Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Yakult’s Yamada, Softbank’s Yanagita win MVP Awards

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

It was a no-brainer. The two were simply the most dominant players in the 2015 NPB season.

Tetsuto Yamada of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Yuki Yanagita of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks won this year’s Most Valuable Player Awards in the Central League and Pacific League, respectively, on Wednesday.

Both players won Japanese professional baseball’s highest individual accolade for the first time in their careers.

Yanagita, who guided the Hawks to their second straight Japan Series championship, received 211 first-place votes for a total of 1,098 points. Shogo Akiyama of the Seibu Lions, who had 216 hits for a new NPB single-season record, got the most second-place votes (90) for 368 points to finish behind Yanagita. Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Shohei Otani was third with 213 points.

Yanagita, a 27-year-old left-handed hitter, was the 10th man in NPB history to complete a “Triple 3,” hitting . 369 with 34 home runs and 32 stolen bases. He also drove in 99 runs in the 2015 PL campaign.

It was the sixth time that a Hawks player had won MVP in the last 16 years, and the first since Seiichi Uchikawa in 2011.

“A Triple 3 was something I’d set as a goal,” Yanagita said at a news conference after the annual NPB Awards in Tokyo. “But I didn’t think I’d win MVP.”

Yamada, the other player to have achieved a Triple 3 this season (he was the ninth player ever to have done so), won his MVP award in even more dominant fashion than Yanagita, amassing 1,332 points and capitalizing on 262 first-place votes.

The 23-year-old infielder had a .329 batting average, an NPB-leading 38 homers and 34 steals and was one of the driving forces as the Swallows won their first CL pennant in 14 years.

Yamada, who also had 100 RBIs, was the first player ever in NPB to win a home run and stolen base title in the same season. He was the first Swallow to be named MVP since Wladimir Balentien in 2013.

Yamada didn’t expect to have a chance to win the award before the season began, but after his highly successful season was over, the idea stuck in his head.

“We won the championship and I achieved the Triple 3, and I believe that all helped me to win this,” Yamada said.

Yamada’s teammate and CL batting champion Shingo Kawabata was in second place in the voting with 368 points. The top five finishers in the CL MVP voting were from Tokyo Yakult (Yamada, Kawabata, Tony Barnette, Kazuhiro Hatakeyama and Masanori Ishikawa).

Yanagita and Yamada were the first players to achieve a Triple 3 since Kazuo Matsui in 2002, then playing for the Seibu Lions. It was also the first time that two or more players achieved it in the same year since former Shochiku Robins player Yoshiyuki Iwamoto and ex-Mainichi Orions outfielder Kaoru Betto did it in 1950.

Both Yanagita and Yamada have already set their eyes on the 2016 season.

While he wants to bring another Japan Series title to Fukuoka, Yanagita is also personally looking to have another banner year in 2016.

“I want to achieve a 40/40, playing in all the games,” Yanagita, a Hiroshima native, said of his goals in home runs and stolen bases for next season.

Yamada, on the contrary, is hoping to help his club repeat its pennant win by improving his defensive skills.

“I would like to raise my skills in every aspect,” said Yamada, who played on the Samurai Japan team at the Premier 12. “But among them, I would like to develop my fielding skills more than anything, because I didn’t get outs in plays I could’ve gotten outs in, and I made a lot of mistakes this year. So I would like to contribute to the team defensively as well.”

Meanwhile, Yasuaki Yamasaki and Kohei Arihara were given the Rookie of the Year awards.

Yamasaki set a new NPB record for the most saves for a rookie with 37 saves for the Central League’s Yokohama BayStars in 2015, surpassing former Chunichi Dragon Tsuyoshi Yoda, who posted 31 saves in 1990. The 23-year-old right-hander earned 241 votes out of 270 valid votes.

Dragons starting pitcher Shunta Wakamatsu collected 20 votes and Yomiuri Giants hurler Hayato Takagi got nine votes behind Yamasaki.

“I set it as my goal (coming into the season), but it was only a rough goal earlier,” Yamasaki said. “But now the goal has come true.”

Yamasaki added that the game in which he set the new record with his 32nd save, against the Swallows on Aug. 20, was his most memorable moment.

“I had a special feeling that time,” said Yamasaki, who came through with his signature two-seamer. “I gained more confidence the more games I pitched and channeled that into my game. After all, I earned this.”

Yamasaki is the first BayStar to win the award since Tatsuhiko Kinjo in 2000, the seventh player in club history.

“This is something you can’t win easily,” said Yamasaki. “And looking at the past winners, they are all famous people. So I would like to do better in my second and third years, not just this first year, and would like to eventually be a player that will be a face of the Yokohama BayStars.”

Arihara, who accumulated 110 votes to win the accolade, posted an 8-6 record with a 4.79 ERA, pitching in 18 games as a starting pitcher for the Pacific League’s Fighters.

Arihara’s fellow Fighter, Akihiro Hakumura, finished second with 33 votes, while Kona Takahashi of the Lions received 22 for third place in the PL. A total of 57 voters didn’t put down any names.

Unlike Yamasaki, Arihara, who seriously hurt his shoulder in his final year at Waseda University in 2014, didn’t have any expectations of having the trophy in his hands before the season began.

“I had an injury, so I didn’t imagine this at all,” Arihara said.

With Arihara’s selection, the Pacific League has chosen pitchers as Rookie of the Year in the last 15 straight years. Arihara is the first Fighter to win the award since Ryo Sakakibara in 2010, 12th man overall.