Pitch Counts in Japan

A post I wrote last week over at NPB Tracker got me thinking about how many pitches NPB starters actually throw, so I queried the data I’ve collected for this season. Here are the results:

Name Avg Pitch Count
Hideaki Wakui 129.62
Yu Darvish 128.58
Kenta Maeda 123.23
Takayuki Kishi 118.69
Shun Tohno 116.83
Toshiya Sugiuchi 116.62
Satoshi Nagai 116.50
Masahiro Tanaka 116.38
Hisashi Iwakuma 114.38
Yoshinori 113.56
Yoshihisa Naruse 113.38
Kazuki Kondo 110.75
Chihiro Kaneko 110.54
Darrell Rasner 110.20
Wei-Yin Chen 109.67
Yasutomo Kubo 109.08
Kan Ohtake 109.00
Shunsuke Watanabe 106.00
Keisaku Itokazu 106.00
Tsuyoshi Wada 105.92
Kyouhei Muranaka 105.73
Shouhei Tateyama 105.00
Masanori Ishikawa 105.00
Kenji Ohtonari 103.42
Eric Stults 102.11
Kazuyuki Hoashi 101.85
Bob Keppel 101.64
Hiroshi Kisanuki 101.38
Kenichi Nakata 101.33
Naoyuki Shimizu 100.62
Kazuhisa Ishii 100.45
Tomokazu Ohka 99.83

Some observatons…

To put this in a little perspective, Justin Verlander leads all MLB pitchers with an average of 112.44 pitches per start. If Darrell Rasner were throwing 110 pitches per game in MLB, he would be second on the list. MLB’s top innings eater, Roy Halladay, averages 107.56 pitches per game.

Yu Darvish has seen his pitch counts increase a bit, from 117.3 last season to 128.58 this season. Hideaki Wakui is a workhorse; his average was about the same last season, when he had three(!) outings of 160 or more pitches. Kenta Maeda is enjoying breakout results this season, and has been rewarded with a heavy workload. According to my data, he averaged 102.54 pitches per start last year.

Overall, though, this isn’t as “bad” as I expected. I thought we’d see more guys in the 120’s. NPB teams typically use six-man starting rotations, and teams almost always get one off day per week, which amounts to six days between starts. There are a number of heavy So far this season, there have been 51 appearances of 130 or more pitches, and four of 150 or more (two each by Wakui and Darvish, plus one by Yuta Ohmine).

I anticipate that a significant chunk of American fans reading this will have some degree of a negative reaction to this. I don’t necessary see it that way. My thoughts on the subject are evolving as I learn more and gather more empirical data, but for now I look at this mostly as a cultural difference, though one with some risks. Japanese starters are conditioned to take the ball once a week, and incented to go deeper into games. I will be watching the top ten guys on this list a little more closely though.

Thanks to the great David Appelman for the MLB pitch count data.

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Patrick Newman is a veteran enthusiast of Japanese baseball who happens to write about it at npbtracker.com, and on Twitter @npbtracker.

26 Responses to “Pitch Counts in Japan”

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  1. Doug Gray says:

    It is all about conditioning. Kids in America start seeing pitch counts at age 8 or 9 and thus, never will build up the arm strength needed to throw like this. It didn’t used to be this way and coupled with better offensive lineups, its why we don’t see guys throwing 300 innings or 140 pitch complete games every week/season. In Japan, they don’t exactly have the same pitch counts growing up and the guys who have the arms that can survive the grinder do build up the arm strength to be able to do this.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The problem isn’t necessarily pitch counts at the younger ages …

      When I was a kid we’d go out and play baseball all day long, then go to our youth league games. I’d bet there were some days when I threw over 300 pitches per day. The difference is 200 or so of those were to my buddies playing rag ball or whatever “me versus you” game we could come up with for fun.

      Now, our 9yo’s are on travelling teams playing 50 some games per summer.

      It’s not the total pitches thrown, it’s the intense “game pitches”. Furthermore, many young kids are making 2 (or more) starts oer week in highly competitive games.

