Lefty pitcher C.J. Nitkowski's fascinating career began when the Reds drafted him in the first round in 1994. From there, he pitched in the Tigers, Astros, Mets, Cardinals, Rangers, Yankees, Braves, Pirates and Nationals organizations, also pitching in a number of Triple-A towns along the way, before playing in Japan and then Korea. With big-leaguers like Kevin Youkilis, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad and Luke Scott now heading overseas, and Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka in the process of signing with a North American team, Nitkowski's unique perspective seems more timely than ever. Nitkowski's career ended in 2012, and he currently works as an analyst for MLB.com, CBS Sports and MLB Network Radio. He can also be found on Twitter. This interview has been edited for length.
MLBTR: What is it like to have to [bounce around] from year to year and not know where you're going to be?
CJN: I really thought my career was over in 2002, and it didn't end until last January, so I always felt I was on borrowed time anyway. [And] at least early on, for me, I always felt like I was still going to be in the game. It's just a matter of where you're going to be. It wasn't that bad. It was probably harder on my wife, as far as the travel goes, or getting released suddenly. I just kind of got used to it, to be honest with you. I think, probably because I was traded my first full year — I was drafted by the Reds in '94 and traded at the deadline in '95, so right away, I was on that carousel. Almost immediately in my career, I was used to moving around. I never got frazzled by it. If anything, the stress level would have been on her, just because she had the kids, and a lot of times she was doing things by herself, and moving by herself. But for me personally, I'd gotten so accustomed to it.
As a Triple-A player, how do you follow big-league baseball? Do you look for situations where you might be able to help?
Oh, sure, especially [when] I was older. When you're younger, you're in an organization, you're paying attention to what's going on up top, and you kind of know what your opportunities are going to be. Your job is just to make sure that you're ready. But as you get older, if you're fortunate enough to get an out clause in your contract, which I had a bunch toward the end of my career, then you're paying attention to everything that's going on.
Some guys completely leave that stuff up to their agent, and aren't involved. [But] I was always proactive, especially in the second half of my career, making sure I really knew what was going on in different organizations, and where I thought there were needs and where I could sell myself as a potential fit. Having that out clause was big, just because you see what's going on, you say, "Wow, there's a team that really has a need right now," and you try to use that to your advantage. A good agent should be on top of it, but I always tell guys, especially when you're in the minor leagues and you're older, there's not a lot of benefit for your agent. It's more work than it probably is worth. So you really need to be proactive and take a little more control of your career. I was always a guy who did that, and there were quite a few times when it worked for me.
When I was with the Pirates in '05, I was pitching really well in Triple-A, probably the best I've pitched, and really just paying close attention to what was going on. [I] saw the Nationals had a need, and we were able to work something out where I had my out clause and went to pitch for them. When I got released by the Braves in '04, [I] called the Yankees myself, because I realized they had a need. I was on a guaranteed contract with the Braves anyway, so I knew I was going to get a big-league salary the rest of the year. I called them, and they called me back, and within a couple hours, they said, "Yeah, it's a good fit." I knew what was going on there.
What do you think organizations owe people who are in your situation, Triple-A veterans who might see opportunities in other organizations?
It can be frustrating, because if you don't have the out [clause], you're sitting there going, "Ugh, I cannot believe I decided to sign with this team, and gosh, if I were in that organization right now, of course I would get a callup." [You don't] know whether you actually would or not, but you believe you would've. You see an opportunity with other teams in the big leagues, and you might see it as, "They have nothing in Triple-A." And here you are, pitching great for an organization that doesn't have opportunities, or an organization that just doesn't particularly see you as a guy that they're going to make a move with.
A lot of times, guys will feel like they've been lied to or misled [by] organizations that want to stockpile some older veterans. Which we don't see as much as we used to. But there would be teams that would just want to get a bunch of veteran guys around, and then kind of hold onto them. It can be really frustrating when you feel like you're doing a good job, or you feel like you're absolutely ready to go back to the big leagues or get to the big leagues, but you can't get out. I've always told guys to be very careful, when you become an older guy, about where you sign, and what organization you sign with.
