Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hayato Sakamoto, Tomoya Mori named league MVPs

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

It was pretty apparent early in the NPB season that it might be a special year for the Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto and the Seibu Lions’ Tomoya Mori.

Eight months later, that was proven true as they stood side-by-side as the top players in their respective leagues.

Sakamoto was named the 2019 Central League MVP and Mori took home the award in the Pacific League on Tuesday night at the NPB Awards in Tokyo.

“Even when I became a pro baseball player, even in my dreams, I never thought I would win this type of award,” Sakamoto said. “It’s really great to get this so I’m really happy.”

The vote wasn’t close in either league.

Sakamoto ended up with 1,403 total points, finishing far ahead of teammates pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, the runner-up with 665, and outfielder Yoshihiro Maru, who had 306.

Sakamoto got 261 first-place votes, with Yamaguchi second with 24.

Sakamoto is the first shortstop to be named MVP.

The Top 3 was an all-Seibu affair in the PL, with Mori finishing with 1,189 points, third baseman Takeya Nakamura second with 485 and first baseman Hotaka Yamakawa third with 214.

“I exceeded the goals I set before the season in terms of hitting,” Mori said. “So I think it was great. Defensively, there were a lot of issues and I found out what I need to do going forward.”

Mori was given 222 first-place votes. Nakamura garnered 21. Mori is the third catcher to win the award joining Katsuya Nomura and Kenji Johjima.

Sakamoto helped lead Yomiuri to its first pennant since 2014, the club’s first title since he succeeded catcher Shinnosuke Abe as captain in 2015.

“There was a period I thought we weren’t going to win (the pennant),” Sakamoto said. “But whether it was our young players or our veteran players, everybody was pulling in the same direction. That’s how we got closer to the championship.”

Sakamoto hit a career-high 40 home runs, second-most in the CL, while batting .312 with 94 RBIs and a .971 on-base plus slugging percentage. The 30-year-old batted .325 with runners in scoring position.

He was also the Golden Glove winner at shortstop this season.

Mori, the Lions’ 24-year-old catcher, joined some elite company with the numbers he put up in 2019.

He led the PL with a .329 batting average and joined Nomura (1965), Atsuya Furuta (1991) and Abe (2011) as the only backstops to win a batting title. Mori and Nomura each did it in the Pacific League.

“The first thing was my batting average,” Mori said when asked what he focused on at the plate before and during the season. “That was my theme this year. I really worked on going the other way. I tried to hit the ball hard the other way. Once we entered the season I could hit the ball hard and hit home runs to the opposite field.

“There was nothing I was satisfied about in terms of defense.”

Mori hit 23 homers and was third in the Pa League with 105 RBIs. He was a key piece of a Seibu offense that dominated NPB for the second straight season.

Mori was in the thick of things for Seibu all year as the Lions won their second straight PL pennant.

The one blank spot on both players’ resumes this year is a Japan Series title. Mori’s Lions were swept on the field by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks during the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage.

“We were able to win (the pennant) for the second straight time, but we lost to SoftBank for the second straight year in the Climax Series,” Mori said. “So it was kind of a difficult season.”

Sakamoto and the Giants were then swept away by SoftBank in the Japan Series.

Japanese baseball’s top rookies were also unveiled on Tuesday.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder Munetaka Murakami earned Rookie of the Year honors in the Central League, beating out Hanshin Tigers outfielder Koji Chikamoto. Murakami received 168 votes to Chikamoto’s 129.

The 19-year-old played in all 143 games for Yakult and set an NPB record for home runs by a teenager with 36. Kazuhiro Kiyohara set the previous mark of 31 in 1986.

Murakami finished third in the CL in both home runs and RBIs (96) for Yakult. His year wasn’t without some growing pains, with a .231 average and an NPB-high 184 strikeouts.

“I didn’t do it alone,” Murakami said. “I’m just grateful to everyone and I want to keep doing my best next year.”

Murakami is the first Swallows player to win the award since pitcher Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa in 2013. Norichika Aoki was the last Yakult fielder, winning in 2005.

Pitcher Rei Takahashi beat out Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks teammate Hiroshi Kaino for the award in the Pa. League. Takahashi won in a landslide with 206 votes. Kaino was second with 39.

“From the start, I was really conscious of trying to have a winning record,” Takahashi said. “I made an impression on enough people to be the top rookie, so I’m really happy.”

Takahashi was 12-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 23 starts during the regular season. His big year continued into the postseason, where he threw seven scoreless innings to win Game 2 of the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants.

“I was able to win 12 games thanks to all the fielders and the relievers who backed me up,” Takahashi said.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report