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Nomo-Seijio-No More

Well it’s been some time since I have written as there has been much work to be done. With the turn of events with my son’s 2- faced coach at his school, we have had a real tough time moving to limit the effects on his baseball career. If they expected us to react like other players they have had a rude awaking.

Yet the tough choices have been made, with some of the unexpected curve balls being used to our advantage. We searched for another team that was not part of a school program to play at the junior high level level, and found one in the West Tokyo Dodgers.

The team was named after Hideki Nomo’s time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, which started the departure of many top players from the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) to the MLB. Nomo’s problems in the NPB started with the previous owners of the Orix Buffalos, as he had his favorite coach dumped with the new management and they demanded he change his pitching style -as an adult no less. A little late one would imagine, but here in Japan the need to give top down orders hangs around much longer than back in North America. The rest is history as Nomo kept his style and went on to fantastic career in the MLB.

So my son and I joined a very solidly named team, who are part of Pony League system run out of the US. The team had even travelled to the US for some exchange tournaments, and so it was a nice fit with its team culture. Then in addition the GM for the team, a Mr. Matsumoto, set a better mix of discipline and maturity for his players. Despite being a very old gentleman he had not warmed to the obsessive discipline in his lifetime. I have talked about such things on this site before with other teams. His junior high team is still not like a western team, but by Japanese standards they are more layback at times, and then demand players click into a discipline mindset at certain points, instead of never ending orders. This is a much more secure approach on the part of the coaches, as opposed to being insecure adults who demands everyone act like automatons.

Lastly we were lucky to find this team was our closest Pony League Team in Tokyo, though we still had to travel about an hour again.

So for just over a year Rafe has played with the WTD and I have been an assistant coach for the club. Yes that right, instead of letting me sit on the sidelines, and give me odd stares when I would turn up to help, they asked me immediately if I would like to help coach. The fact I was a GM of 2 teams in Japan likely helped, but they have also offered the other fathers I have brought along to their club since also. It was their policy to get parents involved.

So are the differences in leadership compared to his Seijo Junior High Baseball Team. Seijo coaches passed on to Rafe that I was not really even supposed to sit and watch him practice, which may have been so officially, but the real goal was to force Rafe to use only one arm against all the promises made before we even wrote the entrance exam to the school.

Rafe has come into his own as a switch hitter and no one has any doubts to his switch hitting as he hits a team high on either side of the plate.
At an open baseball camp at Waseda University Rafe attracted a crowd of onlookers simply on a toss ball exercise from one side of the plate, to then shock all as he did just as well on the other side of the plate to lots of Japanese phases of astonishment.

Rafe is now 190 cm. at 15yrs. of age, and we were even more surprised to find his arm span was a whopping 195 cm. which means his height could be as high as 6’ 5” in the future. He also falls just under the maximum age limit per year. In the West that would be January 1st, yet under the Japanese system that rest on April 2nd.

Unfortunately his switch pitching has not been what we had hoped. His growth has been very steep, as he grew over 20 cm. in height in just over 2 years. So despite the increased training, with his age warranting more work, the results have not been what we hoped. The new team’s Japanese coaches did not get involved, and the issue was up to Rafe and I.

We adjusted to these facts by mid-year by playing with one arm each practice at the end of his season, as we have never demanded he pitch here in Japan, only get to practice with both arms. Yet the limited control he had in his little league time with the Chofu League disappeared. His fielding, that was advanced with the western team and Seijo, was lacking when compared to Dodgers, and we had to deal with him playing the outfield, as 1st base had their best hitter upon our arrival. So Rafe became the team’s go to pinch hitter, or would have been a DH if they didn’t play with pitchers must hit rule. He has since made great strides in his fielding and I owe this to the new team.

We have kept up the training of both arms during the week, but to give him a better chance at being a regular we have gone with one arm for fielding. Of course this arm then dipped in control when pitching even more than the non-used one. So we have the odd situation of the left getting further advanced in control over the right when pitching, as the right improves in its fielding throws. Yet the improvement that one would expect with constant use was not immediate, as again the height and arm length still caused control problems to the present day, and until he stops growing we will still have control problems. Yet the fact my son and I chose to change our two arm approach at team practices shows stubborn thinking is not what we are about.

The idle period between teams was the only noticeable issue, aside from his growth spurts, to cause us grief. The specialization advantage, that is put forth by opponents of switch pitching, has not yet won the day to date. The specialization of one arm doing one kind of throwing has made its presence felt though. This is odd as this is not the kind of specialization the opponents are pushing. The left arm doubles the strikes of the right when pitching at present. While the right has gained control slowly in fielding. It seems that one kind of throwing does benefit a player, and reaffirms the idea of trying to match positions to what a future player will need. As already stated in early articles a possible future pitcher should not be placed or practiced in the outfield if you want them to field from a pitchers position well, nor improve throwing to first via the heavy training of long throws from the outfield. Yet the short throws from many infield positions may also not help in what is needed as a pitcher either. What is needed is training that is for the pitcher from the get go, so as to end the terrible fielding of pitchers that is common knowledge, as no one cares about it much as long as they can pitch.

We have not given up on switch pitching and we are training even harder to field with the left too in our private practices, as a good training program needs the arm to do other things. Just these other elements are limited and not obsessive, as only pitching is held to higher numbers of throws. The right is only used to pitch in private, as the workload is high enough for other kinds of throws at team practices and so mid-week works outs are only at pitching for the right.

So with his approaching grade 10 and a new high school we are hoping to find a new school that has both a much better baseball team, and multiples better coaches- as it would be very hard not to find worse coaches than Seijo Junior High. Wish us luck!

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:

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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:

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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.