It's a really good idea to talk to other players, and see how their experience went with a front office. I remember a good buddy of mine — two years in a row, he'd call me and ask me about organizations, and both times, I told him not to sign with them, because I had a bad experience [with] the front office, and both times, he did it anyway. And both times, he called me in the middle of the year, going, "I can't believe I'm stuck in this organization." I said, "Man, I told you." You're in your mid-30s in Triple-A. That was not a place you want to be. Even though it might look like there was opportunity up top, it's not the right spot. You look around, you pay attention, you talk to other guys, make sure you get an organization where you feel like you'll be treated like a professional.
A lot of players who take opportunities overseas [wouldn't] be starters in the big leagues, but might be just an injury or two from being starters in the big leagues. What is it like to have to make that decision between going overseas and having to wait for an opportunity that might [present itself] in the US?
The first time, I turned it down. I finished the '02 season with Texas, and pitched pretty well, outside of my usual walks being too high. Everything else was pretty good. And I had a choice to either go to Japan for a salary of a little over $500K, or sign back with Texas, and if I made the team I would have been making about that same salary. There was nothing guaranteed, [and] the money to go to Japan was guaranteed. But the opportunity [with the Rangers] looked good.
That was a tough decision for me. And probably a month into the season, I regretted it. It was actually really bad for me [with] Texas, probably the worst I ever pitched in the beginning of that '03 season, and then [I] sat in Triple-A the rest of the year and probably made $100K total for the year. I could have made five or six times that going to Japan. When you get on the cusp — I was probably 30 at the time — when you're not sticking in the big leagues, or you're not getting that opportunity, but guaranteed money comes up in Japan, it's really difficult.
The second time around for me, in '06, it was a no-brainer. I spent the entire season in Triple-A. I was 33 years old. I couldn't wait for another opportunity to try to get over to Asia, because they're not easy to come by. As soon as it came, it was a really easy decision to go at that point in my career.
It's hard for guys. They feel like they're giving up on their dreams, giving up on being a big-leaguer. But that's not necessarily the case, especially now. Guys come back all the time. Guys go to Asia all the time. You always have that opportunity to come back, but if you don't have a guaranteed contract here in the states, and you have some really good guaranteed money to go over to Asia, I'd recommend taking it. Now, that's because I personally loved the experience over there. Not everybody does. It's not for everybody.
What's the most surprising about playing your first season in Japan?
The coaches. They're light years behind on sports psychology compared to where [US baseball is] these days. And even then, over the evolution of my career, when I first came up, there were no mental skills coaches, and there were by the end of my career. That became pretty common. I don't know about every team, but probably pretty close.
Over there, they're a good 20, 30 years behind. Expectations can be pretty unrealistic. That was tough. I had a couple very difficult coaches, and a couple instances where they were really, really tough on me, and it seemed pretty undeserv[ed].
You mean expectations in terms of your work ethic, or they wanted you to be a superstar, or what?
Just more on-the-field performance. They would say the wrong things. I remember my translator coming out with the pitching coach one time. I had just got done warming up. I was a reliever in Japan. And my pitching coach, through my translator, says to me, "Hey, I really need you to pitch perfect today, in this game." Of course, that's ridiculous. If I could pitch perfect, I wouldn't be in Japan.
The first time I got sent down to the [Japanese] minor leagues, they were really upset because I [allowed] a base hit to a left-handed hitter. He hit a line drive over the shortstop's head after I got ahead in, like, a 1-2 count. And they were really upset about it. At the time, my ERA was under one and a half, and I got sent to the minor leagues. And I was like, "This is crazy." I think I was probably in a more stringent coaching situation [with] the team that I was on. Not all the teams are like that. But mine definitely was.
How is playing in Korea different from playing in Japan?
Korean baseball, even though they're years behind as far as how long they've been playing the game, especially professionally, they have a little bit closer to an American style of baseball. They're a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, and generally, as a culture, they're a little bit more aggressive. That definitely plays out on the baseball field. They're just behind. The country is obviously smaller, too. If they had the same population size and they had been playing the game as long, I tell people the Koreans would be better than the Japanese. You get a little bit more of an aggressive style of play. [In] Japanese baseball, [there's] a little bit more contact, a lot of running, not a lot of power. And I hate to use the phrase "small ball," but that is kind of how they play. They'll bunt in the first inning in Japan, where you won't necessarily see that in Korea.
