Two-way Otani forces writers to show award-winning flexibility

Shohei Otani’s ability to both hit and pitch has moved a group that has seemed impervious to change: the Tokyo Baseball Reporters Club, who vote on Nippon Professional Baseball’s postseason awards.

On Tuesday, the club’s board of governors announced a change to the rules for the Best IX awards for each of NPB’s two leagues to account for Otani,  who some considerJapan’s best pitcher, while also being NPB’s most effective designated hitter.

Until now, any ballot for the Best IX Award that named a player at two different positions was invalid. From this autumn, the ballots we expect to get soon will enable us to vote for one player as both his league’s best pitcher and the best player at another position he played.

Although there are no rules against voting for MVPs from teams that don’t win the pennant, unless they achieve the most eye-popping numbers, such as when Wladimir Balentien became the first player to surpass NPB’s long-standing, single-season home run record of 55. Nearly every MVP award goes to a player considered to be the big star on the pennant-winning team.

By the way, Otani’s club is in the thick of the pennant race, despite him not starting on the mound for about two months — he developed a blister on his pitching hand that didn’t hinder his batting and the Fighters were more interested in having him hit every day than taking him out of the lineup to tuneup for the mound. So if Nippon Ham does win the PL pennant, Otani is probably a lock to be an MVP-winning pitcher with perhaps just 10 wins on his resume (He is currently 8-4). But he does have 22 homers and in his second game back in the rotation, he threw a pitch 101.9 miles per hour, a Japanese record.

The change in the award rules was as perhaps as big a surprise as when the Fighters announced on May 29 that the team would ditch the DH rule in Otani’s start against the PL-rival Rakuten Eagles so that Otani could bat sixth. Otani, who is currently working his way back into the starting rotation, has batted in six of his starts. He has become the first pitcher to lead off a game with a home run, but has typically batted in the 3 Hole. In those six games, he is 7-for-17 with a double, a homer, seven runs, four RBIs, seven walks and four punch-outs.

In 2014, Otani posted 8.1 batting win shares and 11.7 pitching win shares, and finished a distant third in the voting for Best Pitcher with three votes behind, MVP and Sawamura Award winner, Chihiro Kaneko (232 votes) and Takahiro Norimoto (4). Otani (nine votes) was also more valuable (overall) than those who finished ahead of him in the voting for Best DH: Takeya Nakamura (81), Wily Mo Pena (69), Lee Dae Ho (63) and Ernesto Mejia (11) — Mejia tied Nakamura for the PL home run lead in less than a full season and won the vote at first base by a landslide.

The new rule might not have made any difference in 2014, since Otani was neither the best pitcher in the league nor the best DH, but at least voters won’t be troubled by the dilemma of having to split their votes.

A brief history of futility

Sometimes, a tweet is not enough, so here is a list I was fiddling around with, the longest number of seasons without a pennant in Japanese baseball history.

This was not as easy as it looks to compile because of Japan’s seasons, and I don’t mean the four seasons everyone tells you about until you get to June and then add on that there’s another one — the rainy season. Japan had two seasons a year in 1937 and ’38 with separate champions, and the Pacific League pennants were decided by playoffs (first half/second half) from 1973 to ’82, and (1st, 2nd, 3rd) from 2004 to ’06. From 2007, both leagues adopted playoffs, given the jizzy new name of the “Climax Series” that copied the PL format, but WOULD NOT IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM determine the pennant winner. How about that for anti-climactic? It would, however, select the teams to compete in the Japan Series.

So we figure in all those little pearls, we get the following list of the franchises with the longest suffering fans.

  1. 37 seasons: The Taiyo Whales / Yokohama Taiyo Whales / Yokohama BayStars. After winning their first CL pennant in 1960, the franchise didn’t win another until 1998.
  2. 31 seasons: The Hankyu Braves. Before they became manager Yukio Nishimoto’s “Golden Braves” and the annual postseason whipping boys of the V9 Yomiuri Giants, the Braves went without a pennant from their inception as one of Japan’s first teams until 1967.
  3. 30 seasons: The Lotte Orions / Lotte Marines. The Orions, who won the first PL pennant and Japan Series as a brand new team in 1950, won the most games in the PL in 1974 despite playing only 50 percent of their home games in their main park, Sendai’s dilapidated Miyagi Stadium in the days before the Rakuten Eagles took it over and turned it into an amusement park. They wouldn’t win again until they had relocated twice and become the Chiba Lotte Marines. They finished second in the league behind the Daiei Hawks in 2005 but beat the Hawks in Fukuoka to grab the pennant.
  4. 29 seasons. The Kintetsu Buffaloes. Another hard luck story. The Buffaloes led the PL in over winning percentage in 1975 but Nishimoto’s Buffs were knocked out of the playoffs, by the Braves, now managed by his apprentice and future fellow Hall of Fame skipper, Toshiharu Ueda. The Buffaloes would have to wait until the arrival of Charlie Manuel in 1979 to win their first PL pennant. They then won two in a row but were beaten both times by another previous hard-luck team: The Hiroshima Carp.
  5. 28 seasons. The Kokutetsu Swallows / Sankei Swallows / Yakult Atoms / Yakult Swallows. The Swallows began with the CL in the 1950 expansion and didn’t win until Tatsuro Hirooka came in to manage a club that won in 1978 with the help of Charlie Manuel and won the Japan Series over Ueda’s Braves with the help of a controversial home run.
  6. (tie) 25 seasons. Hiroshima Carp and Nankai Hawks / Daiei Hawks. The Carp were underfunded but never underloved by the their loyal but cantankerous fans. A foreign manager, Joe Lutz, was brought in to make huge changes and he did. But his lack of control saw him quit early in the season over constant disagreements with umpires and one showdown with team executives. Lutz made two huge moves, moving Sachio Kinugasa to third base — where he became a Hall of Famer, and using ace (and another Hall of Famer) Yoshiro Sotokoba exclusively as a starter.

The Hawks won in Katsuya Nomura’s first year in charge as nominal player-manager in 1973, but fired him because he was married and news of his girlfriend, his current wife, surfaced. The Hawks went from competitive to being doormats and that wouldn’t change until Rikuo Nemoto, the man who laid the foundations for both the Carp and Seibu Lions dynasties was brought in, and used his personal skills to gain as much of the best amateur talent as he could through a wide variety of means. In 1999, under Sadaharu Oh, the Daiei Hawks finally broke through.

7. (tie) 24 seasons. Nippon Ham Fighters (1982 – 2005) and Hiroshima Carp (1992-2015) or so it seems.

writing & research on Japanese baseball