Baseball / Japanese Baseball

SoftBank's Dennis Sarfate, Hiroshima's Yoshihiro Maru win NPB MVP awards

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Dennis Sarfate considers himself a traditionalist, and as such, he might not have cast a ballot for himself, a reliever, in the MVP race.

It’s probably a good thing he didn’t have a say then.

Sarfate may or may not have given himself a vote, but enough media members did that the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ record-setting reliever was named the 2017 Pacific League MVP during the NPB Awards on Monday night, with Hiroshima Carp outfielder Yoshihiro Maru winning in the Central League.

Shortstops ruled the day in the Rookie of the Year voting as the Seibu Lions’ Sosuke Genda won the PL award and Yota Kyoda of the Chunichi Dragons was honored in the CL.

“I never expected it,” Sarfate said. “Seven years playing here, I never would’ve imagined a reliever, a closer would win the award. I’m honored by those who voted for me, to recognize me with guys like (Yuki) Yanagita and (Shogo) Akiyama, some of the best players in the league. It’s humbling, but it’s also something I’ll cherish and remember for the rest of my life.”

The two MVPs were teammates in Hiroshima in 2011 and 2012, before Sarfate moved to the Lions in 2013 and landed with the Hawks in 2014.

Sarfate, a first-time winner, set an NPB record with 54 saves during the regular season, shattering the previous record of 46 set by the Chunichi Dragons’ Hitoki Iwase in 2005 and matched by Hanshin Tigers reliever Kyuji Fujikawa in 2007. Sarfate made 66 appearances, finishing with 102 strikeouts and a 1.09 ERA in 66 innings.

He was named first on 180 ballots, finishing with 983 points overall. Hawks outfielder Yanagita was second with 35 first-place votes and 421 points. SoftBank pitcher Nao Higashihama had the third-highest point total (271) but had 12 first-place votes to the Lions’ Yusei Kikichi’s 22.

Sarfate is the second foreign player in franchise history to be named MVP. The first was Nankai Hawks pitcher Joe Stanka in 1964.

Maru played in every game for the Carp, hitting .308 with 23 home runs, 92 RBIs and a .903 on-base plus slugging percentage.

“I used to be the type of player who had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season,” Maru said. “This year, I went through the same routine each time I came to the stadium, went to practice and played in games. I think it’s paid off and led to a consistent performance.”

Maru won decisively with 196 first-place votes and 1,134 points. Carp pitcher Kazuki Yabuta was second with 381 points (with 19 first-place votes) and the Yomiuri Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano, who was named first on 40 ballots, was third with 368 points.

“Honestly, I feel more surprise than joy,” Maru said.

Maru has been a constant presence for the Carp, appearing in every game since 2014. He was also a mainstay in the third spot in the order for Hiroshima this year.

“I tried to get on base to give our team a chance when there were no runners on base,” Maru said. “When there were runners in scoring position, I tried to drive them in and also set the table for our other hitters.”

Sarfate said he hasn’t yet had a chance to really look back at what he accomplished this season. He’ll have to carve out a lot of time to re-live it all.

In addition to helping SoftBank win the Pacific League pennant and Japan Series title, Sarfate was the Japan Series MVP and also the 2017 Shoriki Award winner.

He saved two games in the Japan Series, but it was his performance in the sixth and final game that will live on in franchise lore.

Sarfate entered a tie game against the Yokohama BayStars in the ninth inning of Game 6 and delivered three scoreless innings (after not going more than one inning all season). He was credited with the win after Keizo Kawashima’s series-winning sayonara hit in the 11th. “That last game I’ve played over and over in my head,” Sarfate said. “I still can’t imagine I went three innings. I watch it over and over again, my teammates battling to come back and (Seiichi) Uchikawa hitting that home run in the ninth and going back out for the third inning, I just wanted to pump my teammates up and I wanted to tell them I trusted in them.”

With 229 NPB saves, the fourth-most in history, Sarfate is knocking on the door of the 250 needed for induction into the Meikyukai (Golden Players Club).

“It’s the one everyone knows that I want, it’s 250,” Sarfate said. “I want to get that jacket and get it over with. There’s really nothing else after that. I’m not going to catch Iwase (the NPB career leader with 404 saves), I know that for sure. Unless I play until I’m 75.”

Not a bad goal for a player who thought he might only be in Japan for a year when he joined the Carp in 2011 after playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles in MLB.

“Japan is my second home now,” he said. “I love coming here. Japanese baseball has taught me so much about not even (just) baseball, but life in general.”

“I never thought so much about practice until I came here and realized Japanese practice so much,” he added. “But I think that’s what made me the player I am now.”

Genda dominated the PL rookie voting, gaining 252 out of a possible 258 votes cast. The 24-year-old is the first position player honored since the Lions’ Tatsuya Ozeki in 1998, breaking PL pitchers’ 19-year grip on the award. He’s also the first pure rookie (in his very first as a pro) to win the award since the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Makoto Kosaka in 1997.

“I experienced things I had never experienced before every single day,” Genda said. “Plus, I’d never played in 143 games in a year before. So I just tried to focus and give everything every day.”

Genda played in every inning of all 143 games for the Lions. He was solid defensively, finishing second to the Hawks’ Kenta Imamiya for the PL Golden Glove, while also hitting .270 and finishing second in the league with 37 stolen bases.

Kyoda got 208 out of 286 votes in the CL. He’s the 10th Dragon to win the award and first since pitcher Kenshin Kawakami in 1998. The only other Chunichi infielder named Rookie of the Year was Kazuyoshi Tatsunami in 1988.

“I’m excited about this, to be honest,” Kyoda said. “The Rookie of the Year is something you can only win once in your career. I want to tell my parents.”

He hit .264 in 141 games and finished 10th overall in the CL with 149 hits. He drove in 36 runs and finished with 23 stolen bases.

“I heard it was going to be between me and Hamaguchi,” Kyoda said, referring to BayStars pitcher Haruhiro Hamaguchi. “Hamaguchi did well in the Climax Series and Japan Series, so I had almost given up on winning. So I’m excited to be chosen.

“Unlike Genda, I didn’t play in every inning in 143 games. So I’d like to set that as one of my goals next year.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.