Can you comment on Masahiro Tanaka's workload? How do you think that will affect him as he [adjusts] to the Major Leagues?
I'm not too worried about him. [Yu] Darvish was a guy who wanted to throw a complete game every single time he went out there, [and] he didn't care how many pitches it took. I never worried about it for him. He's now at that two-year mark that seems to be the mark where you have to keep an eye on guys. That's about the time when Daisuke [Matsuzaka] started to struggle and eventually got hurt. I think Darvish is a little bit different because of his body type [and] how strong he is, and it seems like the Texas Rangers have done a pretty good job of keeping an eye on that.
I'm not worried about it, as long as [Tanaka] gets in a situation with a team that's aware of that. If he's on a six- or seven-year deal, you've got to treat it like you're in it for the long haul. He's a pretty strong kid. I know people get worried and they see the 160 pitches, and he comes back and [pitches in] relief the next day. I've done that in college before. We've gotten smarter about pitch counts, but I remember throwing 155 pitches in a game and then coming in in relief.
The big thing, when he gets here, is the workload away from games. The pitch counts in bullpens are [what] always blew me away. Tsuyoshi Wada was a teammate of mine in Japan. He's a smaller guy, doesn't throw as hard. He was a guy I was worried about. He threw a 247-pitch bullpen in spring training one year, and I remember sitting there and watching the end of it. It was ridiculous. He was exhausted. And he wasn't even doing anything productive.
But there was always such a pride factor in how many pitches they would throw in spring training. The team that I played for, it would be on the front page of the newspaper, the total number of pitches guys threw in practice. And we just had this first-round draft pick, this guy coming out of college, and he basically had to be first, and he was. That, to me, worries me more than [Tanaka's] actual game usage. There's an adjustment for those guys coming over, especially going to the five-day rotation.
Generally, in that culture, they think completely the opposite of the way we do, in the sense that we'll say, "Get quality work in over quantity." Leo Mazzone was big on that. Just get what you have to do done, make it count, do it well, and get out of here. Over there, it's completely the opposite. It's, "How long were you working? Whether or not you're dead tired and the quality of your reps is not good anymore doesn't matter. Just keep doing it." It's more about the practice in between, which I think [Japanese pitchers transitioning to the US] will love [once they change to the US system]. It takes a little while, because there's a mental adjustment for them. But for the most part, I think they end up liking it that way. But you do have to sell them on it a little bit.
You never know. But I wouldn't be too concerned about [the innings]. If anything, his career will last longer by coming here. [There's] certainly a much better chance that he [wouldn't have lasted], had he stayed in Japan for the bulk of his career.
Was that a concern you had when you were over there?
No, I didn't have to worry about it too much. They let us do our thing. I remember spring training my first year with the [Fukuoka SoftBank] Hawks, say practice would start at 9:00. The foreign guys, especially the pitchers, could get out of there by 1:00. So we were pretty much on a normal schedule. Japanese guys would be coming back to the hotel [at] 7:00 at night still in their uniforms. It's all about the quantity and not necessarily the quality. They would just work those guys to the bone. I felt terrible for them, especially the pitchers.
I watched a teammate of mine throw a 150-pitch bullpen in spring training, which is way too many, and then come back the next day and throw ten minutes of live batting practice. And I said, "What are you doing, man? Do you realize the wear and tear on your arm?" And he was joking with me, he said, "Oh no, I've got Japanese power and Japanese soul." It's the back-to-back stuff, and doing stuff while you're already fatigued, which is when your risk of injury goes up. He ended up having a cast from his elbow to almost his shoulder for, like, three or four months. That, to me, is the bigger concern. Not so much the pitch count during the game. I know that's a big deal now, and I understand why, and I'm not saying I'm against it. But it's more of the other work that goes into it.