Tag Archives: Sawamura Award

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.

Maverick Uehara runs his course

Former Yomiuri Giants ace and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement Monday in Tokyo, bringing an end to an entertaining and dynamic career in which he became the first Japanese player to register 100 wins, saves and holds.

At a press conference in which the 44-year-old worked in vain to hold back tears, saying he came into the season knowing it would be his last. Three months after the start of camp and unable to get batters out on the farm despite feeling fit, Uehara said he wanted to call it quits sooner rather than later – when a retirement press conference might be a distraction during the pennant race.

Read a transcript of Uehara’s retirement press conference in Tokyo HERE.

Uehara burst on the scene in 1999, going 20-4 for the Giants after he turned down the Angels, who were said to have offered a deal worth $9 million – about seven times what an NPB team could officially offer an amateur.

In 2005, he told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri (now the Japan News) the Giants guaranteed he would start on the first team, while the Angels would only go as far as handing him a Double-A opening. Between that, not having to be deal with a language barrier and whatever the Giants were offering under the table, Uehara signed his future away to Yomiuri.

Within a few years, however, Uehara was pushing the Giants for an early exit so he could play in the majors.

“Nine years needed for free agency in Japan is truly a long time, but as an amateur, you don’t think about that,” he told the Daily Yomiuri.

When the Giants’ windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe told the media that he would fire any player who asked to be posted, Uehara demanded to be posted. When Watanabe threatened to release any player with the temerity to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent his agent, only for the Giants to deny that Uehara’s representative was in fact an agent.

When Japanese players aquire the service time needed to file for free agency, NPB alerts the media, and reporters descend on them, only to hear, “We’re in the middle of the season. My only focus is on winning a championship.”

Not Uehara.

“I’m going to the majors,” he said during the middle of the 2008 season, a mediocre year that went downhill after he broke the taboo of talking about free agency during the season.

In 1999, he won the Central League’s rookie of the year award and winning the Sawamura Award as Nippon Professional Baseball’s most impressive starting pitcher.

At the end of the season, with the Giants out of the pennant race, Uehara made a meme of himself by protesting a Japanese baseball custom of not competing in order to assist a teammate’s pursuit of an individual title.

With Hideki Matsui pursuing the CL home run title, Uehara was ordered to walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberton Petagine. Uehara, showed his bent for idealism and tears by crying on the mound, and his distaste for the order by kicking the dirt on the mound after Petagine trotted to first base.

The following year Uehara began suffering the first of a long series of leg injuries but bounced back to be one of the league’s top pitchers from 2002 to 2004. For two years after that Uehara battled more injuries and in 2007 was sent to the bullpen, where he was dynamite as the Giants despite constantly lobbying for a return to the rotation that his fitness wouldn’t justify.

He got a brief shot at starting in 2008 but failed badly, and chose the Baltimore Orioles the following season because they promised him a chance to start in 2009. Traded to the Texas Rangers in 2011, the following season, he was in a pitching staff with two former NPB strikeout leaders, Colby Lewis and Yu Darvish, as well as his high school teammate, Yoshinori Tateyama.

In high school, Tateyama had been the ace, while Uehara who had run track in junior high, was an outfielder, whose principle mound role came as a senior as a batting practice pitcher. He didn’t begin pitching in earnest until he entered university, where he went to earn a teaching credential.

Uehara’s stay with the Rangers, however, was brief. He was cut loose after a poor run of results at the end of the 2012 season and available to the Red Sox at a bargain price and finished seventh in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

After one last season in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Uehara, at 42 with 95 MLB saves under his belt said he would retire rather than return to NPB, but in March he admitted that he was not ready to give up the life of a pro ballplayer and signed with Yomiuri.

He pitched in 36 games last year for the Giants, going 0-5 with 14 holds and no saves. Last October, he had surgery to clean out his left knee. The Giants released him and re-signed him for 2019 after he was declared fit.

Although he said he was fit all spring, he was ineffective. Through April, he toiled with the Giants’ minor leaguers. He struck out 10 batters in nine innings in the Eastern League but allowed four runs. At his retirement press conference on Monday, he said he’d come into the 2019 season knowing it would be his last. That knowledge, he said, hindered his search for the extra gear he might have had that would turn his year around.

“If you have a next year, then you work even harder,” he said. “This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. As one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.”