Yudai Ono is exactly the type of pitcher the Sawamura Award committee spent an October morning about this time last year lamenting the game had lost.
He’s also going to force them, for one year at least, to reckon with the monster they created by not handing out the award in 2019.
Ono added another brilliant start to his 2020 resume with a six-hit shutout against the Hanshin Tigers on Wednesday night at Nagoya Dome. He struck out seven and walked one in his fifth shutout and ninth complete game of the season. He hasn’t allowed a run in 36 consecutive innings.
“I don’t have any words,” Chunichi manager Tsuyoshi Yoda told Nikkan Sports. “He pitched wonderfully.”
Ono improved to 9-5 with the victory. He has 128 strikeouts and is also leading NPB with a 1.92 ERA in 126⅔ innings. His walks plus hits per innings pitched is 0.84.
If last season's Sawamura Award committee (made up of former pitchers) is to be believed, complete games matter. So Ono has to be favorite for the award this year.
He’s taking the ball in the first inning and, more times than not, he’s not giving it back until the game is over.
Ono has nine complete games in 17 starts. He’s gone the distance in nine of his last 11 outings, and in his complete games has allowed two or more runs just twice. Even though he’s pitched nearly every inning lately, Ono has only gone past 120 pitches three times this season.
When the retired pitchers who made up last year’s Sawamura committee declined to bestow the honor on anyone, they sat at the front of a conference room in a Tokyo hotel and took turns wishing for a return of the good old days when pitchers finished what they started.
They decried the specialization and attention to pitch counts creeping into Japanese baseball. They did everything but lecture today's youth about how they walked 16 km uphill in the snow to get to school and threw a complete game when they got there.
So either Ono has to win, or they have to admit that last year they were loud and wrong.
There’s no problem with setting up criteria and leaving the award vacant if no one reaches the mark, but that hasn’t been what they've done in recent seasons.
The committee bases its selection each year around seven benchmarks — 25 games started, 10 complete games, 15 wins, .600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.50 or lower, although these are a guide rather than a hard set of rules.
Some say the metrics are out of touch with today’s era, especially the requirement for 10 complete games.
Last year, the Yomiuri Giants’ Shun Yamaguchi and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Kohei Arihara cleared four. Last season's committee chair Tsuneo Horiuchi also brought up Hiroshima Carp pitcher Daichi Osera's name, citing his NPB-best six complete games.
Well, Ono already has more complete games than Osera and more shutouts than anyone one had last season, and surpassed both numbers in fewer games.
So here is the committee’s chance to honor the complete game. But they'll have to step over Tomoyuki Sugano to do it — the committee also seems to love wins most years, and Sugano has a big win total and other numbers to back it up.
The Giants ace won his first 13 decisions of 2020 and is 13-1. He's leading NPB in wins, is second to Ono with a 2.02 ERA and 0.88 WHIP and third with 113 strikeouts. He's also thrown three shutouts.
Per DeltaGraphs, Sugano has a 3.09 fielding independent pitching to Ono’s 3.22. Winning percentage is among the criteria, and Sugano is currently leading that race .929 to .643.
If Sugano gets through the rest of the year without a loss, he could be looking at a 15- or 16-win season with one loss and possibly an ERA under 2.00.
But while the Sawamura Award is often viewed and treated as Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young award, its ostensible purpose is instead to honor the pitcher who most embodies the legacy of Eiji Sawamura in a given year.
It's hard to argue Ono doesn't fit the bill.
He's taken the mound week after week and put the team on his shoulders. The Dragons hitters can play with less pressure because they know Ono is going to keep them in the game. For opposing hitters, there's no waiting it out and getting into the bullpen. There's only figuring out how to get past Ono. Dragons relievers, meanwhile, have basically gotten the night off when Ono pitches.
He's a big reason why a team that's finished in the bottom three every year since 2013 moved into second place with Wednesday's win. He’s also done it without a juggernaut of an offense behind him, like Sugano has in the Kyojin batters.
Ono and Sugano still have games left to play — though the Giants could opt to rest Sugano some after they clinch the pennant. So there’s still time for each to make his case.
The Sawamura Award committee, however, gave everyone the answers to the test last October, and Ono was apparently taking notes. All that’s left now is to see if they give him a passing grade.