Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano is going to have to find room in his suitcase for one more piece of hardware depending on his plans for 2021.
The Kyojin ace, who many expect to be pitching for an MLB club next season, was named the Central League MVP during the NPB Awards on Thursday night. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks slugger Yuki Yanagita won the honor in the Pacific League.
Hiroshima Carp pitcher Masato Morishita was named Rookie of the Year in the CL, while Seibu Lions reliever Kaima Taira was the top rookie in the Pa League.
“I didn’t win this on my own,” Sugano said. “If the team didn’t win, I wouldn’t have gotten this, so I have to express my gratitude to a lot of people.”
Sugano finished the 2020 season with a 14-2 record and 1.97 ERA in 20 starts. The right-hander led the league in wins and with an .875 winning percentage. He received 261 first-place votes, easily beating Giants infielder Kazuma Okamoto, who won the CL home run title with 31 and received 30 first-place votes.
Sugano got off to a good start for the Giants and never looked back. He took the ball on opening day and reeled off 13 straight winning decisions. He said the first game of that streak — he allowed two runs over seven innings against the Hanshin Tigers — was among the games that stood out the most for him in 2020.
“If I’d lost that game, I wouldn’t have set the record for most wins from opening day,” he said. “If I had lost, maybe it would’ve turned out to be a difficult season, so I feel like that was an important win.”
Sugano was second in the CL with 131 strikeouts in 137⅓ innings and his 25 walks were the second-fewest in the league. His 0.89 WHIP was second only to the Chunichi Dragons’ Yudai Ono among all NPB pitchers.
Sugano helped lead the Giants to their second straight appearance in the Japan Series, where they were swept by Yanagita and the Hawks for the second consecutive season. Following that series, the Giants announced Sugano would be made available to MLB teams via the posting system if he wished to make the move to North America. He expressed his desire to pitch in MLB a few days later and was officially posted on Dec. 7 in the U.S. He has until Jan 7 at 5 p.m. to strike a deal with an MLB club or he’ll return to Yomiuri.
“I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sugano said. “I want to try to win these kinds of awards wherever I go.”
A MLB.com report by J.P. Morosi on Dec. 7 listed the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants as teams with an interest in the 31-year-old, who turned heads with his performance, especially against the U.S. team, at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Sugano is 101-49 with a 2.32 ERA in 1,360 innings in eight NPB seasons. He’s finished with an ERA of 2.33 or lower six times, including this season. He won back-to-back Sawamura Awards in 2017 and 2018 and now has another CL MVP to go with the one he claimed in 2014.
Yanagita also became a two-time MVP, winning for the first time since 2015, and, like Sugano, he won easily. Yanagita received 194 first-place votes to finish far ahead of Hawks starter Kodai Senga, who got 50, and SoftBank reliever Livan Moinelo, who had 21.
“I’m really happy,” Yanagita said. “It’s thanks to my teammates, the staff and everyone. I don’t think I would’ve gotten this if we hadn’t won the title.”
After being limited to 38 games in 2019 because of injuries, Yanagita bounced back with a strong 2020 campaign. He finished second in the PL with a .342 average and was third with 29 home runs and 86 RBIs. He led all NPB batters with a 1.071 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“There were good times and there were also bad times,” Yanagita said. “I was just playing with the desire to contribute to the team as much as I could.”
The 32-year-old outfielder said he also worked to remain in good condition throughout the year.
“Eating well and sleeping well were the most important things,” he said. “The staff also made sure that my condition was in good shape.”
Yanagita is already looking toward 2021.
“V5 (five straight Japan Series title), I want to contribute to that,” he said. “I want to play the whole year without getting hurt.”
Morishita was a slam dunk as the top rookie in the CL after finishing 10-3 with a 1.91 ERA that was the second-best in the league. The 23-year-old right-hander dominated the voting, finishing with 303 out of 313 votes. Morishita became the 10th Carp player to win the award and first since pitcher Daichi Osera in 2014.
The vote was closer in the PL, where Taira received 144 votes to beat the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Hiroto Kobukata, who finished with 125.
Taira made 54 appearances for the Lions this season, finishing with a win, a save and 33 holds. He posted a 1.87 ERA in 53 innings. On July 19, he became the sixth Japanese player in NPB history to throw a pitch at 160 kph (99 mph).
The 2020 NPB Awards come after a year in which it was uncertain whether there would be an NPB season at all. The pandemic forced the league to delay the start of the season by three months.
NPB eventually decided on a shortened 120-game season that started on June 19 and didn’t include interleague play or the All-Star Series. Fans were also prevented from attending games until July.
“It was a really difficult start to the season for everyone,” Hawks pitcher Shuta Ishikawa said.
The league, however, managed to complete the revised schedule with fans in the stands and made it through the PL Climax Series and Japan Series without issue.
“I think everyone felt uneasy at the start of the season,” Sugano said. “But with the help of the players on each team we were able to play 120 games and because the fans took the proper precautions when they came to the games, we could also increase the number of fans.”
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