Yoshitomo Tsutsugo was struck by a strange thought while playing for Samurai Japan during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
There were pitch limits in effect during that tournament, which features professional players, adults from MLB, NPB and other leagues. Meanwhile at the high school level in Japan, children were being asked to throw with no such limits and seemingly little regard their bodies.
“The kids weren’t being protected,” Tsutsugo said on Friday morning at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “I remember thinking that was strange.”
The lack of limits on throwing for young athletes is just one of the changes the Yokohama BayStars’ star slugger says Japanese baseball needs to make for the good of the youth of tomorrow and the game.
Tsutsugo feels rules need to be put in place in order to protect young athletes. In addition to pitch limits, the four-time All-Star says tournament play for children should be reduced because of the strain it puts on winning teams, who have to play more games with fewer chances to rest in between. Instead, he’d like to see the system replaced by league competitions for children.
He also took aim at the practice culture in Japan and the way young players are being coached. The rigidity and grueling nature of practices and incidents of power harassment and verbal abuse by coaches are driving more players away from the game and possibly contributing to the decline in participation by children.
“Coaches have to protect children,” Tsutsugo said. “However, what these adults are making children do has become a burden to the children. To improve that, I think organizations in Japan need to create rules in order to protect children.”
Tsutsugo also pointed to research by Dr. Kozo Furushima, head of the Sports Medical Center at Keiyu Orthopedic Hospital, showing the increasing rates of baseball-related elbow injuries among children high school-age and under.
Voices from outside Japan have long called out the country over the number of pitches many high school players throw. This past summer was no different, as Kosei Yoshida, a pitcher for Akita Prefecture’s Kanaashi Nogyo High School, threw 881 pitches during six games at the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium in August.
In December, the Niigata Prefectural High School Baseball Federation revealed it would introduce pitch limits, a first in Japanese high school baseball, for its prefectural tournament in the spring. The news drew a number of mixed reactions, underscoring perhaps how hard it might be to change such an ingrained way of doing things in Japan.
“The most important thing is the future of children,” Tsutsugo said. “If everyone is really thinking about that, I don’t think it will be too hard.”
He recounted a story he heard from a mother who had planned to allow her son to join a baseball team. After viewing a practice, however, the mother changed her mind and didn’t let her son play. He also heard from other mothers, who commented on the length and style of practices and other areas they say needed improvement.
The 27-year-old Tsutsugo himself came up through high school baseball like other NPB players and says there is a need for coaches to evolve with the times.
“Lots of coaches think it’s good to teach children about things they experienced themselves,” he said. “But what if the coach is 40 years old? What that coach experienced is very much dated by now.”
The need for a set of rules, Tsutsugo said, is because many coaches have day jobs and volunteer their time on weekends, which doesn’t leave much time for the in-depth study of the best practices.
“They only have limited time to study themselves,” Tsutsugo said. “I think the solution to this problem is to set up rules to protect children.”
With the rate of participation among high school players dropping, in addition to lowering TV ratings, Tsutsugo wants to protect the future of the game. He’s of the mind that the key is to work toward protecting the children who will play the sport.
“If you don’t think about protecting children and helping them grow, there’s no point in bringing on a resurgence in baseball,” he said.
As for the future of his own career, the left fielder, who hit .295 with 38 home runs last season, offered no new clues.
“I hope to become a major leaguer one day,” Tsutsugo said. “But this season, I will play for the Yokohama BayStars. So this season in Japan, all my focus is on doing everything I can to help the team win.”