      Lots of research on this, and it’s all interesting.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Let me correct that, Since I was outside from 10AM to 7PM playing baseball, with much of that time throwing a baseball or tennis ball against a brick wall (often as hard as I could imitating different pitcher’s deliveries), I’d bet I averaged 300 pitches per day.

        This subject was discussed at another site discussing this very same topic, and I found that many guys my age had a very similar background … and none of us had arm problems in college, despite being starters one day, and pitching in relief the next day or the day after.

        The generation before me, were likely doing the same … playing baseball all day long. That’s where comments from the likes of Bob Gipson regarding throwing as often as possible sound so foreign to us today. Because the landscape has changed, we assume kids should pitch in games all the time to build up arm strength. That’s the mistake.

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  2. pack says:

    I’d be interested in seeing average length of career in Japan vs the US, as well as career velocity charts. Perhaps their arm stays healthier, but they have a reduced effectiveness due to loss of velocity (shorter career). Or perhaps they blow up their career earlier, but provide more value to the ball club in that short period of time. I don’t think we have the information yet, but with pitch fx in 5-10 years we should have enough to start poking at those questions.

    The idea that throwing more promotes arm health seems counter intuitive to me since throwing a ball is such an unnatural motion.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      There has to be a balance. There’s a difference between playing catch with your dad for an hour, or even pitching to a buddy for 30 minutes … and making a start as a 9yo against another 9yo “all-star” (travelling) team where winning is paramount.

      The number of pitches may be the same, but the intensity is very different.

      For example, we could all go for a jog every day and be fine, perhaps even running 21 miles in a week. But, that’s a lot different than running 2 or 3 10K races per week.

      Volume, frequency, and intensity work together in an inverse relationship. When one factor goes up, at least one factor must decrease.

      With youth pitchers we’ve seen intensity go way up, but frequency and volume stay the same, increase, or decrease slightly.

      You put the ball in the hand of a 9yo on game day and essentially ALL of the pitches are intense.

      As a pitching coach, one of the most important things I teach guys in our bullpen sessions is that we are working on “hitting spots”, not throwing a 5-inning game down here. I liken the work to “shooting free throws”. That’s the level of intensity we’re looking for. Strong mental focus, easy on the body.

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  3. Duke says:

    There’s definitely a relationship between pitches thrown and days of rest, although the exact relationship doesn’t seem to be known. How about a study relating both factors against a pitcher’s effectiveness in his subsequent start. That is pitches in previous game and days of rest are related to a measure of the pitcher’s effectiveness. The pitcher’s effectiveness is useful in and of itself as a measure, and it also may be a proxy for health as pitching with a fatigued arm is related to injuries.

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    • Duke says:

      By the way tis study could be done with US and Japanese data separately or pooled to see if there are in fact any differences.

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  4. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Do Japanese pitchers throw less warm up pitches before games and between innings?

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  5. Max says:

    Japanese starting pitchers may throw more pitches per game, but as you said, they also pitch less often than MLB starters. And if I recalll correctly, their season is shorter. How do the leaderboards in pitches thrown per season and IP per season compare between the two countries? Wouldn’t those factors even everything out, to a point? An earlier poster mentioned year-by-year velocity charts. I feel like that would help us figure out whether Japanese pitching arms are really being overused more than American arms.

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  6. spindoctor says:

    You need to think about what our youth do with their free time today. Every generation is seemingly less active than the one before it (with some variances I’m sure). We live in the TV/Internet/Video Game generation. There are things to amuse kids that don’t involve getting out and building up the appropriate arm strength.

    Because of this changing trend, physical activity experts are lowering the expectations for kids (which I don’t agree with, but it is a fact). Here in Canada, Participaction has lowered the amount of suggested exercise for kids to 30 minutes a day from 60-90. The reasoning — given how inactive the kids are, even 30 minutes a day is beneficial. Can’t we imagine a future where kids get less and less physical activity and we lower the threshold again, suggesting 20, 15, 10, 5 minutes of activity a day because they are so lazy, its beneficial.

    You can turn it around on the hitters as well I think, not from an injury standpoint, but from a pitch recognition, plate discipline and strikeout standpoint.

