Much has been made of recent Japanese imports to Major League Baseball, and for good reason. A vast majority sport a mid-high 90’s fastball with impeccable command. While some of these pitchers haven’t worked out (Kei Igawa immediately springs to mind), others have had amazing success but most share one common theme: Health. Japanese pitchers have had an astonishing track record of durability and longevity over the years (maybe there’s something to the 7 day rotation, but that’s an article for another time). With American-born pitchers struggling to maintain arm health, many coaches, scientists/researchers, and “professionals” have been in search of a solution. My response? Head East. Far East.
Hiroki Kuroda just finished his 7th season in the MLB while averaging 188 1/3 innings and 30 starts per season. Did I mention those were his aged 33-39 seasons? Also, did I mention he never spent a single day on the disabled list in those 7 years? How many American-born pitchers can claim similar stat lines of productivity and health over 7 seasons, not to mention in their mid-late 30’s? What’s my point in all of this? It’s simple: Mechanics, specifically in the lower half. Japanese pitchers have often been criticized for their “unique” or “different” arm actions, which may very well have been a reason for some injuries (notice Kuroda didn’t/doesn’t have this flaw). While this may be true, the reason Japan has developed pitchers so well starts in the lower half and the hips.
Take Masahiro Tanaka for example. His ability to use his lower half efficiently and explosively is what allows him to reach 94-95 mph on his fastball. How does he use his lower half so well? I’m glad you asked. It starts with his hips. Not only does Tanaka get low, but he also stays closed for so long. A pitcher’s hips will continue to build power so long as they stay closed. The sooner the hips open and begin rotation, the sooner power is lost. As evidenced in the picture above, Tanaka stays closed for an extremely long time. This allows him to build that force vector to which some coaches refer. All this basically means is the pitcher’s back knee gets inside the back foot. The farther the knee gets is generally a great indicator of how well the pitcher shifted his weight and used his lower half. I challenge you to find a picture of any Japanese pitcher that doesn’t look like his back knee is about to touch the ground at, or near, the front foot landing. Why is that? Because from the very beginning Japanese pitchers are taught how to effectively use their legs. Not a single pitcher in Japan uses the “Up, Down, and Out” technique because they know that isn’t the most efficient way to move the hips and build power.
In American Little League we have pitchers getting elbow surgeries at a younger and younger age. Most coaches are focusing on the arm and ways to keep the arm safe. In Japan, the focus is on the lower half and hips. Coaches and players alike have all heard the cliche that “the power comes from the legs” and it is 100% correct. If the lower half does its job properly, the arm has less work for which to makeup. If the arm does less work, it becomes less likely to be injured. For a pitcher struggling to properly incorporate his legs and hips, try taking a trip east to Japan. You never know, you may be surprised at the results.