Tomoyuki Sugano was the No. 1 pitcher in Japan in 2017.
Now he’s got the hardware to prove it.
The Yomiuri Giants ace was named the 2017 Sawamura Award winner on Monday afternoon, earning the award for the first time after narrowly beating out Seibu Lions ace Yusei Kikuchi for the honor. Sugano is the first Yomiuri pitcher to win the award since Koji Uehara in 2002.
“There were two names that stood out this year, Sugano and Kikuchi,” this year’s Sawamura committee chairman Tsuneo Horiuchi said during a news conference on Monday. “Looking at those two, they each cleared five of the benchmarks. As we have to choose just one, our five-person committee selected Sugano.”
This year’s selection panel included Horiuchi and fellow retired star pitchers Manabu Kitabeppu, Choji Murata, Masaji Hiramatsu and Hisashi Yamada. They said Sugano and Kikuchi’s names kept coming up during their deliberations. A recurring theme for the panel, however, was that there could only be one No. 1 pitcher in Japan.
“Sugano and Kikuchi both cleared five of the benchmarks,” Kitabeppu said. “Kikuchi’s numbers were amazing as well, and some of his pitching marks were above Sugano’s, like innings pitched and strikeouts. But for a starter, (Sugano) had a 1.59 ERA which is an amazing accomplishment. Some of our committee members said maybe we should choose both of them, but as the No. 1 pitcher of 2017, I personally recommended Sugano.”
There is precedent for two pitchers sharing the award, the last time being in 2003, when the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ Kazumi Saito and Hanshin Tigers pitcher Kei Igawa were co-winners.
“There have been two occasions when the award was given to two pitchers, one of which I was involved in,” Horiuchi said, referring to 1966, when he shared the award with the Hanshin Tigers’ Minoru Murayama. “In recent years, the Sawamura Award is given to the No. 1 pitcher in Japan.”
Sugano went 17-5 in 25 starts, finishing wth a 1.59 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 187⅓ innings. Kikuchi was 16-6 in 26 games. He struck out 217 and finished with a 1.97 ERA in his 187.2 innings on the mound.
Neither cleared all seven of the Sawamura criteria of 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. Both fell short in complete games, each finishing with six, and innings pitched.
Sugano led all NPB pitchers in wins, winning percentage (.773) and ERA.
He allowed just 10 home runs, tied for second fewest among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, and 31 walks, third-fewest among the same group. No qualified pitcher was charged with fewer earned runs than Sugano’s 33.
The Kyojin ace reeled off a run of three straight shutouts early in the season, and finished his year with a winning decision in 10 of his final 12 starts. Sugano pitched at least six innings, while allowing no more than two runs, in each of those 12 appearances.
In addition to naming a winner, the Sawamura committee revealed that from next yet it would also begin to take quality start percentage into account when deciding a winner, in a nod to the way the game has changed over the years. Quality start percentage will be used as a reference, not as an official benchmark.
A normal quality start is any start in which a pitcher lasts at least six innings while allowing no more than three runs. For Sawamura Award purposes, the panel will consider starts of at least seven innings with three or fewer runs allowed as a quality start.
The leader in that measure this season, was Sugano, who had a quality start percentage of 76.0 under those conditions. Kikuchi was second at 73.1.