    In 2010, MLB hitters are averaging just shy of 7 K’s per game. They’re on pace to strike out more than 33,750 times in 2010.

    In 2009, hitters struck out 33,591 times (6.91 K’s per game)

    In 2000, 6.45 K’s per game

    In 1990, 5.67 K’s per game

    In 1980, 4.80 K’s per game

    In a matter of three decades, hitters are striking out 40% more often. Something that would be interesting to look into as well — this generation of hitters are the kings of the swing and miss, and/or the caught looking.

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  7. patthatt says:

    I lived in Japan for ten years between ’98 and ’08, in addition to three years in the military there from ’91-’93.

    I’ve seen an awful lot of Japanese baseball and maybe some of my thoughts will be of interest here.

    Japanese pitchers tend to throw more pitches per start, as is made clear here.

    They also throw more in practice and off days, called “nagekomi” or “stretching out.”

    But I can tell you that although Japanese starters may throw more pitches per start, they do not necessarily throw more innings per year than MLB regulars do.

    When I first lived in Japan, the regular season there was either 130 or 135 games, IIRC. And then they tended to have a considerable break before the playing of the Japan Series.

    A lot of games got rained out at the stadiums without domes during the summer rainy season, and still do to some extent. The starters had more time off between starts. They could throw more pitches in a particular start and have more recovery time.

    During my second stint in Japan, NPB moved to 140 games and then about 144, IIRC. However, they have somewhat offset the increase in games by starting the season earlier, the Pacific League starts around March 20 now.
    They also did this because they have playoff series prior to the Japan Series in recent years. And for the last 10-15 years, NPB teams increasingly resemble MLB ones with the use of so many relief pitchers.

    In the past decade, I think somewhere around 35-45 MLB pitchers annually throw in excess of 200 innings in the regular season.

    I remember one year around ’05, I believe, I looked up the numbers for Japanese pitchers on the NPB site and it was only like 5 or 6, and I think one of them was a foreigner.

    I just don’t buy into this superior Japanese pitcher “toughness” thing. We’ve seen a large enough sample of Japaese starters in the majors now to know it’s not true when playing an MLB schedule anyway. (Although I would say that MLB could learn something from the Japanese at times about how to work harder on the fundamentals of the game.)

    Incidentally, one of the Japanese pitchers mentioned in the list, Yu Darvish, hardly qualifies as a typical Japanese physically. He’s 6’5 and half-Iranian. (There are few Japanese like him, just like the half-American fat boy, Hideki Irabu last decade.)

    I’m not much of a numbers guy, and I don’t want to sit here for an extended period trying to get everything right down to the last detail. I just wanted to express some thoughts on the matter.

    Anyway, interesting topic and a lot of good responses to read.

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  8. patthatt says:

    Speaking of overuse in Japan, go back and look at the career of Hideo Nomo, how he was used and abused, hurt in his last season in NPB, and why he so desperately wanted to go to MLB.

    Take a look at Daisuke Matsuzaka the past couple of years, how he is a shell of his former self, and only in his late ’20s. (I saw him pitch many times in person.) The Seibu Lions got every pitch out of him they could before getting the posting fee from the RedSox to help bail out the ailing Seibu Company and its related concerns.

    Before some MLB team tries to pony up $50 million or more to Nippon Ham to get the posting rights to Yu Darvish in the next year or two(if he ever wants to play in MLB) , they’d better think real carefully about how he’s been used, regardless of his imposing physical size and seeming durability at this stage of his young career.

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    • Fullgatsu says:

      While there could be an argument that Daisuke Matsuzaka was overused in NPB he was quite healthy during his NPB period and started getting injured more in MLB. Sure it could be said that Seibu knew that his arm was past its expire date but it could also be because of 5-man rotations/longer schedule or workout changes.

      Even though pitchers pitch longer in games in Japan they don’t seem to be as often injured as pitchers in the MLB. Sure there are some pitcher who have been devestated by injuries in japan as Tomohiro Kuroki and Kasumi Saitoh but they might be an outlier. Now I do think you right about thinking carefully of how a pitcher been used before giving him a contract but that should be for every pitcher not just those who are from from NPB.

