Chunichi Dragons southpaw Yudai Ono was announced as the recipient of this year’s Sawamura Award on Monday, beating out Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano for the honor.
Ono, who just completed his 10th pro season, is a first-time winner of the prestigious award.
The five former star pitchers who made up the selection committee said they were torn between Ono and Sugano and rewarded the Dragons ace for clearing more of the award’s seven selection criteria — at least 25 games started, 10 complete games, 15 wins, a winning percentage of .600, a 2.50 ERA, 200 innings pitched and 150 strikeouts.
Ono led the Central League with a 1.82 ERA, 10 complete games, six shutouts, 148 2/3 innings and 148 strikeouts. Sugano topped the league with 14 wins and an .875 winning percentage while guiding the Giants to the CL pennant in runaway fashion.
Ono, a Kyoto native, posted an 11-6 record and 0.87 WHIP to help lead Chunichi to its first winning season (60-55-5) in eight years. Sugano, who won the award in 2017 and 2018, finished with a 1.91 ERA and 0.89 WHIP.
Tsuneo Horiuchi a former Giants star, served as the head of the selection committee, which also included former Sawamura winners Masaji Hiramatsu who played for the Taiyo Whales, Choji Murata of the Lotte Orions, Hisashi Yamada of the Hankyu Braves and Manabu Kitabeppu, who pitched for the Hiroshima Carp.
Horiuchi, during an online news conference, said the irregular 2020 season led to a heated discussion among the members.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the start of the season back by nearly three months. The delay then led NPB to trim the season from 143 games to 120. That made it harder for pitchers to meet the criteria.
Ono and Sugano were nearly even on paper, with each recording standout individual accomplishments. Sugano started for the Giants on opening day and won his first 13 decisions to set an NPB record, while Ono set a club record with 45 consecutive scoreless innings in September.
In the end, the decision simply came down to who the committee viewed as the best pitcher in 2020.
“They played fewer games in a more compact schedule than in a normal year, which we believe made it more difficult for the players to maintain their physical condition,” said Horiuchi, a two-time winner of the award. “We thought we needed to respect the numbers they came up with under these circumstances.
“We have no plans to change the criteria right away, but we need to understand it was an unusual year.”
Horiuchi said the committee wasn’t going to pick a winner by just adding up how many of the criteria each candidate met. He also said the committee didn’t want a repeat of 2019, when no winner was chosen for the first time in 20 years.
Hiramatsu said the committee didn’t have much to think about as Sugano racked up wins early in the year. Ono’s phenomenal performance as the season progressed, however, forced them to think twice.
“Ono had five shutouts in a row,” Hiramatsu said. “We’ve repeatedly said that you need to go the distance, and Ono did that. Going five consecutive games with a shutout is an incredible feat that made him stand out.”
Ono is the ninth Dragons pitcher to win the award and first since Kenshin Kawakami in 2004.
The committee considered honoring both Ono and Sugano, but ended up sticking with one winner. There have only been dual recipients twice in the 73-year history of the award. Horiuchi and the Hanshin Tigers’ Minoru Murayama shared the award in 1966 and the Daiei Hawks’ Kazumi Saito and the Tigers’ Kei Igawa were both honored in 2003.
Horiuchi said there were a few other pitchers taken into consideration, including the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Kodai Senga, Hideaki Wakui of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Hiroshima Carp rookie Masato Morishita.
Senga led the Pacific League with a 2.16 ERA and finished tied for the most wins (11) and strikeouts (149).
While the selection committee has yet to adjust the criteria for the award, which has been criticized as out of touch with today’s game, Horiuchi hinted that it could happen in the future, but only after careful deliberation.
“I expect we would need a whole year,” he said. “We’ve added a backup criterion, which is quality starts, but I think it’s time for us to look at this. But we have to do it carefully because we can’t tarnish the achievements of Mr. Sawamura. That said, it won’t be easy to revise them.”
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