Hisashi Iwakuma won 21 games this year for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and was rewarded on Monday with the 2008 Sawamura Award.
The prize for Japan's best starting pitcher is named in honor of pre-war pitching legend Eiji Sawamura. Iwakuma (21-4), who led both leagues in wins, winning percentage and ERA, was selected over 2007 winner Yu Darvish (16-4) of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Although pitchers had shared the award on two occasions in the past, selection committee member Tsuneo Horiuchi only wanted one winner.
"I came here with the intention of choosing one best pitcher," said Horiuchi, who shared the award as a rookie in 1966 before winning on his own in 1972.
"Compared to a year ago, Darvish's season was really not any different," said selection committee member Masaji Hiramatsu. "But Rakuten won 65 games this year and Iwakuma won 21--those are fantastic results for a pitcher on a fifth-place club.
"Twenty wins is a gateway into elite company. On that basis, Iwakuma surpassed Darvish. Even though Darvish met all the qualifying standards, the difference between 16 wins and 21 is huge."
The five-man committee, headed by former Toei Flyers ace Masayuki Dobashi, uses a set of seven qualifying standards to help compare candidates.
The standards are 25 games, 15 wins, a .600 winning percentage, 10 complete games, 200 innings and 150 strikeouts.
Darvish was the only pitcher to complete 10 games, the only real advantage he had over Iwakuma, who completed five games and was the only other pitcher to meet six standards.
Dobashi said the committee decided against holding Iwakuma accountable for his low complete-game total.
"In today's game, it's very difficult," Dobashi said. "All year we see pitchers who are capable of going the distance being pulled after seven or eight innings. That's the way the managers do it. They are thinking about the next game, about their rotation.
"Horiuchi and I used to complete 20 games in a season, but pro baseball has changed."
It was an unusual statement from the committee, which in the past had criticized today's pitchers for lacking the stamina and strength the selectors themselves had displayed on the diamond in their youth.
This time, the venom was saved for managers who pull starters prematurely.
"We know that this game is about winning, but don't you get upset when a manager does this?" Dobashi quizzed reporters.
"I saw Iwakuma come out of games that he could have finished, but Nomu [Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura] would take him out when the win was secure.
"Although complete games have been decreasing in recent decades, we don't want to lower the standard because we don't want to lower the prestige of the award."
Besides his win total and his 1.87 ERA, Iwakuma knocked the selectors' socks off by only allowing three home runs.
"Some pitchers allow that many in a game," said new committee member Choji Murata. "He also only walked 36 batters, which tells you he's challenging hitters."