Four famed former pitchers went to a Tokyo hotel for the purpose of sitting down together and identifying the best pitcher in Japan in 2015.
The name they came out with was Kenta Maeda.
The Hiroshima Carp ace was named this year’s Sawamura Award winner, Sawamura Award committee chairman Tsuneo Horiuchi announced during a news conference on Monday. While the committee didn’t release any numbers, Horiuchi said the race was a three-way battle between the Hiroshima star and the young duo of Shintaro Fujinami and Shohei Otani.
“We were given the group of the candidates and narrowed it down to Kenta Maeda, Otani and Fujinami,” Horiuchi said. “(Hideaki) Wakui’s name came up as well, but ultimately we narrowed it down to three. The selection was extremely close, and it was one of the toughest years for this panel.”
Maeda was 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 206⅓ innings this season. Maeda is the Sawamura Award recipient for the second time after also winning in 2010.
The committee that selects the winner is a revolving panel of distinguished pitchers, often former winners or Hall of Famers, each year. This time the duties were handled by Masaji Hiramatsu, Horiuchi, Manabu Kitabeppu, and Hisashi Yamada. Choji Murata was supposed to be on the panel, but could not participate for an undisclosed reason.
Horiuchi said the race was extremely close.
Fujinami, of the Hanshin Tigers, was a 14-game winner and led Japan with 221 strikeouts. He finished with a 2.40 ERA in 199 innings. Otani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ ace, was 15-5 with a 2.24 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 160⅔ innings this season.
“Fujinami was just as good as Maeda,” Horiuchi said. “He threw over 200 innings and had the most strikeouts and a lot of complete games. He met the image of Mr. (Eiji) Sawamura (the award’s namesake).
“Otani, we thought he was going to be the easy choice for the Sawamura Award. He was great in the first half, but faded in the second half. Still, he managed to have a lot of strikeouts and he won a lot of games, so the opinions in the room were really split to be perfectly honest.”
So split that Horiuchi suggested not even naming a winner, as was the case in 1971, 1980, 1984 and 2000.
“I stated we should not select one this time,” Horiuchi said. “But everyone else said we should select this year’s No. 1 pitcher. We wound up choosing Maeda, and I did not have any objection to that.”
The committee uses, but isn’t bound by, a set of seven criteria — 15 or more wins, at least 150 strikeouts, 10 or more complete games, an ERA under 2.50, 200 or more innings pitched, 25 appearances, and a winning percentage above .600 — as a guideline when deciding on the recipient.
Maeda, who also had a .652 winning percentage and made 29 appearances, hit six of the seven, failing only to reach the complete games benchmark.
Fujinami met four, though he finished one win and one inning away from meeting six of the seven. The Tigers star didn’t meet the complete games criteria either, but threw more (seven) than any other pitcher in Japan. Maeda and Otani each threw five.
“Fujinami had a lot of strikeouts and complete games, and some said he really projected the image of Mr. Sawamura,” Kitabeppu said. “I was leaning toward Fujinami initially as well. But we were asked to select the best pitcher, the most consistent pitcher, in baseball this year. With that said, Maeda was the one. We understand Fujinami’s greatness and Otani’s bright future, as he tosses a 160-kph fastball, but as far as this year, nobody outperformed Maeda.”
Otani also checked four boxes, falling short in appearances (22), complete games and innings (200).
“I honestly didn’t expect the selection to be this hard,” Yamada said. “I don’t have objections about the selection of Maeda. But Otani won a Triple Crown (the pitcher’s version: wins, ERA and strikeouts) in the Pacific League, and I thought highly of him.”
After explaining their reasoning for choosing Maeda and strongly considering Fujinami and Otani, one reporter asked why Carp pitcher Kris Johnson didn’t warrant a closer look.
Johnson finished 14-7 with an NPB-best 1.85 ERA. He struck out 150 in 194⅓ innings, threw one complete game and had a winning percentage of .667 in 28 appearances.
“The number of complete games have declined overall today, but when you think of the image of Mr. Sawamura, he would go the distance,” Kitabeppu said. “Compared with Maeda, Fujinami and Otani, Johnson’s strikeouts and number of complete games weren’t as good. His ERA was good, but considering everything, we narrowed it down to those three.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report