Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Carp slugger Seiya Suzuki taking nothing for granted

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

The only thing old school about Seiya Suzuki is his work ethic, because the strong-armed, hard-hitting Hiroshima Carp outfielder is not in the habit of conforming to tradition for the sake of it.

“I am continually trying to master new things. Because if I don’t succeed, they’re going to fire me,” Suzuki told Kyodo News in a recent interview. “Baseball is a game of numbers, but you are competing against human beings, so you can never let up. You have to constantly improve.”

That may be, but baseball is also a cultural conduit in which players are expected to uphold traditions, and those who go against the grain can face various kinds of resistance from the establishment. Yet, Suzuki said he was taught in high school that simply conforming is not the same as growing and succeeding.

“(When I turned pro) I just wanted to focus on doing everything that I had to do, because if you fail, no matter what you do, you’re going to get fired,” he said.

“I was thinking, ‘If that happens, I can go work at a different job. No problem.’ But I want to give this my best possible shot before I’m finished.”

Since then, the fleet-footed power hitter has won three Central League Best Nine Awards and two Golden Gloves since becoming Hiroshima’s starting right fielder on Aug. 6, 2015, 12 days shy of his 21st birthday. Now 25, and a player major league scouts have their eyes on, Suzuki said he was taught to approach the game that way by his high school coach.

“Despite never getting to Koshien (and the national championships), high school was a great experience,” he said, even if it was a little old fashioned, with weight training mostly an afterthought.

Indeed, lifting weights is still looked on with suspicion by many pro and amateur teams. But despite his limited exposure at a young age, Suzuki has taken to weight training with a passion. It’s not surprising that since turning pro, Suzuki has gained 13 kg.

“We did (weight training), but what we did the most was practice,” he said. “In Japan the volume of practice is very high. When I turned pro we were taught how important weight training was, and so that changed.

“It fascinated me from the very first time I did it, and I’ve learned and now practice various different methods. It’s night and day (in terms of knowledge) from where I was before.”

In that respect, he has something in common with Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who also took his weight training to new lengths as a pro.

Like Ohtani, Suzuki was a hard-throwing high school pitcher and prodigious power hitter, and he, too, only expected to do one or the other as a pro. Unlike the current Angels star — who is a month older, Suzuki preferred hitting.

“I never thought about doing what he did,” said Suzuki, who was clocked throwing 148 kph off the mound in high school. “Doing either one is difficult enough, so what he (Ohtani) did was simply amazing.”

Suzuki suggested that what makes Ohtani special is his mental ability to concentrate completely on one thing at a time.

“For him to be able to manage that while having to think about all those other things. That in itself is an exceptional talent,” said Suzuki, who had enough trouble as it was just finding his best position.

The Carp drafted Suzuki in the second round of the 2012 draft as an infielder. In his minor league debut season, his 13 errors in 62 games at third base and 10 in 36 games at short were probably more than Hiroshima expected.

But defensive shortcomings didn’t keep Carp farm team manager Junzo Uchida from leaving Suzuki in the lineup. Only about 10 percent of first-year pros out of high school get regular playing time, even on the farm team, but Suzuki was one of the chosen few.

“He (Uchida) put me in games,” Suzuki said. “If he hadn’t done that, I don’t know what would have happened. Because when you turn pro, it’s not that easy to get put into the farm team lineup all of a sudden.”

Suzuki said he tried just about everything he could to adjust to pro-level pitching until he found what worked for him.

“There are all kinds of pitchers in the pros and, as a hitter, you have to be able to time all of them,” he said. “I went with no step, sliding my front foot, a short step, a leg kick. I think that comes under the heading of one’s ability to adjust.”

“If I go to the majors — and this is just hypothetical — I would probably revert to that process in order to adjust.”

And are the major leagues a part of his future?

“I have dreams, but I’m not talking about them,” he said.