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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Saito, Sawamura experience growing pains in second season
Yuki Saito has a losing record, a high (for this period at least) ERA and has lost five of his last six decisions.
With those numbers weighing him down, it's a wonder the Hokkaido Nippon Ham star didn't burst out laughing as he dutifully conducted a news conference upon word he'd been voted into the upcoming NPB All-Star Series. An All-Star, with a losing record.
For the second time in as many years the fans threw the Handkerchief Prince a lifeline when an All-Star spot wasn't coming — last year he sneaked into the game via a last-minute vote that allowed fans to choose the final member of the Pacific and Central League All-Star rosters. Fellow rookie Hirokazu Sawamura of the Yomiuri Giants nabbed the final spot in the CL that season and was an equally questionable (at that time) choice.
On merit, neither Saito nor Sawamura deserve to be All-Stars this year (Sawamura probably won't be anyway). The pair are long on star power but short on actual results, as they seem to both be suffering through a prolonged sophomore slump.
Things were supposed to be better than this. Fighters fans hoped Saito could step into Yu Darvish's cleats, and Kyojin supporters pictured Sawamura as the third cog in a loaded rotation.
They've fallen by the wayside this year, with Saito's hot start and Sawamura's impressive rookie season feeling more and more like distant memories.
Neither has a record above .500 or an ERA below 2.65 — Saito is 5-6 with a 2.99 ERA while Sawamura is 5-7, 2.66. Saito last won on June 6 and has lost five of his last six decisions. Sawamura's win Friday snapped a five-start winless streak.
Control issues have plagued Saito, who had a strong start to the year. Opposing batters are hitting .278 against him, and the star pitcher has an NPB-high 36 walks, a 1.19 strikeout-to-walk-ratio, and a fielding independent pitching rating of 4.31 which suggests things could be even worse.
Sawamura's struggles have come out of nowhere. He was great for a stretch of games from April 6 to May 20 (4-2 with a 0.53 ERA in seven starts) before running into problems getting outs.
Since May 20, Sawamura has held only two opponents to two or fewer runs. On the bright side, he looked good in his most recent start, a win over the Chunichi Dragons on Friday, lasting 6⅓ innings and allowing just an unearned run on four hits.
The sophomore slump hasn't been limited to Saito and Sawamura. The first round of the 2010 draft featured four superstar college pitchers — Chuo University product Sawamura and Waseda University teammates Saito, Yuya Fukui and Tatsuya Oishi — all of whom are struggling.
Fukui, now with the Hiroshima Carp, has followed a decent rookie campaign, by beginning this season 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA. He isn't even with the top team, having been demoted on in early May.
Oishi spent the majority of his first season with the Seibu Lions on the farm and is 0-1 with a 4.85 ERA in 13 innings of work out of the bullpen this year.
There are going to be growing pains for every young pitcher, so fans shouldn't be alarmed (yet) by their struggles. Just a few years ago another star hurler followed up an impressive rookie season with a so-so sophomore campaign, and most would agree Masahiro Tanaka came out on the other side of that just fine.
The important thing for the stars of the 2010 draft class is to learn from their troubles and stay the course.
Tanaka was tough enough to do it and so were others before him, though many have failed, and this group will have to do the same in order to take their places among next group of elite NPB stars.