Who do you think should be selected as MVPs in the Central and Pacific Leagues this season? There does not appear to be any clear-cut favorite in either league. Ask any Japanese media person or beat writer at the bal park, and they think about it for a moment and answer with a puzzled expression, saying, “Muzukashii, ne?” (It is difficult, isn’t it?)
With fewer than 15 games remaining in the regular season, the Yomiuri Giants and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks appear likely to win their respective league pennants and, as is well known, the MVP usually comes from the first-place club.
The Giants have somehow managed to win without a single .300 hitter, and the only player on the club with 20 home runs or more (through Wednesday) is first baseman Jose Lopez who, because of manager Tatsunori Hara’s decision, has been mostly a part-time player in recent weeks.
The best statistics among regulars in the Yomiuri lineup have been put up by outfielder Hisayoshi Chono, the team’s hottest hitter during September. He was batting .297 with 13 home runs and 60 RBIs through games of Sept. 17. Good numbers but not really MVP caliber.
Pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano is 11-5 with a Central League-leading 2.45 ERA. He will be considered but missed more than a month of action with an injury that probably kept him from notching a more MVP-like 15 victories this season.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have four .300 hitters, the best of which is left-fielder Seiichi Uchikawa. His .314 average was second in the Pacific League behind leader Yoshio Itoi (.322) of the second-place Orix Buffaloes. Uchikawa, the 2011 PL MVP, also led Softbank with 17 homers and 70 RBIs.
Americans lead the Fukuoka pitching staff, with Jason Standridge posting a record of 10-7 with a 3.15 ERA. Closer Dennis Sarfate led both leagues with 36 saves and is 6-1 with a 1.16 ERA, and he will get some MVP votes.
Of course it is possible for a member of a non-pennant winning club to be selected a league’s most valuable, but it usually takes an extraordinary performance by an individual player. That occurred last year when Wladimir Balentien of the last-place Yakult Swallows hit 60 homers and was named the Central League MVP.
Orix mound ace Chihiro Kaneko, whether his team can overtake the Hawks or finish the season in its current second-place standing, will be a major candidate for MVP in the Pa League. He’s got pitching Triple Crown stats, leading the league with 14 victories, 190 strikeouts and a 1.99 ERA.
Kaneko, by the way, has clearly passed Hiroshima Carp starter Kenta Maeda as the No. 1 Japanese pitcher with major league potential.
“I came to check out Maeda, but I find Kaneko is a lot better,” said one of the many MLB team scouts recently in Japan and anticipating Maeda’s posting this fall.
“Maeda (11-8, 2.58 ERA) is too inconsistent for me,” said another scout. “He appears to have trouble pitching in bad weather, even if it is just a spray rain.”
It might be pointed out Maeda, pitching in good weather at home against the Giants in his last start Sept. 15, threw eight innings of shutout ball, allowing only two hits and striking out seven in one of his best outings this season.
The competition for individual batting and pitching titles is also intense, It appears we will not have any 40-home run hitters in either league unless someone goes nuts in these last two weeks, and maybe no 15-game winning pitchers either.
The Carps’ Brad Eldred had been on a pre-all-star break pace to hit 52 homers but seemed to have lost his stroke and got stuck on 33. He subsequently was sent to the Hiroshima farm team twice but is back now, still with that 33 total. Balentien has hit 31 and is trying to overtake Eldred to win a fourth consecutive Central League home run crown.
In the Pa League, foreign sluggers Wily Mo Pena of the Buffaloes and Ernesto Mejia of the Seibu Lions lead the homer derby along with Mejia’s teammate Takeya Nakamura. Through Wednesday, they each had 31.
Some of the Japanese sports papers are calling Mejia the second coming of Orestes Destrade, the former Seibu fence-buster who belted 32 home runs in just 83 games in 1989 after joining the Lions two months into the season. Like Destrade, Mejia came late this year, and his 31 homers were hit in just 89 games.
Mejia appears to be a great fit for Japanese baseball, following in the footsteps of the “Big O” (Destrade) and another former Seibu home run king and first baseman, Alex Cabrera.
In fact, says Mejia about his fellow countryman, “I started following Japanese baseball as a youngster in Venezuela when Cabrera tied the record for most home runs in a season in Japan (55 in 2002), and I thought then it would be neat to play in Japan and for the Lions someday.” Here he is, 12 years later.
Following Kaneko and his 14 triumphs are five pitchers with 12 victories, including Randy Messenger of the Hanshin Tigers. But time is getting short, and they all have two — maybe three — more starts, so 15 wins for any except Kaneko appears doubtful.
In any event, fasten your seat belts, fans, as we get ready for an exciting climax to the 2014 Japanese baseball season where the top teams battle for Climax Series berths and players seek to capture the individual titles and that “muzukashii” MVP prize.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com