      Also I don’t think pitch counts tell the whole story as I believe that injuries is highly dependant on the mechanics used to throw. Shunsuke Watanabe had a ~150 pitches game this season but few probably thought that was a risk to him as his slow submarine style probably causes very little stress on his arm and shoulder.

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      • patthatt says:

        Matsuzaka was usually healthy during his NPB career, but the team did abuse his arm in ’02 by having him come back to pitch too early from arm trouble in the Japan Series, and his performance was very bad.(I remember watching the game and he had no business being on the mound.)

        And I do remember him missing some time another year for arm trouble, but not too long that season.

        It’s pretty obvious that his participation in the ’09 WBC has hurt his Boston career the past 1 1/2 years. He didn’t do what was necessary to get his shoulder in shape the way the RedSox wanted him to following the ’08 season, and we’ve seen the consequences, IMO.

        The injuries he’s increasingly experiencing the past few years are a direct result of how he was overused by the Lions in NPB.

        It’s not MLB. It was just a matter of time.

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      • Fullgatsu says:

        Seibu Lions may have abused his arm during his time there but why is the problem surfacing after he went to MLB? Is it a coincident that his arm abuse from Lions surfaced at the same time as his move to MLB? Very possible but it could also be something else like change of rotation/schedule/workout. So I don’t see how you 100% certainty can say that is because of his overusage during his time with Lions.

        Also Matsuzaka was healthy during the ’09 WBC but hit the DL soon after coming back to MLB. To me this seems a little strange to not consider the possibility that something concerning MLB just doesn’t suit him.

        How do you explain Hideaki Wakui’s lack of severe injuries despite clearly being overused by MLB standard? You can say that he’s young and the problem haven’t surfaced yet but in the MLB organizations many young pitchers suffer arm problems and young pitcher are said to be the ones with worst risk of suffering arm injuries.

        While I agree that his injuries today may come from his overusage with the lions but the change to MLB may also have something to do with it, like the difference in workout which the normal NPB one is said to be quite an ordeal to foreigner but maybe it works great for getting better health out of pitchers arm.

        As I said his current arm problems might be because of past overusage but it’s also possible that it can depend on something else entirely.

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      • patthatt says:


        Matsuzaka was not completely healthy at the end of the ’08 season. The RedSox had concerns about his shoulder and gave him what they thought was a good conditioning program to follow in the offseason for it, and they were not keen on his participation in the WBC as they believed his commitment, first and foremost, should be to the team that employs him now on a $103 million investment, and not Team Japan for a preseason tournament.

        Matsuzaka decided to play for Japan in the WBC. Good for him and Japan that they repeated as champs, but it set him back for the ’09 season and the injuries continue to mount. If you watched Matsuzaka carefully during the WBC, the arm strength and velocity was not usual for him. You can believe by the final results that he was healthy if you want to, but he was not from all informed sources that I read a year and half ago.

        You’re right when you say no one can be 100% sure where his health issues are coming from the past couple years. I was wrong to say that it must be because of his overuse in Japan.

        However, there must be some connection, in my opinion. You’re entitled to yours to the contrary.

        Let me ask you question: If Matsuzaka threw as much between starts in his MLB career as he did in his NPB one, do you think he would still be fresh the last month of the regular season and for the postseason? MLB starters who pitch the full season in a 5-man rotation make several more starts in a 162-game season(and in a little less calendar time) than NPB ones do in around in about a 140-game season.

        1) MLB is a higher level of competition than NPB overall.
        2) MLB plays 20 or so more regular season games in a little less time than the NPB season, especially the Pacific League schedule.
        3) The travel in the majors is more difficult

        I don’t think it would be possible for Japanese pitchers to throw anywhere near as much in the majors due to the reasons I state above.

        If you believe differently, please tell me why.

        Thanks for the discussion.

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      • Fullgatsu says:

        I would agree that japanese pitchers probably wouldn’t be able to throw as many pitchers as they do in NPB with a 162 schedule and 5-man rotation. I would also say that the pitch counts in japan tend to be higher then they probably should be like and it’s rather concerning that Darvish is almost leading in pitches thrown/game while having knee issues.

