Among a group of highly touted first-year pitchers who made their debuts during the 2011 NPB season, one man stood above the rest.
Yomiuri Giants right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura was the class of the rookie moundsmen in 2011, outperforming the likes of Yuki Saito of the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Seibu Lions pitcher Tatsuya Oishi and the Hiroshima Carp’s Yuya Fukui.
Sawamura posted an 11-11 record with a 2.03 ERA and was named Central League Rookie of the Year. He was also the only pitcher on the Giants to stay in the starting rotation throughout the entire season.
A year ago, Sawamura was quite sensitive about being compared with other ballplayers his age. During practice at his alma mater, Chuo University, members of the media asked then student Sawamura if he was imitating Saito’s form while playing catch.
“No,” Sawamura said, looking visibly annoyed.
After practice, he told reporters, “I don’t think about other players of my generation at all.”
The truth, however, is that he was very conscious of his rivals.
During the 2010 draft, he was selected with the first-round pick of the Giants, a team he wanted to play for. He was so happy that he shed tears, but he also shouldered the massive weight of being a rookie on the famed Giants.
“The Giants chose me over all the excellent players my age,” Sawamura said after this past season ended. “In order to prove that the scouts made the right decision, I felt I had to work harder and do twice as much as everyone else. I told myself that I was being asked to perform at a completely different level.”
In 2012, Sawamura will have to face the so-called "sophomore (second-year) jinx." Because his rookie year was so impressive, batters on every team will be thoroughly researching Sawamura’s pitching style. Yoshimasa Takahashi, Sawamura’s mentor and manager at Chuo University, saw this coming and offered Sawamura some tough love. At Sawamura’s December wedding party following his marriage to TV announcer Maki Mori, Takahashi said, “The second-year jinx is only an arrogant excuse.”
Sawamura also seems conscious of this. During the news conference for his Rookie of the Year award, he never smiled.
“This is a world where you’re considered a full-fledged professional only after playing for three years,” he told reporters. “I want to continue working hard without being satisfied with just 11 wins.”
This may sound arrogant to some people, but this was Sawamura’s way of reminding himself not to get big-headed.
To make sure he polishes his skills, Sawamura has asked his team’s ace, Tetsuya Utsumi, to let him join the veteran in his voluntary training sessions during the offseason. Utsumi is known for spending more time practicing than all his other teammates, so this is a sign that Sawamura is serious.
Earlier this month, Sawamura, Utsumi and other members of the Giants left for Guam, where Sawamura’s fight against the sophomore jinx has already begun.
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