Uchikawa’s MVP win shows voters favor team over player


If Seiichi Uchikawa’s win in the race for the Pacific League MVP award says anything, it’s that the ultimate individual honor is really a team award in disguise.

Uchikawa had a strong season, leading Japan with a .338 average, hitting 12 homers, driving in 74 runs and finishing with a .856 on-base plus slugging percentage.

The Hawks left fielder did that for a team that won the PL by 17.5 games before capturing the PL Climax Series and Japan Series titles.

But was he the PL’s best player?

Based on individual merit, the second and third-place finishers, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and Seibu Lions slugger Takeya Nakamura may have better resumes.

In a year defined by pitchers, Tanaka was the best. The Sawamura Award winner won the pitching Triple Crown, co-leading NPB with 19 wins, and posting a 1.27 ERA (second-lowest in league history) and .792 win percentage. He was second to only Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish with 226⅓ innings pitched and 241 strikeouts.

Statistically it was the type of year that’s usually rewarded.

Looking at previous winners, Softbank’s Toshiya Sugiuchi went 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA to win in 2005; Darvish was 15-5 with a 1.82 ERA in 2007, Rakuten’s Hisashi Iwakuma was 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA in 2008; Darvish was 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA in 2009; and Softbank’s Tsuyoshi Wada was 17-8 with a 3.14 ERA last season.

The difference between Tanaka and those pitchers is that all but Iwakuma played on the team that finished first in the regular-season standings.

To be fair, Tanaka benefited from NPB’s new ball, which sent offensive numbers plummeting. But that only makes Nakamura’s case more intriguing.

Despite the new ball, Nakamura had a huge year.

He finished the season with a Japan-best 48 home runs. That’s 17 more than Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien, the next highest finisher, and two more than the entire Chiba Lotte Marines roster.

Nakamura only hit .269, but drove in 116 runs and posted a .973 OPS, both NPB bests. The hard-hitting third baseman also played all 144 games at a much more demanding defensive position than Uchikawa, who appeared in 114.

There’s also a case to be made for the Fighters’ Yoshio Itoi, who hit .319 with 11 homers, 54 RBIs and 31 stolen bases, while leading the PL with a .411 on-base percentage and finishing second to Nakamura with a .859 OPS.

If their numbers were superior, then the fatal flaw for Tanaka, Nakamura and Itoi was playing on teams that failed to win the pennant.

Uchikawa was aided by the all-around strength of the Hawks, and a majority of voters have decided the ‘V’ in MVP is linked with team success.

That’s been the case in recent years, among which Iwakuma’s win is the outlier. Before 2008, the last MVP from a team that wasn’t first in the standings was Orix BlueWave outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in 1994.

Iwakuma had the wins in 2008, but Darvish had the stronger season. Which seemingly says reaching a nice big number such as 20 wins (despite a pitcher’s overall lack of control over wins and losses) or 50 homers is the criteria for a non-pennant winner.

NPB can make things easier by just limiting MVP candidates to members of the pennant-winning team, since most voters don’t seem to be able to handle that the year’s best player might not have played for the best team.

Uchikawa had a great year, but if the MVP award is really an individual honor, Tanaka and Nakamura were more deserving.