Japan and the way of the pitcher

There will be no winner of the Sawamura Award this season in order to “maintain the standards of the award and encourage pitchers and teams” to develop starting pitchers like they were in the old days.

This reminded me of a time in Japanese history when it was felt an entire social class needed to be lectured about its traditional duties in a society that had no role or rewards for it.

The Eiji Sawamura Award

The first Japan Series travel day has traditionally been dedicated to selecting a Sawamura Award winner. The award, created and sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun, differs from Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Awards in a number of ways.

  • It is selected by a small panel of former elite pitchers, and decided by unanimous consent
  • There is only one award for pitchers from both leagues, although occasionally two pitchers will be named co-winners.
  • The purpose is not to name the best pitcher, but the pitcher who best represents the qualities of Japan’s first pro ace pitcher, Eiji Sawamura — in other words, a power pitcher who throws lots of innings while completing and winning a lot of games with an impressive ERA.
  • The panel makes use of seven benchmarks: 25 games, 15 wins, 10 complete games, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings, a 2.50 ERA and 150 strikeouts. These have gradually been adjusted downward to reflect changes in the pitching environment, and the panel now considers its version of quality starts, which are seven innings and three or fewer earned runs.

We’re not worthy

On Monday, the panel met in Tokyo and announced that for the first time since 2000, no one was qualified.

That year I attended my first Sawamura Award announcement, and have missed only a couple since then, including Monday’s unfortunately. Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times, a Sawamura regular for the past dozen years or so, wrote it up HERE.

Essentially, no pitchers threw 200 innings this past year in NPB’s 143-game regular season, and the NPB leader in complete games was Daichi Osera with six. According to Coskrey, different panelists supported different candidates, but with each pitcher failing to rack up nearly enough innings or complete games, there was no consensus, and they blamed the sad state of starting pitching on the Americanization of the game.

I would have loved to ask them how they feel about the growing movement toward pitch counts and mandatory rest in Japanese amateur baseball because these pitching greats tend to be pretty frank and free with their opinions.

“As a member of the committee, I would like everyone to remember once again the Sawamura Award has helped build the history of NPB and supported NPB’s great pitchers. So my decision was nobody wins. I want the media to understand the greatness of the Sawamura Award led to this decision.”

–Former Lotte Ace “Sunday” Choji Murata, according to Jason Coskrey

The last two years have been atypical in that the selectors praised Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano to the skies and found little fault with him. The norm is for the old guys to rip into today’s pitchers. While recognizing their talent, they launch into diatribes about what the best pitchers lack.

The best pitcher in Japan this season was probably SoftBank’s Kodai Senga. According to Coskrey, Horiuchi complained that “he could be better.” I guarantee if you dropped Senga into Horiuchi’s era of the 1960s and 1970s, he’d be vastly better.

The panelists recognize that the game is changing but at the same time seem put-off by the idea that teams are trying to maximize the utility of their pitching resources rather than using games as a kind of homage to the old ways.

I’ve written about this in the past, but when people these days point to the huge numbers of complete games thrown 50 years ago, they are giving the impression that those starters were regular running up high pitch counts. They weren’t. Most of the complete games in the 1960s were right around 100 pitches.

It was a different game. Batters were not walking as much. Weaker hitters were not as good as they are today, and there were more really bad teams with soft lineups. And even the best pitchers were yanked early when they had awkward first innings.

People often yearn for an idealized past, and part of the Sawamura Award process is a push to turn back the clock to an era when the competition and context were vastly different and use the award to get players and teams to alter their behavior, a kind of annual MAGA gathering with good manners and suits instead of red hats.

Back in the day

Japan’s “Way of the Warrior” was a concept from Japan’s warring states period, teaching how samurai had to train and be righteous in society. But the actual formal documents called “Bushido” are an artifact of Edo period ‘s extended peace, a time when the warrior caste had become fossilized and essentially redundant.

At that time, the Tokugawa clan dominated the nation and samurai became underpaid petty bureaucrats in a society that became dominated by the merchant class. In that situation, it was no surprise that many samurai were forced to engage in commercial pursuits — something prohibited by Japan’s caste system — and strayed from the path they were ideally supposed to follow.

Like the rants of the Sawamura committee, the purpose of formalizing bushido and publishing it as texts was to make the samurai act in conformity with a doctrine that conflicted with the need to keep their families from starving.

Likewise, the Sawamura committee would have pitchers suddenly be as good against today’s superior competition as they themselves had been against the weaker hitting opponents of their day.

The committee would have teams reject using pitchers in ways managers and organizations believe will maximize their abilities and use them in a more heroic and dramatic fashion. To what end do they want this? To see the past relived through today’s pitchers.

While they mean well and truly want to inspire pitchers to new heights, I have three words for all of them: Get over it.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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