Darvish will go under the knife, and there may be doubt about the condition of current New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. “Ma-kun” ended the 2014 season on a sour note, getting bombed by the Boston Red Sox in his final outing of the season after sitting out a brief time with arm soreness.
Tanaka will have to come up with a few quality starts early this year to prove he is OK and does not need to follow the others to the operating table.
Pitchers still in Japan are having problems, too. Take, for example, Tokyo Yakult Swallows ace righty Shohei Tateyama. He missed the entire 2014 season, save for a few innings thrown late in the year with the Eastern League farm team.
Another former league leader, Kazuki Yoshimi of the Chunichi Dragons, saw his 2014 season ended after three appearances before he too underwent the torn UCL reconstructive surgery.
Others have come down with a variety of elbow or shoulder ailments, and just what is happening seems to be a mystery to which there is no simple answer. Are they throwing too much?
Are the Japanese pitchers going to the major leagues getting shocked physically and mentally by the adjustment to the new routine?
The game of baseball has changed so much over the years, and you would think today, in an era of specialization where pitching staffs include set-up men and closers, and starters are limited to about 30 appearances per season, there would be fewer arm injuries.
Sixty years ago, in the mid-1950s, major league aces such as Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies and Whitey Ford of the Yankees started 40 or more games a year. All had a winning season or seasons of 25 games or more. I don’t recall any of them having arm trouble, and all had successful big league careers of more than a decade.
None of them had Tommy John surgery; it had not yet been discovered.
In 1957, I was 9; Tommy John was 14, and I can recall a summer evening in southern New Jersey when my grandfather was taking me to a Philadelphia Phillies game at the old Connie Mack Stadium in the City of Brotherly Love. I was hoping to see the Phils’ ace right-hander on the mound.
“Grandpa, do you think Robin Roberts will pitch tonight?” I asked.
It was Tuesday, and my grandfather replied, “Yes, I think it’s his turn, because he pitched last Friday.” Sure enough, Roberts pitched and won a complete-game victory on the fourth day after his previous start.
These days, most major leaguers in their teams’ rotation pitch every five or six days, and their counterparts in Japan get the call every seven days.
In 1964, though, American Joe Stanka compiled a 26-7 record in 47 appearances for the Pacific League’s Nankai Hawks, and he threw back-to-back shutouts on consecutive days in Games 6 and 7 of the Japan Series.
The same year, U.S. hurler Gene Bacque was 29-9 in 46 Central League games with the Hanshin Tigers.
The most extreme, however, was the 1961 season of Kazuhisa “Ironman” Inao, who won 42 PL games while losing 14 for the Nishitetsu Lions. He made 78 appearances as a starter and in relief. The arms of Stanka, Bacque and Inao eventually lost their strength from the overwork, but not until after age 30.
Darvish is 28; Tanaka just 26.
Some pitchers come back strong from Tommy John surgery. Ex-Lotte Orions ace right-hander Choji Murata is one example. After trying several ideas to cure his injury, Murata reluctantly had the surgery in August of 1983 and returned to action at age 35 in late 1984 after not having pitched in a game in more than 1,000 days.
In 1985, Murata went 17-5 and was able to cut loose his fastball at full strength. He was still throwing at 140 kph (87.5 mph) in old-timers games five years after that.
Current Yomiuri Giants reliever Scott Mathieson was a Tommy John patient in 2006 when he was just 22 and a young fireballer with the Phillies. Ironically, Mathieson said he first experienced the arm pain that year during the game in which he achieved his first —and only — major league victory.
Now, eight years later, he’s in his fourth season in the Tokyo bullpen, throwing a fastball at speeds close to 160 kph (100 mph).
Others never regain the skill and ability they had prior to the onset of arm problems, and we will keep our eyes on what happens this season with Matsuzaka (now with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, Wada (Chicago Cubs), Fujikawa (Texas), Tateyama and Yoshimi.
Hopefully Darvish will make a full recovery and return to form in 2016, and Tanaka’s name will not be added to the Tommy John list.