Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Race for Sawamura Award going down to wire

by Jason Coskrey

With the NPB season nearly over — no team has more than 16 games left — it’s almost time for the group of retired pitchers who vote on the Sawamura Award to sit down and have a chat.

When they finish lamenting that none of today’s pitchers are as good as they were, it will be time to sift through the candidates for this year’s award. With no pitcher really standing head and shoulders above the rest, it could be a lengthy discussion.

To be fair, they don’t have to pick anyone. That happened in 1971, 1980, 1984 and, most recently, 2000. They could also throw a curveball and choose co-winners, as in 1966 and 2003.

Either way, the candidates are making their final pushes for the honor.

The Yomiuri Giants’ Shun Yamaguchi has probably been one of the frontrunners for the majority of the season and he has a good case.

Yamaguchi is 13-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 165 strikeouts for the first-place Giants. Per data site Deltagraphs, the big righty leads all NPB pitchers with a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.13 and a 5.8 wins above replacement (WAR).

Aside from missing a couple turns with an injury, he’s been the best pitcher on the Central League’s top team, outdueling teammate Tomoyuki Sugano, who won the award in 2017 and 2018.

While Yamaguchi has done it all year, perhaps no pitcher has made a stronger charge over the second half than the Yokohama BayStars’ Shota Imanaga.

The BayStars lefty took a good first half (8-4, 2.55 ERA) and turned things up a level, going 5-1 with a 1.75 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break, a run that includes a pair of shutouts.

Imanaga is right in the mix at 13-5 with a 2.38 ERA that’s the best in NPB. He’s struck out 163 in his 151⅓ innings on the mound and is second in Japan with a 1.04 walks plus hits per innings pitched.

His 4.7 WAR trails only Yamaguchi and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who is second with 5.2.

Speaking of Senga, the right-hander tossed a 12-strikeout no-hitter on Friday to snap out of a three-game funk and remain in the hunt. Senga is behind the others with a 12-7 record, but has his own bonafides.

The forkball maestro has a 2.92 ERA over an NPB-high 160⅓ innings. He also leads all pitchers with 205 strikeouts and could end up as the only hurler to clear that mark. He’s second to Yamaguchi in WAR and fourth among NPB pitchers with a 3.54 FIP.

Kohei Arihara, of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, is another Pacific League pitcher with impressive numbers. Arihara is NPB’s leader in wins with 14 (seven losses) and also in WHIP at 0.93, making him the only pitcher below 1.00. His 3.25 FIP ranks second in NPB, his 2.44 ERA is third and he has 150 strikeouts.

Of the 13 qualified NPB pitchers, the only others with an ERA below 3.00 are the Hiroshima Carp’s Kris Johnson (11-7, 2.40) and the Chunichi Dragons’ Yudai Ono (8-8, 2.74).

There is, of course, selection criteria for the Sawamura Award, with those being at least 25 starts, 10 complete games, 15 wins, 200 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts and an ERA below 2.50.

That won’t help the selection committee this year, as no one will clear them all. Arihara and Imanaga, however, are in the best position in terms of the criteria that could be met.

While the pennant races look set to go down to the wire, NPB fans should also keep an eye on the race for Japan’s revered pitching award, which could be end up just as close.