Hamming it up: Reviewing the 2016 NPB Season
While the Indians and the Cubs got all the attention over here, long-suffering franchises in Nippon Pro Baseball also had glimmers of hope in 2016.
The 2016 season was one that brought hope to many Major League franchises: the Cleveland Indians made it to the World Series for only the fourth time in 95 years while (SPOILER ALERT!) the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. However, it wasn’t just moribund North American franchises that saw their fortunes turn.
At the end of the regular season the Hiroshima Toyo Carp finished atop the Central League with a record of 89-52 and later made it to the Japan Series for the first time in 25 years after they defeated the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in the Central League Climax Series. Meeting them in the final were the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters who, after finishing first in the Pacific League at 87-53, dispatched the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the Pacific League Climax Series and were looking for their first Japan Series title in 10 years after having lost it in 2007, 2009 and 2012.
The 2016 Japan Series went six games, with the BayStars winning the first two games at home but losing the next four in a row to let the title slip away. Making the loss for Hiroshima that much more bitter is that in every single loss they let the Nippon-Ham Fighters come from behind to win.
In terms of individual accomplishments, there was quite a bit to celebrate in Japanese baseball in 2016. Kris Johnson, a pitcher for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, became the first foreign-born player to win the Eiji Sawamura Award, Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award, since 1964.
The Central League’s Most Valuable Player award went to a sentimental choice in 39-year-old first baseman Takahiro Arai. Arai, who plays for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, hit .300 with 19 homers and 101 RBI and beat out teammate Seiya Suzuki (a Gold Glove-winning right fielder who hit .335 with 29 home runs and 95 RBI) as well as Yomiuri Giants short-stop Hayato Sakamoto (who hit .344 with 23 homers and 75 RBI). Arai became the second- oldest player to win the award in NPB history.
In the Pacific League, the Most Valuable Player was a far less curious selection. The 22-year-old Shohei Otani won the award with one of the more interesting statistical lines ever seen in an MVP. He hit .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBI in addition to having a 10-4 record as a pitcher with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings pitched. Yes, when Otani pitched he was arguably the best pitcher in the Pacific League—and when he hit, he was possibly its best hitter (he even managed to steal seven bases).
Otani’s story is such that a mere paragraph or two couldn’t possibly do him justice. In fact, to even try to encapsulate the achievements of the most interesting athlete in the world in just a single article would be a fool’s errand.
To read me being foolish I’d suggest you pick up next month’s Bento Box issue, where I weave a tale of a young phenom tempted by riches overseas, his desire to do what hasn’t been done in over 80 years—and the best impression of Babe Ruth that’s ever been done (apologies to John Goodman).
Canadian ballplayers in Japan
Over the years many Canadians have made the jump from the Major (and Minor) Leagues to Japan. This season saw two Canadians play in the NPB.
After 13 years in the Minors, and a mere 27 games in the Majors, 30-year-old Jamie Romak made his debut in Japan. Unfortunately his transition to Japan did not go over well: he scraped out only eight hits in 30 games (.113 average). Romak was benched and is headed back to the Minors next season with San Diego.
Scott Mathieson is a 32-year-old relief pitcher who has been playing in Japan for five seasons. He signed with the Yomiuri Giants in 2012 and has since become a fixture in their bullpen. He has pitched in over 300 games in Japan, averaging over a strikeout per inning, and his success has led to him becoming a regular reliever on the Canadian National Team. Mathieson won his second Most Valuable Middle Reliever award last season and is returning to the Giants next season.
D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.