One thing that’s always surprising when NPB voters get both the Pacific and Central League MVP winners right.
Most times, it seems like the league MVPs are selected by throwing darts at each pennant-winner’s team photo instead of actually delving into the argument of who was actually the best player — or most “valuable,” a minefield in its own right, if you will.
But this year, the voters got it right.
Masahiro Tanaka was an easy choice in the PL, such a slam dunk he received all 233 first-place votes. His 24-0 regular season with a 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts was downright historic, let alone MVP worthy. Besides, his Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles won the pennant.
The real question was whether or not Wladimir Balentien could overcome the stigma of playing for a last-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows squad.
Refreshingly he did, buoyed by 60 home runs, five more than any hitter had ever managed in a single NPB season.
While unlikely, hopefully Balentien’s victory can lead to more discussion about who the best player is each year, rather than blindly choosing someone from the league champion.
Japanese baseball named its first MVP in 1937, famed Tokyo Giants pitcher Eiji Sawamura, for whom the current pitching award is named after.
Japan’s professional league split in two — the Central and Pacific — in 1950, with the CL MVP coming from the pennant-winning team every year except 1964 and 1974, when Sadaharu Oh was honored while playing for Giants teams that finished second and third.
Oh’s wins didn’t really open up the award to non-pennant winners, but in a new era maybe Balentien’s triumph could.
Though it’d still be too late for players with legitimate beefs such as the Hanshin Tigers, Randy Bass, who won the Triple Crown for the second consecutive year in 1986 but lost out to pitcher Mananbu Kitabeppu of the pennant-winning Hiroshima Carp.
The Giants’ Alex Ramirez led Japan in home runs (49) and RBIs (129) while hitting .304 for the second-place Giants in 2010, but was beat out by Kazuhiro Wada, who hit .339 with 37 homers and 93 RBIs for the CL champion Chunichi Dragons.
What helped set Balentien apart this year was the home run record.
Oh’s 1964 MVP came after he set the single-season home run record of 55, and Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera won in the PL when they matched the mark in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
Balentien would’ve easily been a deserving MVP without the record, but it gave voters an excuse to buck the trend.
But would Balentien have been MVP with 54 home runs? It’s hard to say.
As it was, Tony Blanco, the only player to best Balentien in batting average and RBIs finished fifth in the voting, receiving fewer first-place votes (0) than relievers Kentaro Nishimura (4), who finished fourth, Tetsuya Yamaguchi (2) and Scott Mathieson (1), all from pennant-winning Giants.
Overall, Yomiuri’s Shuichi Murata was second in the voting with 31 first-place votes and teammate Shinnosuke Abe was second with 31. The Carp’s Kenta Maeda was the only other non-Yomiuri player to receive a first-place vote.
It remains to be seen if Balentien’s win changes anything, but at least for once, even if it took history being made, it’s nice to see the right players rewarded from time to time.