What exactly does “good at baseball” mean? Many people might think strong batting, but I used to be a pitcher and I tend to think that it’s more about defense. “How well can I prevent giving up runs?” It’s a point that you have to consider for games. Of course baseball is a “point-scoring game.” You win if you get more points than the opponent. However, “losing a lot of runs” will not win you many games.
“Defense.” This is the biggest issue currently facing the New Zealand team as they seek to improve. It’s clear from both the preliminary round of the 3rd WBC held summer 2012 and the 21U (21 years and younger) international tournament held last November in Taiwan. Multiple runs were given up several times. In terms not only of walks, but also bad fielding throws, the team does not have enough fear of “giving up runs.”
The common point for pitching and fielding throwing is “aim and throw.” For pitchers, it means controlling the ball so it lands in the strike zone. For pick-off plays and fielding throws, it means “aim and throw” for a location where the other fielder can make the catch and easily make a tag.
When I’m coaching in New Zealand, I’m stressing an idea at an even earlier stage. That is, “grip the ball tightly.” This is the same as we teach small kids in Japan. Why is gripping the ball properly so important?
Rubber baseball is not very common in New Zealand. Rubber baseball was born in Japan and is gradually expanding its borders to the world still now. It is safer than regulation baseball and there are many sizes of ball. It allows different balls to be used for different ages, so that kids can learn the proper way to grip a ball. In New Zealand, kids are playing with regulation-size hard baseballs which don’t match their small hands. Obviously they’re not going to be gripping properly.
Once they get used to handling the ball without holding it the proper way, it’s very hard to fix. Even more, in New Zealand, they play baseball in summer, but in winter, they tend to play other sports. So, they don’t have the time to handle the baseball year-round.
Normally, you want to build good habits when they’re kids, which is why I wanted to have them grip the ball correctly before building them up. I think this is important not only for New Zealand, but also for spreading baseball across the world.
Also, playing catch with the kids and showing them a lot of examples will be important. And getting them more practice time, making sure they get a chance to touch the ball. I’m thinking, that kind of hands-on activity and good facilities will gradually lead to New Zealand’s “strength in the field.”
Naoyuki Shimizu's World Baseball Challenge - New Zealand Diary
- Naoyuki Shimizu
- Born November 24, 1975 in Kyoto. After Nihon University and Toshiba Fuchu, he was picked in the second round of the '99 draft and joined Lotte. Starting in 2002 he threw the league standard for five years in a row and had a string of years with victories in the double digits as an ace pitcher. In 2005, he contributed to Lotte's first Japanese championship in 31 years. In 2004 he appeared in the Athens Olympics and in 2006 at the 1st World Baseball Classic (WBC) as a representative of Japan. From 2010 he joined Yokohama (Yokohama DeNA). In 12 years as a professional he earned 105 wins and his earned run average was 4.16. After retiring, he currently works as assistant to the general manager of Baseball New Zealand and as integration coach for that country's representatives.