Mitsuo Yoshikawa didn’t just come out of nowhere this season. That would be putting it too simply. Try nowhere taken to a whole new obscure level, then go even further. Somewhere on the outskirts of that is where you’d find Yoshikawa.
Even that feels like somewhat of an understatement. How else to describe the journey of a pitcher who began 2012 with the most recent of his six career victories having come in 2008, putting together a 14-win season en route to winning the Pacific League MVP award?
“I’d say it was because I changed my way of thinking about things,” the Hokkaido Nippon Ham pitcher said of his sudden rise to prominence on Wednesday, “and the manager always sent me to the mound with confidence.
“Before I was only fighting against myself. Now I’m battling the opposing batters.”
Nippon Ham began the season in need of a new identity for its pitching staff. Resident ace Yu Darvish had made a highly-publicized move to the Texas Rangers over the offseason, leaving the team without its No. 1 pitcher.
Second-year darling Yuki Saito was the popular choice to assume the role in Darvish’s absence despite an unremarkable rookie campaign. Saito lived up to the billing in his first start, allowing one run in a complete-game victory over the Seibu Lions on Opening Night that drew praise from even Darvish. The logical choice to replace Darvish was veteran lefty Masaru Takeda, who had spent several years as a steady contributor in the rotation.
At the time, Yoshikawa was little more than an afterthought. A first-round draft pick in 2006 out of Koryo High School (Hiroshima Prefecture) — the same school that also produced the 2012 Central League Rookie of the Year, pitcher Yusuke Nomura of the Hiroshima Carp — had made 45 appearances over his first five pro seasons, finishing 6-18 with a 4.92 ERA over that span.
Like Saito, Yoshikawa had a solid outing in his first start, limiting the Lions to a single run in a 1-0 loss that he rated as his most memorable performance of the year.
“Because that was the game during which I was able to overwhelm the opponent with my fastball,” he said. “There was never another game like that.”
He may have never felt as dominant, but his numbers tell a slightly different story.
In the race to succeed Darvish, Saito’s star faded as the season progressed, resulting in his being dropped out of the rotation eventually, as he skidded to a 5-8 record and 3.98 ERA. Takeda did his part by turning in another solid season, going 11-7 with a 2.36 ERA.
Yoshikawa meanwhile caught Japanese baseball off-guard, emerging as the unlikely ace of the Fighters’ staff. The Fukuoka native finished 14-5 with an NPB-best 1.71 ERA while holding opponents to an almost microscopic .179 batting average over 173 2/3 innings.
He finished second in the PL with 158 strikeouts and was tied for the league lead with three shutouts. The left-hander ended the year with an 0.88 WHIP and a fielding independent pitching rating of 2.58.
“I wasn’t able to contribute to the team at all for the previous five years,” Yoshikawa said. “But I was finally able to do something (this season), so it’s paid off.”
At 24 years old, Yoshikawa is the youngest left-hander to win the PL MVP and is also the first non-rookie pitcher to earn the honor after finishing with zero wins in his previous year.
He was named MVP by a wide margin, finishing with 972 points while the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Tadashi Settsu, this season’s Sawamura Award winner, placed second with 213. Yoshikawa finished with 181 first-place votes to Settsu’s nine.
Yoshikawa doesn’t plan to fade back into obscurity next season, and wants to show NPB fans he has staying power.
“What I want to do is keep this up next year and the year after, not just this year,” Yoshikawa said. “I think next season will be really important, so I’d like to prepare well.
“If I stay the same, then my level will go down. So I need to raise my level and find ways to win.”