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Otani, Arai win MVP awards

Fighters star claims PL prize; Hiroshima's Arai takes CL honor

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Staff Writers

Shohei Otani’s historic season of rewriting the record books and challenging conventional baseball wisdom reached its logical conclusion on Monday night.

In a result that came as a surprise to no one, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ two-way star was crowned Pacific League MVP, by a nearly unanimous selection, for the first time during the 2016 NPB Awards.

“This isn’t an award you can win only because of your numbers,” said Otani, who helped the Fighters win the Japan Series this year. “It’s something people help you win. (Fighters infielder Brandon) Laird hit a lot of home runs and (Hirotoshi) Takanashi won rookie of the year and we had a lot of players who did well. So I didn’t particularly stand out. I just happened to win it by being on the team that won the championship.

“While I’m not fully satisfied with my personal numbers, I still won it and that makes me think I can do better.”

The Hiroshima Carp’s Takahiro Arai took home the honor in the Central League. Arai, who turned 39 on Jan. 30, is the oldest CL MVP in history. The NPB record is held by Hiromitsu Kadota, who was 40 when he won for the Nankai Hawks in 1988.

“It’s been an unbelievable season since the beginning for us,” said Arai, who helped the Carp win the CL pennant for the first time since 1991. “But I didn’t expect I’d get something like this in the end.”

Otani isn’t the only Nippon Ham pitcher headed back to Sapporo with an award, with Takanashi named PL Rookie of the Year. The Hanshin Tigers’ Shun Takayama was crowned the CL’s top rookie.

The 22-year old Otani received first-place votes on all but one of the 254 MVP ballots. Fighters reliever Naoki Miyanishi received the other. Otani won the award with 1,268 total points, with teammate Brandon Laird second with 298. Miyanishi was sixth with 41, getting eight second-place nominations and 12 for third place.

Otani’s 2016 was a tour de force the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the modern era. Whether it was as a hitter or pitcher, Otani stood out as one of the top players in Japanese baseball.

“I never thought it was tough,” Otani said of being a two-way player. “I’ve had several days where I felt a little rough stamina-wise, but I’ve never felt that I didn’t want to play.

“I still have room to grow physically and should get better in every aspect of my game. I’m expecting more from myself.”

Perhaps nothing encapsulated his season better than a road contest against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on July 3. Otani was Nippon Ham’s starting pitcher and its leadoff batter, with the team having voluntarily waived the DH option. He homered on the first pitch of the game and went on to strike out 10 over eight scoreless innings.

Overall, Otani was 10-4 on the mound with a 1.86 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 140 innings. A blister kept him out for a chunk of the second half — Otani was limited to just a one-inning relief appearance between starts on July 10 and Sept. 7 — but he still finished third in the Pacific League with 174 strikeouts. Otani famously earned the first-ever save of his career in the final game of the PL Climax Series against the Hawks, which sent the Fighters to the Japan Series. After going 1-for-4 as the DH and No. 3 batter, Otani took the mound in the ninth and set a new NPB velocity record by hitting 164 kph — twice.

Otani was the first pitcher since Yutaka Enatsu in 1981 to be named MVP despite not having enough innings to quality for the pitching titles. He singled out his number of innings pitched as the thing he was least satisfied with.

“The average innings per game got better, so I need to work on it throughout the entire year,” he said. “And if I can have a good ERA like this year, I can hold down batters and we will repeat as champions next year.”

At the plate, Otani hit .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs in 323 at-bats, and had an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.004.

“During the period I didn’t pitch, I played a lot as a designated hitter, but I’m not sure if I was able to live up to what people expect out of me,” Otani said. I hope I live up to the expectations people have.”

Otani was the main piece of a Fighters team that won the PL pennant for the first time since 2012, and the Japan Series for the first time since 2006. He was also named to the PL’s Best Nine team last week, becoming the first to be selected at both pitcher and designated hitter in the same season.

One of the few things not in his trophy case is the Sawamura Award, given to the top pitcher each season.

“If I can come up with high-level results in all aspects, I think I can win it,” Otani said. “It’s one of the awards I want to have.”

Arai was a key component of the team Otani and the Fighters beat for the Japan Series crown in November, though that loss didn’t fully dampen the excitement of a long-suffering team that returned to glory this season.

“Whether we were winning or losing, we had a cheerful atmosphere on the bench,” Arai said. “We played a lot of games where we came from behind and won, and when we were behind, we were confident we’d bounce back.

“We had some disappointment at the very end, and it’ll be tough next year, but the Carp will be united to do our best to capture the Japan Series title.”

The 18-year veteran hit .300 with 19 home runs and 101 RBIs in 132 games, finishing the year with an .857 OPS.

“I just played the way I always have,” Arai said. “Though I’m older, I just tried to play my butt off in every game so that our younger players saw me play like that.”

Takanashi edged Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles shortstop Eigoro Mogi for rookie of the year honors in the PL. Takanashi, received 131 to Mogi’s 116.

Takanashi was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft, but because he had just two career appearances, both in 2015, prior to this season he retained his eligibility for the PL rookie honor.

He’s the first PL player to win the award despite not being in his first year since former Fighters reliever Ryo Sakakibara in 2010.

Takanashi was 10-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 37 appearance for the Fighters this season. He struck out 86 in 109⅔ innings.

Takayama was the overwhelming choice in the CL with 220 out of a possible 269 votes.

Takayama hit .275 with eight home runs and 65 RBIs in 134 games for Hanshin. He’s only the second Tigers outfielder to be named the CL’s top rookie. The first was Norihiro Akahoshi after the 2001 season.

“I was hurt when I joined the club, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play the entire year,” Takayama said. “That was the start I had, so I’m pleased to have won this.”