Junior High Switch Pitcher (Part-4 : Taking a Lead at Second)
Should parents opt for a school with an elite baseball program or a solid academic school with a less well known baseball program? In our family we all agreed and went for the solid academic school.
There are some advantages for our situation in the area of baseball, as this school which is known less for baseball could and was more open to trying new ideas to win. The coaching staff has been warm to my son’s switch pitching ability, which say, a more “successful program” with 20-30 boys waiting to play might not have considered. Once again there were some awkward times and likely some doubts about having such skills as advertised, but at his age it doesn’t take long to show a true ambidextrous ability. When he was younger it was less clear, and more open to interpretation.
That is why I’m happy to find Tim Knight and his son Henry Knight going through some of the same troubles at Switch Pitching 101.
Japanese teams have the reputation of being big on fielding often at the expense of other skills. The level of training was very much upped to a much higher standard in a big way for my son Rafe. With four hours a day 3-4 times a week the daily grind has been tough for my boy. With whole days occasionally lost as they go to a slightly out of town location here:
It has a cabin for lunch, a baseball storage shack and dug out, but as you can see from the photos it is surrounded by trees and bush as opposed to most city diamonds that have high netting to stop balls from hitting homes and cars and the like.
Seijo Gakuin is an upper level private school and demands passing very difficult exams to enter, that rank at the upper levels of schools in Japan, though not at the tops in difficulty. One needs to have no free time to pass JH and HS schools that get you ready to pass exams to get into Tokyo University, as one of my son’s friends, who he had practice with years ago, disappeared to give up on any advance baseball playing for the future as he tried for Wasada’s Boarding School in Kyushu.
There is no English aspect to the tests, as English only comes into play at some high school level and carries on to all the universities of note, so for a foreign student, or one with mixed backgrounds, one would need to work hard at the books that would not match most western institutions. For example math at grade 6 would be considered at least high school level, and then there is chemistry and biology which can be hard to imagine, but used to be found in western schools before modern times and there Prussian Educational System.
Japanese as a written language is very hard as there are really 4 major scrips to be learned: Hiragan, Katakana, Romanji and Chinese Characters. The first 3 are relatively easy compared to the last, as Chinese Characters are seemingly endless and in there thousands. Rafe has had a hard time, but still passed the exams and if you compared him to the population as a whole he is well on his way. Yet from now on everyone else will have to have English exams and there my son is so prepare that the class is almost a non-one, if it were not for the intricacies of learning English from non-native speakers most of the time. I’ll leave that for your imagination.
So this meant, for those interested in a challenge, that Rafe had cram school during the week, after regular school, 5- 6 nights a week employed over 3 years before the final entrance exams. This will certainly eat into baseball skills training big time. My boy did lose some control as he worked to pass the exams as a rightful priority. Yet now that he has made it in and is on the educational “escalator system,” which in Japan means much milder testing to go to Seijo High School and Seijo University, the question still remains was it worth it?
We visited Seijo twice in 2012 & 2013 at their open house for future students and found out at that time that the English teacher was the staff baseball coach at that time, and I chatted some time with him about my son’s ability, to prep & check the school to see how welcoming they were to the idea. Avoiding a stubborn coach who is “not interested in a foreigner with a half breed boy trying a crazy idea like switch pitching (and to a much lesser extent switch hitting), which has never been done before in Japan” was to be avoided at-all-costs.
On one occasion in the past with Edogawa Minami they had welcomed my son, as he was a good prospect due to height and strength, but they then moved to cancel any pledge made by the leadership to us at 8 years old. Yet in JH Seijo case the teacher was open to the idea and is so to date (knock on wood), but I could tell he thought our boy might not pass the exams to enter as boys that play for baseball teams are seldom able to pass such elevated curriculum as a general rule. The staff member was later a bit surprised to see us a members of the school and this groundwork had its effect in showing how serious we were.
My being a GM for the Honshu Rounders Baseball Club allowed me more weight in presenting this position as we did play Japanese teams. When we played some of the international community this year we had 7 wins and one loss, but the Japanese teams practice regime, which I have already covered in earlier articles, meant fewer and farther wins against them. Our team is filled with some players that come to us for 3 to 2 years, on average, and we face Japanese players that have been with their teams since 8- years old.
At this very early stage of Rafe’s joining the Seijo team other steps needed to be taken as well. Most freshman, which would be grade 7 in middle school, are not mixed immediately to the second year and senior class practices or games, as they are nowhere near ready for the steep climb from sitting at a desk for the last 2 years, to pass the exams, to the often staggering levels of drills and wind sprints. Yet to prove you are something special you can’t just ask for a special role, but go out and prove it to those who are part of the team. So I asked for my boy to join the seniors very early (more than 2 months before the other freshmen). They told me he couldn’t play in the games, due to registration, unifrom and insurance, and they might have thought that this would end our early eagerness, but were again surprise that we were still game for these senior practices and came to all of them.
We had practices & games still with the RBC Little League team and so added even more practices to the ones at Seijo’s. These first practices were almost too much for my son, as he barely finished them at first, and he needed his extra stamina he had gained with me privately at the park between studying in full. Complaining of tough practices with me or Seijio nearly totally disappeared from my son, as with other boys it isn’t cool to whine, despite being a heck of a lot harder practices. After about the third grueling practice he started to come into his own and had caught up in conditioning, yet his first one had him leaning more on the rake to stand up at the end of the first day than to rake the diamond flat, and he slept the sleep of the dead that night. Here he is a few practices after with a little more energy and the Cheery Blossoms abloom:
As for skills it was more foggy as one has to measure the others knowledge of the drills and there endless repeating of them with a grain of salt. Still Rafe was towards the top 25% of the team with either arm, which surprised even me. I put this down to his focus being at a whole new level as all the new faces meant my son mustering all he had to fit in. His long lay off was more to be seen in the understanding the game and backing up responsibilities. Yet I was also surprised by how he came to do longer stretching sessions on his own when the Japanese stretching skipped certain switch pitcher concerns.
The wind sprints and running drills that one must experience here in Japan has to be seen to be believed, but I had for many years watched and had prepped Rafe for them. There were about 10 drills that were of interest to me as a coach, but I was most impressed with the number of squatting drills which I would have loved to do with our team but would certainly discourage team turn out if I was to demand like a drill sergeant what they had going for them at Seijo.
Only one drill was not to my liking, and that was the throwing to the other partner drill, who then bats the ball back to the thrower in a what seems gentle way, almost like a pair of players throwing warm up, but with one having a bat. The focus and bat control are admirable, but it just makes the boys chop the ball in a downward motion, like a lumberjack as the batters make it bounce to their partner. I have been training my players to swing at the level of the ball with a zip-n-hit as described in an earlier article, so I feel I need to counter this habit forming drill when we practice together at the park. Once something has become an accepted baseball routine it is hard to change here. That being said most Japanese baseball routines are solid and superior to ones I have seen back home, but not this one.
Japanese hitting is hurt by this angle drill that most teams do, and that at the little league level they are very aware of walks via base-on-balls and tend to not swing much because of it. With pitching being weak at these younger levels the result is team wins, via walks, more than hits. Base stealing is allowed at the little league level so you can go far by getting lots of walks when pitching is so weak and a strike zone is not expanded much for the youth.
This is in conflict with western based teams, where the idea of making sure to be struck out “by a swing”, not a “called strike” is rightly the good course to created better hitters. Well more later.