Tomoyuki Sugano is the best pitcher in Japanese baseball.
The Yomiuri Giants ace has won the past two Sawamura Awards, hasn’t posted an ERA higher 2.14 (or an fielding independent pitching over 2.80) since 2015 and is 32-13 over the past two seasons.
There’s no real argument really. If NPB were an NBA All-Star Weekend, Sugano would be Larry Bird sauntering into the locker room before the 1986 3-point contest and asking, “Which one of you guys is finishing second?”
Which is actually a great question — especially with the Olympics coming up next year.
Sugano may have the best pitcher conversation locked up, but who stands out the most in the group of starters behind him now that Yusei Kikuchi has joined Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda, Shohei Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka in the majors?
It might be Tanaka’s former teammate with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Takahiro Norimoto.
Norimoto is coming off the worst season of his career, which sounds bad until you realize he was 10-11 with a 3.69 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 180⅓ innings and a 4.9 WAR (per Data Stadium) that ranked below only Sugano (7.0) Kikuchi (5.1) and the Yokohama BayStars’ Katsuki Azuma (5.1) among pitchers.
He was also the NPB co-leader (with Sugano) with a 12.3 swinging strike percentage, according to Deltagraphs.
Norimoto is a workhorse. The 28-year-old has led the Pacific League in strikeouts in each of the past five seasons, in innings pitched in four of the last five and in FIP in each of the last three. He’s fearless and gets everything out of his 178-cm, 82-kg frame, attacking hitters with a fastball that averaged 148.3 kph last season.
No stage ever seems too big for Norimoto — he started Game 1 of the 2013 Japan Series as a rookie and led a combined no-hitter against an MLB All-Star team in 2014 — and he usually gives the Eagles a chance to win.
Last year was his first with fewer than 200 strikeouts since his rookie year. If Norimoto just bumps up his numbers to their normal levels, he’s elite in NPB.
His teammate Takayuki Kishi didn’t look too bad himself in 2018. The veteran, who was MVP of the 2008 Japan Series, went 11-4 and posted PL-bests with a 2.72 ERA and a 0.98 walks plus hits per innings pitched that was the best in Japan.
On sheer talent, it’s possible the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Kodai Senga, who was 13-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 2018, is the answer.
The right-hander has drawn MLB attention and yearns to go. He isn’t as durable as Norimoto, but when he gets going it’s tough for hitters to put up much resistance, as he showed during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Senga averaged 148.1 on his fastball last season and his forkball is one of NPB’s more devastating pitches when he’s on his game.
Senga finished 2018 with 163 strikeouts and led NPB with a 10.40 strikeout rate in 2018. Norimoto was second at 9.33
A few years ago, Chihiro Kaneko, a former Sawamura winner and Pa League MVP, would’ve been the answer, but he’s taken a step back since his elbow surgery after the 2014 season.
Speaking in non-Olympic NPB terms, the Carp’s Kris Johnson is a former Sawamura Award winner with a good track record the last few years. Since joining NPB in 2015, the left-hander has a 2.52 ERA and 3.03 FIP in 595⅔ innings. He’s one of the top names in the league terms of performance.
The coming year might see more candidates lay down markers, such as the Carp’s Daichi Osera or Shisaburo Tawata of the Seibu Lions or second-year BayStars lefty Azuma.
For now, though, if Sugano is No. 1, Norimoto is probably the name you put directly under him on the marquee.