Before MLB career, Tsutsugo aims to improve baseball at home

FILE - In this March 15, 2017, file photo, Japan's Yoshitomo Tsutsugo watches the flight of his solo home-run off Israel's pitcher Dylan Axelrod in the sixth inning of their second round game at the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. Before he pursues a career in Major League Baseball, Tsutsugo is on a mission to fix the sport in his native country. Tsutsugo said Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, after the 2018 season that he wants to play for an MLB team in the future. He will be eligible for international free agency in 2021 after 11 seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Having already signed a contract to play for the Yokohama BayStars in 2019, the 27-year-old outfielder could go as early as 2020 via the posting the system. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

TOKYO — Before he pursues a career in Major League Baseball, Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is on a mission to fix the sport in his native country, including the abolishment of what he says is corporal punishment and grueling practices.

Tsutsugo said after the 2018 season that he wants to play for an MLB team in the future. He will be eligible for international free agency in 2021 after 11 seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

Having already signed a contract to play for Yokohama in 2019, the 27-year-old outfielder could go as early as 2020 via the posting system.

"My wish is to go to MLB someday," Tsutsugo said on Friday at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "But for the time being I'm focused on helping Yokohama win a championship."

Tsutsugo's priorities off the field are focused on improving Japanese baseball at the grass-roots level. He's written a book on the subject and spoke at length about it at Friday's press conference.

Marathon pitching efforts, grueling practices and even corporal punishment are all too common in Japanese amateur baseball and Tsutsugo says it all needs to change to keep the sport growing in Japan. Baseball is still Japan's most popular sport but recent numbers show high school participation is declining.

"I've seen cases where coaches scream at kids and even become violent," Tsutsugo said. "Coaches and children need to respect each other in order for children to make progress."

Noting there were pitch counts when he represented Japan at the World Baseball Classic, Tsutsugo said he'd like to see rules making pitch counts mandatory at all levels of Japanese baseball

Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was the poster boy for marathon pitching in his high school days. In the quarterfinal of the 1998 Koshien summer tournament, Dice-K threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning performance. That followed a 148-pitch complete-game shutout the previous day in extreme heat.

In addition to Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani also came through the Japanese high school baseball system only to have arm injuries in their professional careers.

But change comes slow in Japanese baseball. Nothing appeals more to fans of the high school tournament than an ace pitcher throwing a complete game.

"Change would be very difficult," said one amateur Japanese baseball official requesting anonymity. "A lot of what goes on is an inherent part of Japanese culture."

Tsutsugo says he knows change is hard but says it's the only way forward.

"You have to think about the future of the children," Tsutsugo said. "That's the bottom line."

In 2016, Tsutsugo led the Central League in home runs (44) and RBIs (110) and helped the BayStars reach the postseason. He is a four-time All-Star and three-time Best Nine winner.

This past season, Tsutsugo hit .295 with 38 home runs and 89 RBIs. Over nine seasons and 837 games with DeNA, he has a .287 batting average with 176 homers and 534 RBIs.

Also on the horizon are the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. With his impressive numbers at the plate, Tsutsugo is a leading candidate to represent the host nation when baseball makes its return to the games.

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