Yoshii tries to mix and match MLB and NPB styles as pitching coach in Sapporo
by Bob Timmermann
Brad Lefton of the New York Times profiles retired MLB and NPB pitcher Masato Yoshii, who is starting his first year as the pitching coach for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Yoshii pitched 19 seasons at the top level in Japan and North America, five of them in MLB for the Mets, Rockies, and Expos. Yoshii is one of the few players to leave Japan, come to the U.S. and then go back. And Yoshii is the first Japanese player to have played in MLB to become a coach in NPB since Hideo Nomo started the exodus in 1995.
One glimpse of Yoshii in his new role shows he is not afraid to continue his trendsetting ways. The key is his stopwatch. With it, he is bucking the tradition here of allowing pitchers to throw an unlimited number of pitches in pursuit of muscle memorization and a certain level of machismo.
Instead, he encourages pitchers to practice within a defined number of minutes. In so doing, he said he hoped pitchers would throw less, cutting down on fatigue and the likelihood of injuries. He learned to appreciate that concept in the United States.
“We have a relatively young pitching staff,” Yoshii said. “So far they’ve been receptive to the idea of pitching to time instead of pitch counts, but I’m not forcing this on anyone. If someone wants to throw beyond the allotted time, I don’t say, ‘No way.’ I let them do it, but with an eye toward caution and not letting their pitch counts get out of hand.”
On this day, he gave each pitcher 25 minutes on the mound, reasoning it would keep them below 100 pitches. One pitcher threw 103. “That was the coach’s fault,” Yoshii said with a laugh. “I forgot to start the watch.”
Yu Darvish is considered a pitching prodigy in Japan. Darvish had a breakout year in 2007 at age 21. He won the Sawamura award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young, with a 15-5 record and 1.82 earned run average. He led the league in strikeouts and complete games, and was named the league’s most valuable player.
“This guy’s got all the natural talents of a pitcher like you’ve never seen,” Yoshii said. “He has excellent command of at least five pitches. He’s tall, his arms are long; he simply possesses everything a pitcher needs. At 21, he’s already the best pitcher in Japan.
“The best thing I can offer him is a way to work out that minimizes the risk of injury. He already understands good pitching mechanics and has impeccable control.”