Japan’s award weirdness

All-everything Tetsuto Yamada in full swing.

One hears a lot of teeth gnashing and groaning during Japan’s award season, and for good reason.

The MVP awards are, more often than not, an exercise in trying to pick the best player on the pennant-winning team. How this started, no one seems to know, but reporters I’ve quizzed about it say voters will never be criticized for selecting a player on a pennant-winning team or a player from another team, provided he has an outlier season — such as Wladimir Balentien shattering Japan’s single-season home run record despite playing for a last-place team. It seems progress is being made on this front.

Take 2014 for instance.

The 2014 Pacific League winner was Buffaloes pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, whose team lost the pennant by a matter of winning-percentage points. The runner-up was this year’s MVP, Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, and third place went to slugging Fighters ace Shohei Otani, who was the league’s second best pitcher and its second most valuable designated hitter and thus a better candidate than Kaneko…

A year ago, the Central League award went to Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose team won the pennant by seven games. But second place went to Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who like Yanagita had his breakthrough season in 2014 before running away with the 2015 vote. Third place in the CL last year went to Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger.

The Swallows dominated this year’s MVP voting despite winning the league by 1-1/2 games over the Giants. One has to wonder how the vote would have been different had the Giants won two more games. Would right-hander Miles Mikolas, the top Giants player in the poll, have been MVP after throwing 145 innings with a nifty 1.92 earned run average and a 13-3 record? Mikolas finished seventh in the voting because the Giants fell short. Certainly, a Giants pennant would have wiped out support for Swallows ace Masanori Ishikawa (13-9, 3.31 ERA), who finished fifth in the voting. But the way the Japan media votes, he could easily have been voted the best player in the league if his team had been just a little luckier.

Well maybe not.

It would have been hard to knock off Yamada, whose 119 runs were 32 more than teammate Shingo Kawabata’s total. That 32-run gap between the league leader and the runner-up is the second largest in history. Only Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh did him two better, leading the league by 34 runs in 1969. Though when people in Japan speak of titles, little things like that are typically overlooked.

Playing in a hitters’ park, Yamada led both of Nippon Professional Baseball’s leagues in doubles and home runs, and trailed in RBIs by five after spending part of the season in the leadoff spot. He tied for the Japan lead in stolen bases, was third in walks, was runner-up in batting average, while leading in OBP and slugging average.

It was no real surprise that he won in a landslide. The surprise came the day before when the two leagues’ Best IX Award winners were named, and three voters, the same ones who vote for the MVPs — the ballot is on the same sheet of paper along with the Rookie of the Year — thought Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Carp was a more valuable second baseman than Yamada. Kikuchi is a heck of a fielder, and a productive hitter, but let’s get real.

If you think Kikuchi is better, it’s not the end of the world. We all have dumb ideas or fixations now and then. But if those three thought Kikuchi was better, how come he didn’t get any MVP votes? This is puzzling because Yamada was named on every single ballot cast for CL players with 262 first-place votes, seven seconds, and one third. Kikuchi went 0-for-3, so one has to wonder what happened to those three voters.

Yanagita was not a dominant force like Yamada, but the PL is a tougher league than the CL is. Although Yanagita hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals like Yamada and even won a batting title, he spent a lot of the season in the shadow of Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who rewrote the single-season hit record in dramatic fashion over the final two games of the season.

There was really no contest for MVP as Yanagita was the dominant player on a historically dominant team, but Akiyama got 11 first-place votes to finish runner-up. In the Best IX vote, Akiyama was named on every ballot, while Yanagita was left off three (perhaps they were Seibu beat writers).

It’s hard to argue the singles-hitting Akiyama is a better player, but if you think so, that’s OK and he was a decent choice for No. 2, but demoting Yanagita off the Best IX ballot? Too weird.

Author: jballa5_wp

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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