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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 21 (Yonhap) -- Lee Su-min, a South Korean high school pitcher, has put up impressive statistics this season. One number, however, has generated concerns about his long-term health.
So far in the national high school weekend league, the senior left-hander with Daegu Sangwon High School has pitched 62 1/3 innings and struck out 88. His ERA is a minuscule 0.44. In an April game, Lee struck out 26 batters in 10 innings, setting the record for most Ks in a South Korean baseball game, amateur or professional.
The 17-year-old has made six starts and one relief appearance this year, and all six starts have been complete games.
Lee's number of pitches, though, has been the most disconcerting figure in the eyes of many.
In his seven games, Lee has thrown 974 pitches, an average of a whopping 139 pitches per game. In his most recent outing last weekend, Lee threw 178 pitches in 9 2/3 innings, as his Sangwon lost to Bugil High School 1-0 in 10 innings in the round of 16 at a national tournament.
Lee's latest start has reignited a debate over the excessive workload on teenage players. Fans began calling for pitch count limits, while others pointed out that there is no strong correlation between the number of pitches thrown and the likelihood of injuries.
The two principal figures in this debate, Lee and his manager, Park Young-jin, told Yonhap News Agency that there's no need to make a fuss over the pitcher's health.
Lee, listed at 180 centimeters and 84 kilograms, said he has felt no ill effects from high pitch counts this year.
"Since we're playing only on weekends, we get about five days off in between games," Lee said in a phone interview on Monday. "On my off days, I work with professional trainers at a rehab hospital (in Daegu), doing some strengthening exercises and getting massages. I am not pitching on consecutive days, and so it's OK."
Park, the manager, said the thorough off-day treatment Lee receives would make even pro ball players jealous.
"We're managing him so that he can throw a lot of pitches in one game and still be ready for the next game," Park said. "In the second half of this year, I may use Lee as a closer and let other players start."
The landscape of high school baseball has changed dramatically in recent years. Since 2011, teams have been playing only on weekends within their regions. Regional champs in each half of the year qualify for the two national tournaments, the Gold Lion Cup for the first half and the Blue Dragon Cup for the second half.
The two tournaments also double as the weekend league championship series, and games in these tournaments are only played on weekends, too.
Lee has indeed enjoyed a few days off in between his starts. His appearances have come on March 17, 24 and 30, and then on April 7 and 13. This month, he has pitched on May 12 and 19.
For all the rest Lee's been getting, averaging nearly 140 pitches per appearance still seems a bit extreme for a teenager. Even grown-ups don't throw that much in South Korea.
In the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), the country's top league, teams have started to follow examples of Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs and have clearly defined roles for their pitchers -- starters, middle relievers, setup men and closers. Teams have relied increasingly less on starting pitching and bullpens have come to assume a larger role.
Through last weekend's games this season, only 13 pitchers have averaged six innings or more per outing. Jo-Jo Reyes, a former big leaguer now with the SK Wyverns, leads the KBO with 998 pitches in 10 starts, just fewer than 100 pitches per outing.
The controversy surrounding high school hurlers' pitch counts is hardly new in South Korea, where high numbers of pitches have long been associated with heroic performances.
Before the inception of the weekend league, when four national championships counted the most, teams played on any day of the week, often on back-to-back days. Their win-at-all-costs mantra, coupled with the fact that few schools were blessed with multiple aces on their staff, forced the top hurlers to often start on consecutive days.
Some performances have been the stuff of legend. As a high school sophomore in 1975, Choi Dong-won, the late KBO star, pitched a no-hitter one day and had a no-hitter going until the eighth inning the very next day.
Choi was one of a few pitchers who went on to have a successful pro career after experiencing a heavy workload in high school or college. Park Young-jin, Lee's manager and a former pitcher himself, appeared in six consecutive games as he led Sangwon High School to the championship at a national tournament in 1977. Park, who estimated that he threw over 1,000 pitches in that six-game stretch, was named the best pitcher of the tournament. After an equally taxing collegiate career, Park made just seven KBO appearances in 1982 and 1984, throwing only 9 1/3 innings.
The trend hasn't changed much in recent years. In 2006, Jung Young-il, a former minor league prospect for the Los Angeles Angels in the MLB, hurled 242 pitches in 13 2/3 innings at a national tournament. Later that same year, he threw 222 pitches in 16 innings in another tournament. Jung underwent Tommy John Surgery to repair damaged elbow ligament in 2008.
High pitch counts have also been prevalent in Japan. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old named Tomohiro Anraku threw 772 pitches over 46 innings, in a span of five games in nine days, at the famous Koshien national tournament. Daisuke Matsuzaka, a former Boston Red Sox standout, once threw 413 pitches in a three-day stretch at the same event in 1998.
Proponents of pitch-count limits argue that young players will wilt under such heavy workloads before they can even blossom. One MLB scout, however, told Yonhap News Agency that there's "inconclusive evidence" that throwing a lot of pitches will automatically lead to injuries.
"You just have to consider that it's an imperfect science," said the scout, who asked to remain anonymous. Having worked in Asia for a few years, the scout said he's used to seeing young Asian players throw well over 100 pitches a game.
"I don't want to say (throwing many pitches) is fine," the scout said. "But people that are getting upset about these things don't have anything to point to and say, 'this is really bad.'"
The scout said if major league front offices learned about pitch counts in South Korea, "they'd be really worried."
But he also said he hears about "fewer Tommy Johns here than I do in the U.S." High school baseball governing bodies in many states impose limits on innings pitched. Pitch-count limits are recommended by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) but are not mandatory. As of 2012, Vermont was the only state with hard caps on pitch counts for varsity, junior varsity, freshmen and middle levels.
An official at the Korea Baseball Association (KBA), which governs amateur baseball, said the KBA has only had "preliminary discussions" on implementing measures to protect high school pitchers, and it has no immediate plans to institute limits on innings or number of pitches.
For Lee, having a competitive fire is also a factor. Park, his manager, said he talks to Lee two days before his start and he tries to respect the player's own decision.
"He wants to keep throwing," Park said. "He is not the kind of pitcher who avoids tough situations. He wants to start every game."
Park quipped that he'd be the last man to grind his young pitchers into the ground because his own playing career was cut short by excessive throwing.
Lee said when he starts a game, he'd much rather finish it himself.
"When I start, I never even think about who will pitch in relief after me," Lee said. "When I am pitching, my manager doesn't even have other pitchers warming up in the bullpen. He knows my personality."
Lee said he wouldn't mind closing games and giving his teammates a chance to start, but added he still wants to be the starter when his school goes up against a strong opponent.
"As long as my arm feels good, I'd like to keep starting," Lee said. "I haven't put too much thought into my number of pitches. I get plenty of rest in between, and so it's fine."
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