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Struggles common for H.S. hurlers

by Jason Coskrey

Five teams chose left-hander Yuki Matsui in the first round of the 2013 draft.

When it was time for the lottery for his rights, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles sent president Yozo Tachibana — manager Senichi Hoshino said he was saving his luck for the upcoming Japan Series — to the podium to hopefully pick the lucky card.

Tachibana, as it turns out, had the magic touch, and once he selected the coveted winning card, the fawning over Matsui began.

But much like the draft lottery itself, which does make for good TV, selecting highly touted high school pitchers has been somewhat of a gamble.

Rakuten hit the jackpot in 2006, emerging from a group of four teams to win the rights to coveted right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka turned into an all-world talent, and the Eagles must have been thanking their lucky stars to land another highly-rated hurler just as Tanaka was ending his tenure with the club.

Thus far, Matsui has struggled, and the Eagles sent him to the farm after he allowed six runs and walked eight over five innings in a loss to the Seibu Lions last week. Overall, the left-hander is 0-3 with a 6.05 ERA in four starts. The 18-year-old has also issued 23 walks in 19⅓ innings.

That Matsui has struggled some probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise, as even some of the greats faltered early.

Still, for every Tanaka or Daisuke Matsuzaka, there’s an ace who falls short of the lofty projections he earned during his schoolboy days.

Looking back through some past drafts, results have been mixed for highly sought-after high school pitchers who were selected by five or more teams.

Yusei Kikuchi had suitors on both sides of the Pacific in 2009 and drew six bids during the draft, a record for a high school pitcher. The Seibu Lions won his rights, and the lefty has had an up-and-down career to this point, though that might say as much about the Lions’ coaching staff as anything else.

Kikuchi didn’t debut until 2011 and has had some high points at 18-11 with a 2.98 ERA in four seasons, but has yet to fully blossom into the pitcher many expected him to become. Though at 22 years old there is still plenty of time for him to get there.

Five teams selected Shinichi Kondo in 1986, with the left-hander ultimately landing with the Chunichi Dragons, where Hoshino was his manager for a few seasons.

Kondo threw a no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants in his first pro start, one of only two pitchers to do so, but finished his career under .500 at 12-17 with a 3.90 ERA in 52 appearances over six seasons.

Yoshinori Sato also had five teams after him in 2007, and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows walked away as the lucky winners. Sato threw the fastest recorded pitch by a Japanese player on July 29, 2011, unfurling a 161 kph offering against the Yokohama BayStars’ Terrmel Sledge, but his career has been stalled by injuries. Sato is 7-11 with a 3.70 ERA, but hasn’t pitched since 2011.

Four teams drew lots for Tomoya Kawaguchi’s services in 1997, but the left-hander’s career only amounted to an 0-1 record in nine appearances for the Orix BlueWave from 1999-2003.

There have, of course, been success stories, especially among a group of pitchers who drew four bids in their draft years.

Tanaka (2006) is pitching in the majors now, while Yutaka Enatsu (1966) and Suguru Egawa (1978), whose case is complicated to say the least, also enjoyed robust careers. Although Hayato Terahara (2001), who has also been dogged by injuries, remains below .500 at 33-42, he does have 23 saves to his credit.

Big-ticket high school pitchers just don’t always work out and are a gamble.

Of course, some of the blame for this lies in Japan’s minor league system, which pales in comparison to the one in the West in terms of preparing players for the pro ranks on and off the field.

Needless to say, the verdict on Matsui is years away, but his current demotion is a good excuse to look back.

Being sent back to the ni-gun may be humbling, but it also gives the team a chance to pay closer attention to him and find a way to work out the kinks and come out on the right side of the high school pitcher roulette wheel.