This week has been all about the resurgent Mets, the historic disparity of the National League, as well as the semi-real possibility of an October Red Line Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cubs. But it was mostly me going down an internet rabbit hole of Japanese baseball information. Because as I was looking up Kenta Maeda of the Dodgers, the deeper I dug, the more immersed I was into a world of Jewish spies and evil judo masters and the actual Heisenberg. You know, regular baseball stuff. Allow me to ease you in with some basic info…
Did you know that Maeda wears #18 because it’s a tradition in Japan for the ace of the staff to wear that number? I didn’t. But you might notice that Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners wears #18. And it’s been worn by Daiske Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda and a number of other pitchers from Japan – the same way #10 is usually worn by the best player on a soccer team. Maybe it is a bit presumptuous for a guy on the same staff as Clayton Kershaw to sport the ace’s number, but whatever. We don’t have that tradition. And it’s not like anybody is crying about Matt Cain wearing #18 in San Francisco.
Maeda actually earned his #18 in Japan as the two time winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award, which actually predates, but is the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. I’m simplifying things here, but they have a checklist of sorts that a pitcher needs to meet to qualify (25 starts, 15 wins, 10 complete games, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, a 2.50 or lower ERA and 150 K’s). And just to give you an idea, if we had those qualifiers here (because of those 10 complete games), nobody would have won the Cy Young since Randy Johnson in 1999. Nevertheless, the Sawamura Award has also been won by Matsuzaka, Iwakuma and other guys who eventually came to the big leagues like Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.
Also, the story of Eiji Sawamura, himself, and the 1934 American barnstorming tour that inspired his legend (as well as professional baseball in Japan) is so good that it’s worth retelling briefly here. In 1934, a group of American league all-stars (including future Hall of Famers, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill and Lefty Gomez) came to Japan to play a group of Japanese amateurs. During one of the games, the 17-year-old Sawamura struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx in succession, impressing American manager, Connie Mack, so much that he offered him a contract with his Philadelphia Athletics. The only issue was that, while the American baseball players were greeted as heroes everywhere they went in Japan, relations between the two countries was at a very low point, since, at the time, America was opposing Japan’s expansionist policies in Asia. And Sawamura turned down the contract saying, “My problem is I hate America and I can’t make myself like America.”
And this is where it really gets interesting. Because also on that American team was Moe Berg, known around the league as the brainiest guy in baseball. Berg was educated at Princeton, the Sorbonne in Paris, as well as Columbia Law. He is said to have read 10 papers a day and spoke seven languages, although teammates used to joke he couldn’t hit in any of them. The fact that Berg was such a mediocre catcher, and the fact that he later worked for the CIA (with a license to kill Werner Heisenberg if Berg suspected the Germans were close to developing an atomic bomb), has led to documentary shorts like 30 for 30‘s Spyball (I watched it) and books like, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan (I’m thinking about it). I’m beginning to suspect Berg’s entire reason for being in Japan was to spy on the country. And that sounds to me like the most amazing movie that’s never been made. It’s Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own meets Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. I mean, holy shit.
On the Japanese side, the team was formed by media mogul and (I’m not kidding) judo master, Matsutaro Shoriki. And besides Sawamura, their other star pitcher was Victor Starrfin, “The Blue-Eyed Japanese.” Starrfin was born in Russia, but his family fled to Japan during the Revolution. Anyway, in 1934, his father was in jail on involuntary manslaughter charges and the family was being threatened with deportation back to the Soviet Union. So Shoriki actually blackmailed Starrfin to force him on to the team or else he’d cause a scandal in his newspapers. So Starrfin agreed, Shoriki eventually turned his team professional and they’d become the Yoriumi Tokyo Giants, the New York Yankees of Japan.
Starrfin would go on to become the first player in Japan to win 300 games. All with the added pressure of xenophobia surrounding his life and career there. In fact, during World War II, Starrfin was placed in a Japanese detention camp and years later, he eventually committed suicide. Meanwhile, Sawamura went on to pitch the first no-hitter in Japanese baseball history, as well as two more before, in a strange twist of fate, he was killed by American forces in combat during the war. And while Ruth’s playing days were numbered by 1934, the tour made him legendary in Japan and his name became an anti-American rallying cry for the Japanese who would yell, “To hell with Babe Ruth” during battles.
That whole tour sounds insane to me. And that story doesn’t even include Masaichi Kaneda (aka “The Emperor”), who won 400 games in Japan between 1950 and 1969, even though he played for the Kokutetsu Swallows, who were name-appropriately horrible. Kaneda is said to have thrown so hard that a game he played in his rookie season was stopped so that the umpires could make sure the pitchers’ mound was at the appropriate distance away from home plate. And towards the end of his career, his arm caused him so much pain that he actually developed an underhand change up. Like I said, rabbit hole. But I think it was worth it. Okay. Let’s get to this week’s stuff.
AL MVP: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
Well, the Astros might be playing like total garbage right now, but you certainly can’t blame Altuve. Actually, you can’t blame Colby Rasmus either. But Altuve leads the league in WAR, wOBA, slugging and OPS. He’s also the shortest man in baseball. And he’s the only guy to be selected to an All-Star game in both leagues for the same team. I guess I’m trying to put a positive spin on things. The Astros are in big trouble.
