SAPPORO – In a year when no pitching candidates leaped off the stat sheet to seize the Sawamura Award by force, perhaps the selectors would opt for a long-shot candidate such as Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani.
Like Sawamura, Otani is the fastest pitcher of his era — and the fastest ever recorded in Japan. But because he bats and bats so well, the Fighters preferred to have him bat every day rather than pitch for two months during the summer.
As a result, Otani only went 10-4 in 140 innings with 174 strikeouts. But according to Hall of Famer “Sunday” Choji Murata, a member of the five-person Sawamura Award selection panel, Otani never entered into the discussion.
“He didn’t become a topic of conversation. Of course, I recognize the huge contribution he made to his team’s championship as a two-way player. But his innings total? This is the Sawamura Award we’re talking about,” Murata said. “And besides, Sawamura himself as a batter could have hit 20 to 30 home runs.”
To set the record straight, Sawamura never hit a single home run. Of course, he played from 1936 to 1943 when home runs were nearly non-existent, but his extra-base hit totals were well below average for his era.
Otani, on the other hand, hit home runs more often this season than all but three players in Japan.
“The Sawamura award is for pitchers who throw a lot of innings, so if he starts a lot, throws a lot of innings, then he’s viable,” Murata said.
“If he wins 20 games, if he throws a minimum of 150 innings, then he’d join the other candidates like (this year’s winner Kris) Johnson. I have huge expectations for him (Otani) but for now, the Sawamura Award doesn’t enter into it.”
Murata was curious about whether or not Americans might consider Otani someone who could both hit and pitch in the major leagues.
“That’s something I really want to know,” he said. “I have my doubts.”
Several big league scouts, but not all, have said this year that the right-handed-pitching, left-handed-hitting slugger could be a major league All-Star doing either.
One has even expressed the belief that because of Otani’s hitting, an American League team could successfully emulate the Fighters and bat Otani three-to-four days a week as a designated hitter, while starting him once a week and throwing out the DH rule so he could bat in those games that he starts.
Asked if a major league club might actually consider using Otani both ways, veteran analyst Bill James, whose writing laid the groundwork for the current sabermetrics boom in Major League Baseball, said they need to.
“You should be totally willing to say ‘We are going to accommodate this guy’s skills’ rather than ‘That’s not how we do things in the majors,” James, now an analyst for Boston, wrote on his website, citing two failed attempts by the Red Sox to force a pair of Asian square-peg pitchers into square MLB holes.
“We had Daisuke Matsuzaka. We kept trying to force him to do things our way, and it just didn’t work for him. But the more they tried to force him to do things the ‘right’ way, the worse he got,” James said.