        I do find it’s interesting that many starters in the NPB are quite healthy despite the heavy usage of them while many pitchers in the MLB are getting injuries at a young age from what seems like less usage. What this depends on I don’t know but I would probably bet it’s 6-man rotation/schedule. I think teams that want to spend big bucks at a japanese pitcher probably should be aware that many things differ from NPB to MLB and they should be ready to handle such things.

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      • patthatt says:


        My opinion after watching the game for so many years in both countries is that finding a happy medium for both would be good.

        The increased usage of relievers and decreased innings/CGs has probably been good for NPB in recent years. With the increase in regular season games from 130 to 140+, and the addition of playoff series prior to the Japan Series, it was not only good but inevitable.

        I’m not so sure I buy the idea that Japanese pitchers in NPB last longer than their non-Japanese counterparts in MLB. I could be wrong, and I’m not much of a stats guy, but it seems to me that MLB proportionally has more pitchers in their 30s and 40s than NPB does. You might be right about a higher incidence of injury to MLB guys than Japanese in their teens and 20s, but I don’t think the Japanese way necessarily leads to longer, more productive careers.

        As far as the major leagues are concerned, I think young pitchers actually need to throw a bit more in the minors-in practice and in games-as they move up throught the farm system. Once they get into a full-season league, there is too much “babying” of the pitchers, in my opinion.

        There is the money factor involved in teams “underusing” starters at times, to the extent that many young fans now believe that most starters should not throw much more than 100 pitches each outing.

        The sabermetricians have their opinions based on the numbers as to why certain things are best with how pitchers are used, but I don’t necessarily agree with them.

        I think I’ve had enough of this topic for the time being. It’s been an interesting discussion. Feel free to have the last word, if you like.

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  9. rick11p says:

    Wonder what the numbers in the Mexican league are. I do remeber Aurelio Lopez (the real 84 MVP) pitching 100 plus innings out of the pen and then going and starting 20 or so down there in the off season. I dont remember him having arm problems–then again Im fairly certain he never lifted weights and was hardly the picture of a superbly conditioned athlete

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  10. Rick says:

    How many pitches & innings do Japanese pitchers throw over the course of their careers. It’s one thing to throw a ton of pitches and/or innings over a season or even a few seasons, but what do career values look like?

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  11. Rich says:

    We all know that not all pitches are the same as far as arm wear, and that higher leverage innings are worse (guys throw harder in higher leverage). Watch any of the guys who can throw 98, and they throw 95 or so most innings.

    Now, I’ve heard that Japanese baseball is similar to softball in the respect that a runner on first with no outs is almost always followed by a sacrifice. Is it possible, that because of the amount of “free outs” given by these sacrifices, Japanese pitchers as a whole are seeing significantly less high leverage situations?

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    • Raf says:

      I’ve seen a few NPB games, and I haven’t seen that happen. Batters more often than not are swinging away.

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  12. Amiao says:

    Japanese pitchers are conditioned differently. Typically starters throw thousands of pitches during spring training. A bullpen session can be more than 200 pitches. I have heard 300 pitches bullpens and 3000+ pitches spring training.

    Yes you can say thats culture difference. They are conditioned so because they think it is useful and of course such belief is a cultural thing. Their thinking is simple: If you can throw 200 pitches you don’t get tired at 100 or 120 so you don’t screw up in your late innings.

    The reason I say this is a cultral thing is that, recently their coach in their national soccer team revealed how they condition their soccer players: If players from other country can keep running for 90 minutes, you should have the endurance to run 180 minutes then you beat them.

    Exactly the same like in Japanese baseball.

    This is the Japanese thinking. And lets see how it works in the World Cup. (No, you dont need to actually see it to know if it works.)

