The 2023 Sawamura Award

Yoshinobu Yamamoto on Monday became the second pitcher to win three straight Eiji Sawamura Awards, after Masaichi Kaneda, who dominated Japanese pitching for 15 years after he turned pro as an overgrown 16-year-old in 1950 and won 400 career games.

DeNA’s Katsuki Azuma arguably had a better season in terms of the pitching stats the four-man panel consults, but Yamamoto played for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and this year and became the third pitcher, and the first since 1941 when Japan’s balls were as dead as can be, to throw no-hitters in consecutive years.

The Sawamura Award panel, down four members this year after the deaths of Manabu Kitabeppu to cancer and Choji Murata to fire, talks it out and then announces their unanimous decision. Kimiyasu Kudo this year joined the remaining living members, chairman Tsuneo Horiuchi, Masaji Hiramatsu and Hisashi Yamada, and pushed for a joint selection of both Yamamoto and Azuma, but Horiuchi insisted on picking just one.

This year, no pitcher completed more than four games or pitched 180 innings, both well short of the committee’s target benchmarks of 10 and 200, respectively. Yamamoto cleared four, strikeouts, wins, winning percentage and ERA. Azuma cleared three, falling 17 short of 150 strikeouts.

Because baseball has become more specialized, and pitchers’ innings have steadily decreased, there is talk every year of lowering the benchmarks. In the last 10 years, only two pitchers have completed 10 games in a season.

Horiuchi said, “Lowering the numbers would be disrespectful (to the name of Eiji Sawamura).”

Since I wasn’t able to attend, it is hard to gauge the amount of vitriol that might have been spewed by the panelists. Murata was the most reliable source of the “today’s pitchers need to try harder to be like us” attacks.

Although his colleagues suggested players, managers and coaches work out ways for pitchers to work more, Kudo said he was concerned that following MLB’s five-man rotation would cause Tommy John surgeries to shoot up the way they have in the States.

To be fair, I have expected the panel to give the award to Azuma since naming Yamamoto would put him in the same boat with Kaneda, and they might be reluctant to do that.

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