Yoshihiro Maru and Hotaka Yamakawa spent the year putting up career numbers to help propel their clubs to league championships.
For their last order of business in the 2018 season, they picked up some hardware for themselves.
Maru, the Hiroshima Carp’s star outfielder, was named Central League MVP for the second straight season, while Pacific League home run king Yamakawa of the Seibu Lions won the PL honor on Tuesday night at the NPB Awards.
“I never thought I could win this award two straight years,” Maru said. “I feel happy, grateful and surprised.”
Yamakawa wasn’t expecting to come out on top either.
“Honestly, I thought it would be Asamura-san,” he said, referring to his now-former teammate Hideto Asamura, who signed a free-agent deal with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last week. “So for me to get it, I’m surprised.”
This season’s Rookie of the Year honors went to Yokohama BayStars pitcher Katsuki Azuma in the CL and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles infielder Kazuki Tanaka in the PL.
Maru arguably had a better season this year than in 2017. He hit .305 with a career-high 39 home runs and 97 RBIs for the pennant-winning Carp. He led all NPB batters with a 1.096 on-base plus slugging percentage and 23.0 walk rate. He was third with a 7.1 WAR, according to DeltaGraphs.
“I was able to win the MVP last season, but it was this year when I really started to think about making a concerted effort to put up really good numbers,” Maru said.
Maru received 241 first-place votes out of the 294 ballots counted and had a overall point total of 1,314. Carp pitcher Daichi Osera was the runner-up with 20 first-place votes and 482 points.
Maru becomes the first back-to-back winner since the Yomiuri Giants’ Alex Ramirez in 2008 and 2009.
He is also currently the most coveted prize on the NPB market, having earned his domestic free agency rights this season. The Carp, Chiba Lotte Marines and Giants are all vying to sign him to big offers.
While Maru was an established presence, Yamakawa got his first real chance to shine this season, and didn’t waste it.
After playing in 142 games combined in his first four seasons, Yamakawa appeared in all 143 in 2018 and put up huge numbers to help lead the Lions to their first pennant in 10 seasons.
The Seibu infielder batted .281 and hit an NPB-best 47 home runs. He also finished with 124 RBIs, three fewer Asamura, the PL leader.
Yamakawa was named first on 148 of the 258 ballots counted and earned 991 points. Asamura was second with 81 first-place votes and 750 points.
Of the slugger’s career-high homer total, the one that stood out to him was the three-run shot he hit against the Marines that turned a one-run deficit into a two-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. The blast came in Chiba on Sept. 22, the day Lotte veteran Kazuya Fukuura joined the 2,000-hit club. Seibu won 5-3.
“It looked like we were going to lose that game,” Yamakawa said. “I was also in losing mode. We were the visitors and all the fans were congratulating Fukuura-san. Then I got that hit. We got the win, but it was kind of a strange feeling.”
Maru and Yamakawa each helped lead their team to their respective league pennant, but neither the Carp nor the Lions were able to win the Japan Series. The Lions fell to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the final stage of the PL Climax Series, while the Carp lost to the Hawks in the Japan Series.
It’s still uncertain whether or not Maru will be back with the Carp, but Yamakawa will be returning to the Lions for another shot at the title. The slugger said he wants to improve on the numbers he put up this year.
“Winning the league title was amazing,” Yamakawa said. “This is my fifth year and it was the first time for me. So it was a really happy occurrence.
“But we lost in the Climax Series and weren’t able to reach the Japan Series, which was really disappointing. Next year, I want to do whatever I can to get there.”