    MLB teams have bullpen issues when starters can’t last longer. If there is a way to condition a starter to last longer then somebody must have done that. The thing is, you can have your starter conditioned to throw more pitches, but you can’t have them to last longer. Pitchers can make the adjustment for the physical demands, like you move Joba to starter role and he automatically throw 5mph slower. You tell your starter that nobody is to replace you before 130 pitches today he will do the adjustment to his game plan. But what’s the result? You start your first inning with less heat and more than likely you get knocked out before you even reach 100. Japanese pitchers practice for the endurance between 200 and 300 pitches and when is their chance to really use it? Just like we know there are only 90 minutes in a soccer game. The extra 90 minutes of stamina that the Japanese soccer players prepared is just perfect for them to run back to their dorm after they lose the game.

    Usually it is not the pitcher or the coach who decide how many pitch the pitcher can throw. It is the hitters of the opponent team.

    Why Japanese pitchers can throw so many pitches in their pro ball?

    It is simply that the talent level of their hitters are extremely thin and those hitters just don’t respond when the pitcher is tired and they just don’t hit even if the pitcher do not give his best effort.

    Think this–If you are facing a lineup with 9 Iwamura, it won’t be really difficult to last over 130 pitchers, right?

    And no, less pitches a pitcher can throw or more strikeouts hitters get today are nothing about decreased activity level of generations. Pitchers can last for less pitches simply due to hitters are better so they have to give the best effort from the very beginning of the game. And more strikeouts are simply due to pitchers throw harder. If you are talking about conditioning today’s baseball players are much much well conditioned than 20 or 30 years ago. It is us couch potatos get less fit this generation, not those athletes making money with their body. Kids today actually play much seriously than before. Who has ever heard about travel baseballs 20 years ago?

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    • Slick says:

      I disagree with your last paragraph. While athletes appear to be better conditioned, it’s smoke and mirrors. No matter how much bigger, stronger and faster athletes get, they are still soft. The tremendous shape they get in doesn’t necessarily output into a long career or general hardiness. The food we eat and the environment we live in are weaking us. To ignore these factors in human development is akin to burying your head in the sand. Weaker genes produce weaker people. We no longer endure the hard lives of previous generations and it shows with our athletes.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        While athletes appear to be better conditioned, it’s smoke and mirrors.

        [1] Compared to what/who?
        [2] Prove it.

        The food we eat and the environment we live in are weaking us.

        I thought our food had hormones in it, and as a result we were growing stronger/larger, and developing faster (earlier avreage age of menstruation, etc). Was I not to take your comments as scientific information rather than just a good old fashioned rant?

        Weaker genes produce weaker people.

        Brother, I don;t know how to tell you this …. but the gene pool in regards to baseball has AT LEAST tripled since the “old days”. Hell, it’s probably 10 times as big as it was. larger gene pool = better genes at the top. You can prove it observationally and mathemetically. Athletes are as genetically “better” as evolution will allow. Genetically, we’re not likely much different than we were 100 years ago. But, in terms of gene pool size … we’re far larger. Furthermore, we’re not just picking our athletes from the small sample size of European immigrants. In other words, we’re not picking our athletes from a pool of “laborers”.

        Your comments make a good Bill O’Reileyesque rant, where you’re right just because you are. But, I think if you get past the self-imposed obstacles, you could see that what you are saying is just the opposite of the truth.

        What you are trying to say, I think, is that athletes lack some sort of “grit” or some such quality.

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    • patthatt says:

      The soccer conditioning thing is not a Japanese thing. Troussier was responsible for instituting a more demanding style of conditioning and play that Okada is using now.

      Hiddink was widely credited with helping the Korean team to their big run in the 2002 World Cup with their relentless conditioning, for example.

      So it’s not an Asian thing, either.

      If NPB played a 162-game regular season schedule in the same time frame that the majors plays theirs, without the earlier start to the season and the breaks late in the year to get in rained-out games, you would see an even further decrease in innings and CGs thrown by Japanese starters than has already happened in the past 10-15 years.

      NPB tends to use a lot of relievers now as well, and the frequency of pitching changes would undoubtedly go up with the hypothetical longer season, too.

      Since it is somewhat easier for NPB teams to simply activate/deactivate players between the top team and the farm one than the complicated MLB rules, I think it would be easier for them to keep relievers fresher anyway.

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