The bow has become one of the most familiar sights in Japanese baseball. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate records the final out of a game, brings his right hand up to meet his gloved left hand in front of his chest, and leans forward. When you see it, Sarfate has either converted a save or earned a win.
The saves come more often. On Saturday, Sarfate recorded his 46th of the season, equaling the NPB single-season record first set by the Chunichi Dragons’ Hitoki Iwase in 2005 and matched by Hanshin Tigers fireballer Kyuji Fujikawa two years later.
“It’s an honor,” Sarfate said after matching the record. “I have a lot of respect for Iwase-san and Fujikawa-san. Since I got here, those are the two guys I always watched pitch. It’s an absolute honor, and it’s an honor to do it here (in Fukuoka).”
The Hawks have 21 games remaining, so there is plenty of time for Sarfate to tack on a few more saves, and perhaps reach 50, something no Japanese has done and only 13 major leaguers (where there are longer seasons) have achieved.
Sarfate has also made 57 appearances this season and has a 0.95 ERA, 90 strikeouts, three holds and a 2-2 record. He’s the only reliever with at least 50 appearances with an ERA under 1.00 and one of only two when you include pitchers with at least 30 appearances.
Sarfate has built his case as the best closer in Japan, but it’s possible the award for best overall player in his league is also within reach.
Sarfate has had a year that should put him in the Pacific League MVP discussion, especially if he reaches 50 saves. While a reliever being named MVP is usually an unlikely occurrence, it isn’t unheard of in Japan. Yutaka Enatsu did it twice, with the Hiroshima Carp in 1979 and Nippon Ham Fighters in 1981, becoming the first player (batter or pitcher) to win MVP honors in both leagues. There was also the Chunichi Dragons’ Genji Kaku in 1988 and the Yokohama BayStars’ Kazuhiro Sasaki in 1998.
More recently, the Dragons’ Takuya Asao won as a set-up man in 2011.
Sarfate’s numbers will get him in the MVP conversation. What gives him a chance to finish high on the list is having those numbers while, barring an epic collapse, playing for the pennant-winning team.
For a large contingent of those who vote on the MVP awards, there is nothing better than a pennant winner, no candidate more irresistible than one with his league’s flag draped over his shoulders. Since 1997, all but two Pacific League MVPs played for the regular season pennant winner. In the CL, it’s all but one.
That basically wipes out much, but not all, of the competition, paving the way for an otherwise outside candidate (or a stellar reliever) to do well in the voting.
When the Hawks won the pennant in 2015, Yuki Yanagita was the MVP (and more than deserving) while Sarfate, with 41 saves and 102 strikeouts in 65 appearances, was fourth. Sarfate set a new PL record with 43 saves last season (with 73 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA in 64 games), and was 11th in a year the Fighters won the PL title.
Sarfate should do much better this season with his numbers and a pennant boost. Still, he’ll more than likely finish somewhere behind Yanagita again.
The Hawks outfielder leads the PL with 29 home runs and 92 RBIs. He’s second with a .311 average, with only the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama (.331) standing between him and the Triple Crown at the moment.
Yanagita is the favorite, but Sarfate will do well in the final tally. He might even do better than that. Strange things sometimes happen when the votes are cast, after all.
Like last season, when someone gave Fighters reliever Naoki Miyanishi a first-place vote ahead of two-way star Shohei Otani. That’s way more unbelievable than Sarfate winning the MVP could ever be.