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.

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