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Abe, Matsuda stand out among NPB players

by Jason Coskrey

With another NPB All-Star Series in the books, Japanese baseball shifts its attention back to the pennant races in the Central and Pacific Leagues.

That also means there’s just half the season left for individual players to stake their claim for one of the NPB’s major postseason awards.

While the All-Star break is really just beyond the halfway point, it’s as good a place as any to stop and take stock of the first few months of the year in terms of who’s in the running for the major awards.

Central League MVP:

Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants)

The last time a catcher won an MVP Award was in 2003 when the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ Kenji Johjima claimed the prize. You have to go all the way back to 1997 to find the last time it happened in the Central League, when the Yakult Swallows’ Atsuya Furuta won the last of his two MVP awards.

Abe is well on his way to ending the drought.

The Yomiuri Giants captain leads the CL in hitting (.307) and on-base percentage (.414), is second in RBIs (47) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.916), and tied for third in home runs (12). That’s in addition to being the top defensive catcher in Japan.

On the downside, Abe has finished with an average above .300 while appearing in at least 100 games only twice (2004 & 2005), so it remains to be seen how the physical demands of catching affects his production over the second half of the season.

For now, the Yomiuri star is ahead of the pack and even has an outside shot at the triple crown.

Central League Rookie of the Year:

Yusuke Nomura (Hiroshima Carp)

The Meji University product finished the first half of the year 7-3 with a 1.41 ERA that was second only to teammate Kenta Maeda’s (1.40) among NPB pitchers.

Opponents are hitting .199 against Nomura, who has thrown 102 innings and has a 0.94 walks plus hits per innings pitched average, which ranks among the best in the CL.

Pacific League MVP

Nobuhiro Matsuda (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks)

The PL MVP race is a crowded one. With no clear favorite, if this was the end of the season, the award would come down to what has historically been voters’ floating definition of ‘valuable.’

As an aside, given the trend of simply choosing the best player from the pennant winner, without considering anything else, the award would belong to Chiba Lotte Marines ace Yoshihisa Naruse, who is 9-4 with a 1.84 ERA, if the year ended today.

Still, the argument for Matsuda is convincing.

The Hawks third baseman is a good player in the field and has been generating offense in a multitude of ways.

Matsuda is tied atop the PL with a .318 batting average and ranks second with 53 RBIs. Matsuda has eight home runs on the year, leads Japan in doubles (27) and triples (seven), and also has stolen 16 bases.

Matsuda is having a strong year, but compelling cases could also be made for Naruse, Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Atsunori Inaba and the Marines’ Katsuya Kakunaka, with the Seibu Lions’ Hiroyuki Nakajima on the fringe of the discussion.

PL Rookie of the Year:

Yoshinao Kamata (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles).

The Pa. League Rookie of the Year race is even more jumbled than the MVP race.

The 18-year-old Kamata has only made nine starts, but has shown brief flashes of the pitcher the Eagles hope he will become.

Kamata, who was drafted out of high school, is 3-1 with a 2.83 ERA.

His most impressive outing so far was a complete-game win over the Giants on June 17, during which he held the Kyojin to a single run.

Chiba Lotte reliever Naoya Masuda is another strong contender.

The Lotte bullpen has been one of main reasons for the Marines’ resurgence, and Masuda has played a big role.

He’s made 42 appearances, racking up 25 holds in 42 innings of work. The 22 year old has a 2.36 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.

Masuda got off to a blazing start, but has slowed considerably, having allowed eight earned runs in his last 18 appearances after yielding just three in his first 24.

Sawamura Award

Toshiya Sugiuchi (Yomiuri Giants)

Sugiuchi is nearly neck-and-neck with Hiroshima’s Kenta Maeda at the halfway point for the Sawamura Award, which can be awarded to two pitchers in the same season.

Both have nine wins (Maeda is 9-2, Sugiuchi 9-3), and both have thrown no hitters this season.

Maeda has worked more innings (122 to 110⅔), but Sugiuchi has more strikeouts (121 to 104) and has walked fewer batters (26 to 29).

The Giants lefty, in his first year in the CL, also has a superior WHIP (0.93 to 1.00) and a lower fielding independent pitching average (2.16 to 2.33).

Maeda has been the stronger of the two recently, but at the halfway mark, it’s still anybody’s ballgame.