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Young pitcher’s recent outing reignites debate on pitch counts

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 principle figures in this debate, Lee and his manager, Park Young-jin, told Yonhap 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 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 ballplayers 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, the country’s top league, teams have started to follow examples of Major League Baseball 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. (Yonhap News)