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Yoshikawa’s MVP award puts pitcher in elite company

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Last week, pitcher Mitsuo Yoshikawa became the first Pacific League MVP winner from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters since 2009.

The last Fighters player to earn the honor was former ace Yu Darvish, who won in both 2007 and 2009.

Yoshikawa’s triumph also marks the sixth time a pitcher has won the award since 2005.

That list reads like a who’s who of pitchers and includes Darvish, Toshiya Sugiuchi (2005), Hisashi Iwakuma (2008) and Tsuyoshi Wada (2010). Sugiuchi is still one of NPB’s top hurlers, and this year helped the Yomiuri Giants win the Central League pennant, while Darvish, Iwakuma and Wada are all major leaguers now.

Yoshikawa made 25 starts this year and finished 14-5 with a 1.71 ERA, a 0.88 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP), and 158 strikeouts over 173⅔ innings.

As impressive as Yoshikawa’s year was, it still might not be the best when placed among the other five. For starters, Yoshikawa was pitching with the standardized ball that was introduced in 2011 and sent offensive numbers plummeting, while the other four players pitched in a much more offensive-friendly environment.

Darvish’s 2007 season especially is a tough act to follow, given how brilliant he was across the board. Darvish made 26 starts that year, throwing 12 complete games and finishing 15-5 with a 1.82 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 210 strikeouts over 207⅔ innings.

Darvish put up similar numbers to Yoshikawa in 2009 — albeit in a somewhat reduced role due to nagging injuries. Darvish appeared in 23 games that season, going 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 167 strikeouts.

Sugiuchi’s 218 strikeouts for the Daiei Hawks in 2005 (when he was also 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 0.98 WHIP) are the most among the six MVP campaigns, while former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Iwakuma is the front-runner in terms of victories, posting a 21-4 record in 2008 while also finishing with a 1.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 159 strikeouts over 201⅔ innings — arguably the finest season of the six.

Wada had the least impressive (among this group at least) MVP campaign.

He was 17-8 for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in 2010, but with a 3.14 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 169 strikeouts over 161.1 innings.

Yoshikawa’s MVP season is in the conversation with the other five, but his advantage with the new ball, means the lefty still has some work to do if he hopes to one day challenge Darvish’s 2007 or Iwakuma’s 2008 campaigns.

Bellissimo: Takehiko “G.G.” Sato will join the Chiba Lotte Marines next season after a year away from NPB.

Sato returns to Japan after spending a season in the Italian Baseball League, where he hit .319 for Fortitudo Bologna.

Sato’s return means there could be a reunion of former Italian league players should he face Alex Maestri, the Orix Buffaloes’ Italian-born pitcher who in 2010 was a member of the IBL’s Rimini Baseball Club.

On our own: Shinnosuke Abe captained the Yomiuri Giants to the Japan Series title this season, and in March he’ll be the captain for Japan’s WBC squad.

Abe was a member of the team that won the WBC title in 2009, and is braced for things to be tougher this time around.

“Since we will not have a single player from the major leagues, it’ll be a tougher challenge compared to the past two tournaments,” Abe said last week. “There are cases where even the countries who are considered stronger could lose.

“So a short tournament is really difficult. But I think it could be a valuable experience to field an all-NPB squad, and we’d like to show our spirit.”