Sawamura show 2021

Yoshinobu Yamamoto won the 2021 Eiji Sawamura Award on Monday, selected by a panel of five former pitchers after leading the Pacific League with 18 wins, a 1.39 ERA, six complete games, four shutouts, 193-2/3 innings and 206 strikeouts.

The award, named after the Yomiuri Giants’ first ace, Eiji Sawamura, is for the starting pitcher who best exemplifies the pitching style and dominance of Sawamura. It’s not about who’s best but about who’s most impressive.

Profile: Yoshinobu Yamamoto

I love going to Japan’s Sawamura Award announcement, where a panel of five old former pitchers explain how they reached their conclusion to choose one pitcher that year over the others, or how nobody quite met the standards they vowed to uphold.

The panelists meet on the day of the award, reach their conclusion then and there, meet reporters, then retire for lunch and tea.

The discussion is rarely about facts but about ideals about what a pitcher can be. The panelists all have memories of legends, and those legends inform them. I’m told at my day job that we mustn’t refer to humans as legends, but those pitching greats in these guys’ memories are, not because they were exemplary, but because their accomplishments are typically ripped out of the context in which they were achieved and extolled as a kind of ideal of what today’s pitchers should be able to achieve, if only they were tough enough, or concentrated hard enough.

Sure, all the panelists, tell you that today’s game has changed. They remind us that it is unreasonable to expect pitchers starting every seventh day who are limited by the constraints of pitch counts and the availability of elite relief pitchers, and thus cannot be expected to reproduce the numbers they themselves had. They say that, but what they really want to tell you is that today’s pitchers could do it, if only they tried harder.

Numbers are presented, generally out of context, and used as hammers beat on doubters, and by individual panelists as excuses for their choices. The panelists have to reject any pitcher with season stats that might cast doubt on their deliberations. They might think Tomoyuki Sugano dominated the Central League in 2016 when he led the league in ERA and strikeouts, but I was told there was simply no way a pitcher with just nine wins could even be considered.

The Sawamura panelists see themselves as the guardians of the pitching galaxy, defenders of a faith that believes nothing but more effort and more practice stands between pitching talent and historically great results, such as they themselves once achieved.

At the press conference, Tsuneo Horiuchi, the committee chairman said, “I want this award to encourage Yamamoto to new heights, to raise his game two or three levels.”

In response, Yamamoto told a press conference when asked about his ambition to play abroad, “My game would not play over there as it is now.”

Some of that is no doubt humility and the knowledge that he has so much more to learn, but I now a bus-load of MLB scouts and opponents who would disagree with his self-assessment.

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