AL Cy Young: Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
I love the national attention that Chris Sale is getting all of a sudden. The White Sox have the best record in the American League. Sale is 5-0 and therefore we must assume he’s the early front-runner for this year’s AL Cy Young Award. And he was also my pre-season pick for the award, so I’m almost fine with it. However, if you look at advanced stats, Sale hasn’t even necessarily been the best pitcher on his own team so far this season. And I only say that because Sale’s FIP is a full run ahead of Jose Quintana’s, even though Quintana is merely 3-1. And despite Sale’s undoubtable greatness (and also the fact that I would put him neck-and-neck with David Price as the best overall pitcher in the American League), I’d say his current stats also rank behind Taijuan Walker, Price and Rich Hill as my #5 pick for the early Cy. I still think Sale will win it. But right now he’s already this year’s Zack Greinke.
The White Sox, by the way, are still projected to finish behind the Indians in the Central, which is kind of crazy considering Carlos Carrasco is out 4-6 weeks and nobody knows how healthy Michael Brantley is yet. But the White Sox swept the Rangers this week. And then they swept the Blue Jays, shutting out that offense for the first time this season. They also had that wacky 9-3-2-6-2-5 triple play. And they have the best team ERA in baseball. And they moved up to 19th in runs scored. All because of the loving memory of Drake LaRoche bonding them together or something. Even better for the White Sox, I don’t really know what’s going on in the rest of that division at this point, other than the Twins doing nice things for Prince (RIP) and Tyler Collins flipping everyone off in Detroit. Hey, maybe he’ll run in to Byron Buxton somewhere in the minors.
AL Rookie of the Year: Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers
So… apparently Shin-Soo Choo is feeling better. And everyone still has huge expectations for Mazara.
NL MVP/Rookie of the Year: Aledmys Diaz, St. Louis Cardinals
I told you about this guy last week, but now he’s the NL leader in wOBA, batting average, on base percentage, slugging and OPS. So I gotta give it to him over Dexter Fowler and Bryce Harper. I understand that Fowler had been getting overlooked by everybody, but between all the talk about Harper and even Trevor Story and Maeda, I haven’t even heard anybody taking about Diaz yet. Sports Illustrated just did an article on all the young shortstops taking over baseball and didn’t even mention the 25-year-old Diaz once. So few people have talked about him that I don’t even really know how to say his name. Ah-Led-Mees? Uh-Led-Mee? I guess we could all be learning it real soon.
NL Cy Young Award: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
It’s been Thor every week so far this season. Except this time, the Mets are hot as shit and somehow knocking on the Nationals’ door for first place. After Tanner Roark struck out 15 Twins this week, Nationals fans were going apeshit about how good they were because he’s only their #4 starter. They were being declared the hyperbolic juggernaut we thought they would be last season. Bryce Harper was going to break Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI record from 1930. Dusty Baker was a goddamn tooth-picked genius. And nobody seemed to mind that the Nationals had only played shit teams so far. Now Neil Walker is the most-talked-about second baseman in Mets history (with apologies to only Edgardo Alfonzo). And Yoenis Cespedes is doing impressions of Kirk Gibson in 1988 out there. The Nats also just got swept by the Phillies. They haven’t scored in 22 consecutive innings. And by the time we talk next week, the New York Mets could have actually crawled out of their early season hole and back into the driver’s seat in the NL East.
All that being said, the Cubs are still the best team in baseball. This week, their run differential climbed to +74, which is so insane that fans of opposing teams are starting to claim that Pilates is a PED. Even when Jake Arrieta has an off night, he only gives up one run. And Arrieta doppelgänger, Jason Hammel, might have even better stats than Arrieta at this very moment. And next up the Cubs play the Atlanta Braves, who are truly terrible. As a Cubs fan, I think I can even wear my ‘Try Not to Suck’ t-shirt around L.A. under the radar without some hoodlum Dodger fan knowing what it is and wanting to stab me.
Speaking of which…
I went to the Marlins-Dodgers game this week. And, for the most part, it was nice. I didn’t get to see any Yasiel Puig circus throws or catches. But I got to see Kershaw pitch. I got to see Ichiro’s 2,944th Major League hit. And I also had a pretty good view of the left field bleachers, where fans were getting into drunken fist fights and aggressively screaming at other fans in opposing baseball caps, indiscriminate of whether that team was in the same division or even the same league as their beloved Dodgers. This was a Tuesday night, mind you. In fucking April. All of which reminded me that this is Vin Scully’s last season in the broadcast booth after 67 seasons. The Dodgers just honored him by renaming Elysian Park Avenue ‘Vin Scully Avenue’. And he’s a man of unequivocal class and greatness. But to see that juxtaposed with the Mad Max/Idiocracy scene in left field is truly bizarre to me and completely unworthy of the man’s legacy or his final season.
Plus, it doesn’t even make sense. Most of those dipshit fans were gone by the 7th inning, anyway, with L.A. only down by 3 runs. So you’re telling me you’re willing to fight people and cause physical harm to anyone opposing your favorite baseball team, just as long as you don’t have to hit any traffic? That’s so stupid. And while I used to chalk up the drunkenness at Wrigley Field to the drunken culture surrounding Harry Caray. This just proves that I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is Vin Scully we’re talking about. The only way for my theory to work with Dodger Stadium is if Tuco Salamanca from Breaking Bad was announcing the games (had to throw in Tuco since we already had a Heisenberg). Which, on some level would be pretty entertaining. But it’s not necessarily a place you want to bring your family.
Okay. Check back in with me next week. And feel free to listen to me talk baseball on the MLB weekly recap of Joe Kilgallon’s podcast, “Comedians Talking Sports” on iTunes, Soundcloud or www.joekilgallon.com.