SAPPORO - There was no Japan Series game played Monday, but it was still an eventful afternoon for Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kris Johnson.
Johnson was named the 2016 Sawamura Award winner, becoming the first foreign player to earn the honor, given to each year’s top starting pitcher, since former Hanshin Tigers star Gene Bacque won in 1964.
“First of all, it’s a huge honor to receive this award.” Johnson said in an empty Sapporo Dome on Monday. “I’d be lying if I said I take all the credit myself. Definitely it’s an individual award, but I had a great bunch of guys behind me all year.”
Johnson singled out catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara, who has caught most of his games, as especially deserving of recognition.
“A lot of it has to go to him,” Johnson said. “He and I have been a team.”
Johnson was 15-7 with a 2.15 ERA in 26 starts for the Carp this season. He struck out 141 over 180⅓ innings and threw three complete games. He’s the first pitcher since the Yomiuri Giants’ Takashi Nishimoto in 1981 to win the award without winning any major pitching category.
Johnson, from West Covina, California, joined Bacque, from Lafayette, Louisiana, as the only foreign winners. Bacque, who pitched in an era where pitchers threw a lot more, was 29-9 with a 1.89 ERA in 353⅓ innings over 46 appearances in 1964. He struck out 200 and pitched 24 complete games. Bacque also helped lead his team to the Japan Series in his Sawamura season, though his Tigers fell to the Nankai Hawks in seven games that year.
“It’s a huge honor just to win the award,” Johnson said. “To be the second foreign player, that’s just a whole other level. I looked up his stats, and mine are nowhere near what he accomplished. Just to be included in that, with his name, is an honor.”
This is the ninth time the Sawamura Award has gone to a member of the Carp. Johnson is the seventh winner in franchise history, with Kenta Maeda (last year’s winner) and Manabu Kitabeppu each winning twice.
The honor is given each year to the pitcher who most exemplifies the qualities of the award’s namesake, Eiji Sawamura. A selection panel of retired pitchers judges candidates based around seven criteria: at least 25 games started, 15 wins, 10 complete games, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, an ERA of 2.50 or lower, and 150 strikeouts. Johnson cleared four of the seven.
“I’ve been trying for this as soon as I heard about it,” Johnson said. “Maeken (Maeda) won it last year, so all I could do was try to do what he did.”
Johnson was also among the top pitchers in Japan last season, going 14-7 with a 1.85 ERA and 150 strikeouts in 194⅓ innings. He built upon that this year, his second in Japan.
“Adjustments are always made,” he said. “In season, offseason, everyday baseball is a little bit different; hitters change, pitchers change. I didn’t try and change too much from last year, only little things. I’ve had to make a few adjustments here and there in game.”
Johnson said he felt his turning point this season came in May with consecutive shutouts against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants.
“I think something started to turn around with those back-to-back complete games,” he said. “We started to feel something and started to run with it. I think the season kind of turned around for me in that moment.”
Johnson, who won Game 1 of the Japan Series and could pitch again, said the honor wouldn’t fully sink in until after the season.
“I have another chance, possibly, to throw another game,” he said. “Right now that’s where my focus is at. So after my next start, or when the Japan Series is over, then I think I’ll just kind settle in and be able to enjoy this a little more.
“But right now my focus is more toward helping the Carp win the Japan Series.”