It was with hometown reverence that Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fans referred to Dennis Sarfate as “The King of Closer,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also true.
Sarfate was tied for the most in saves in NPB in 2015, alone at the top in 2016 and set the NPB record with 54 in 2017. He’s compiled 234 saves in Japan, fifth-most all time and by far the most among foreign pitchers. When Sarfate stepped on the mound, more times than not, the result was decided. As NPB closers go, he’s one of the greats.
Which is why a sudden Facebook post last month that all but announced his retirement created such a stir among NPB fans. Sarfate wrote it at Haneda Airport while waiting for his plane back to the U.S. He was leaving because of a hip injury that’s been nagging him since 2018. Having heard he’d probably need a hip replacement surgery that would end his career, there were a lot of emotions behind that Facebook post, in which he thanked the people who had supported him during his career, especially his wife.
Sarfate isn’t retiring yet, he says, but he knows he may have already thrown his last pitch.
“It still hasn’t really hit me,” Sarfate told The Japan Times. “It hasn’t really set in yet, because I haven’t had the surgery yet. I think a lot of it is just, I watch the games, I text (Hawks closer Yuito) Mori, I text some of the guys to keep up with them. It just feels like, since 2018, it’s been so surreal. I never thought winning the (Pacific League) MVP and doing all that stuff I did in ’17, starting the year off pretty good in ’18, six games in, five saves, then all of a sudden boom. Now I haven’t been able to recover.
“So it just was one of those things where I’m typing and it’s like man, this could very well be the last time I’m here, or a player. There’s so much emotion. You go from being the best in the world possibly to never playing again. It’s just a tough thing.”
Sarfate will meet with his doctor next month before he and the Hawks discuss their next steps. With no cartilage protecting his hip socket, however, he’s aware his options are limited.
There is a way back from hip surgery for many athletes. For a 39-year-old pitcher, though, coming back from a hip replacement is a much more daunting task.
“A lot of people have come back from hip ailments, hip surgery,” Sarfate said. “But when you talk about a full on replacement, you talk about throwing every pitch I could possibly dislocate my hip and you just incur further damage.”
Which makes it possible one of the great careers by a foreign player in NPB has come to an end.
Sarfate has played in Japan since 2011. He pitched for the Hiroshima Carp for two seasons and spent one with the Seibu Lions before moving to Fukuoka in 2014.
He put up solid numbers in his first two stops, but his career really took off in Kyushu. Sarfate posted 37 saves in his first season with SoftBank and 41 and 43 in the next two years.
In 2017, he set the record with 54, becoming the only NPB pitcher to reach 50 in a single season. He would go on to win the Pacific League MVP award in addition to being named that season’s Japan Series MVP and becoming the first foreign-registered player, and second player ever, to win the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, which is awarded for contributions to the game. The Hawks won the Japan Series in all but one year (2016) since Sarfate joined the team.
His performance in the 2017 Japan Series was an all-timer, with Sarfate throwing three scoreless innings of relief in the deciding game. He’d never thrown more than 1⅔ innings that regular season. He finished that Japan Series with two saves and a win.
While he worked with the Hawks’ catchers, especially Toru Hosokawa early on, to refine his approach, Sarfate said the trust SoftBank showed in him was the key to his success.
“I remember some of the looks I would get in the dugout when I would come in, in 2015, ’16 ’17, where the guys would just smile like they knew the game was over,” Sarfate said. “When you have that confidence from your team, you can do anything. When your whole team backs you and your managers and your coaches trust you, you feel that. I would go into games thinking, ‘there ain’t no way I’m gonna blow this.’
“That was probably the biggest thing, was the trust from the Hawks, the fans right away accepting me and my teammates were great.”
His years in Japan also taught him leaving your ego behind at customs is one of the keys to longevity in NPB.
"The baseball aspect of it is, you're expected to perform at a certain level," he said. "The Japanese teams have plenty of good players. Plenty of teams could probably play without a foreigner on their team. But the foreigners are expected to come in and be that extra help."
Sarfate said players who come to Japan from MLB with a big ego and looking for a payday tend to wash out.
"I think a lot of the time that's the biggest issue with success versus not having success," he said. "What are you expecting out of Japan? What are you willing to do to make it better? A lot of guys can't adjust."
The other issue is being away from loved ones for so long. Sarfate was lucky enough to have his growing family along for the ride for many years, saying some his most cherished moments were when his daughters would come to games and on occasion join him for hero interviews.
"My oldest is 12, so I was there for 10 years," he said. "My other two, when they were born, they were in Japan right away. They loved the country. It was a place where we kind of, we got away from all the busyness here in America. In Japan, we went to the beach a lot, we walked a lot, we took bike rides. We lived almost a totally different life there."
Sarfate said his family will definitely be coming back to Japan, he's just not sure if he'll come back as a player or in some other capacity with SoftBank.
If he does retire this year, then NPB will be saying goodbye to two of the top relievers in Japanese history. Hanshin Tigers great Kyuji Fujikawa, who is directly above Sarfate with 243 saves, has already announced this season will be his last.
"When I first met him I was with the Carp and I just have a ton of respect for him," Sarfate said. "When he came into the game, especially in Koshien, it was amazing to watch him take the mound. He had that confidence where it was over.
"Right away, he came up to me and befriended me, encouraged me, would always show me different things or talk to me about some things."
Sarfate had a pretty good career himself.
“Now that I sit back and I look back, it’s hard to watch the games because I know how good I was and how dominant I was for those years," he said. "To not be able to finish it off the way I want, that stinks.
“I know I accomplished a lot. I think I’m most proud of what I did off the field in Fukuoka and giving back to the community and Kumamoto and those cities. I think I was a really good teammate. I think I did everything I could off the field for my team.”