Hatsu Storylines, Day 5

Whose portrait is going up next?

The first third of the Hatsu basho is in the books, and while little has been decided, it’s worth taking a look at what’s at stake during the rest of the tournament.

The yusho race

With both Yokozuna out, are we going to see the first Ozeki yusho since Kisenosato last pulled off the feat exactly 3 years ago, or will we see another champion from the lower ranks? There have been 371 prior tournaments in the era of six basho per year (1958-2019). In 254 of these, the ultimate winner had a 5-0 record at this point in the basho; in 106, the record was 4-1. Only 9 champions overcame a 3-2 start, and only 2 claimed the yusho after starting 2-3. So 97 times out of 100, the winner starts 4-1 or better. The rate is lower for tournaments won by a non-Yokozuna, but it’s still 94% (119 out of 127 basho).

So the smart money is on someone who is currently 5-0 or 4-1 to win the tournament. This group includes Ozeki Takakeisho (4-1), M1 Endo (4-1), M2 Hokutofuji (4-1), M4 Shodai (5-0), M9 Yutakayama (4-1), M11 Kagayaki (5-0), M14 Terutsuyoshi (5-0), and M17 Tokushoryu (4-1). I would look for the winner to come from the first four rikishi on this list, which will either present Takakeisho with his first opportunity to earn promotion to Yokozuna in March, or give us yet another first-time champion.

The Ozeki ranks

No matter what happens, Takakeisho will be ranked Ozeki on the Haru banzuke. He may well be alone, though. Today’s loss dropped kadoban Goeido to 1-4, and he needs to go 7-3 or better the rest of the way to save his rank. Of the 41 Ozeki to start a basho 1-4 since 1958, only 8 managed to turn things around and finish kachi-koshi. Of course, the last one to pull this off was none other than Goeido himself, when he dropped the first four bouts last January but went 9-2 the rest of the way to finish 9-6. We’ll see if history can repeat itself.

Takayasu, 2-3, has one more win, but as a probationary Sekiwake, he needs 10 wins to be Ozeki in March, not 8, so he has an even steeper climb ahead of him, requiring an 8-2 finish. This looks like a very heavy lift (pun intended) given his form so far, as well as the fact that his arm is still clearly injured.

The prospect of only one Ozeki may lower the bar for Asanoyama’s promotion, as has happened in the past. Before the tournament, the NSK deemed the shin-Sekiwake not to be on an official Ozeki run, but it seemed likely that a sufficiently impressive victory total (13+ ?) would do the trick anyway. With the Ozeki ranks crumbling, that total probably doesn’t need to be as impressive—12 wins should be sufficient, and even 11 might do. But after starting 3-0, Asanoyama dropped consecutive bouts to Abi and Endo, and needs a very strong finish to not render this discussion moot.

That’s it for now; I’ll pick up these storylines and start tracking what the lower san’yaku ranks could look like in March and who is in danger of dropping out of the top division (looking at you, Ikioi) and who might replace them as we get deeper into the tournament.

Day 1 Torikumi Posted!

The bouts for Sunday are up, so we can get excited about the Hatsu basho in earnest! The only pre-tournament withdrawal in the top two divisions is West Maegashira 3 Kotoyuki. I haven’t seen any news as to what might have caused “The Penguin” to pull out, or how long he might be absent.

Select Sunday matchups

Komusubi Abi Maegashira #4 Okinoumi
Maegashira #3 Tamawashi Sekiwake Takayasu
Sekiwake Asanoyama Maegashira #2 Mitakeumi
Maegashira #2 Hokutofuji Ozeki Goeido
Ozeki Takakeisho Maegashira #1 Myogiryu
Maegashira #1 Endo Yokozuna Kakuryu
Yokozuna Hakuho Komusubi Daieisho

Some exciting bouts to kick off the tournament. I’m especially looking forward to Asanoyama vs. Mitakeumi, Endo vs. Kakuryu, and the rematch between Hakuho and the only rikishi he lost to in November, Daieisho.

Hatsu Banzuke Postmortem

The January rankings are out! Time to see how the banzuke committee treated your favorites, and how my forecast fared.

What the crystal ball got right

As predicted, we have an 8-person san’yaku—the minimum size it’s been in the modern era, and the first time it’s this small since 2005. Asanoyama was promoted to East Sekiwake, his highest career rank. Abi remains stuck at East Komusubi for the 4th consecutive basho, and he is joined on the West side by Daieisho, who makes his san’yaku debut.

The forecast was also on target for the upper maegashira ranks down to M6e, getting only the East/West order wrong at M1, M4, and M5. Notably, Mitakeumi does indeed fall out of the san’yaku ranks after 17 consecutive basho, and does not get any leniency, ending up at M2w.

From there, the forecast goes off the rails (see next section) until we get to the bottom ranks. I went back and forth on this, and while my posted predictions got some things wrong here, my final GTB entry correctly had Shimanoumi as the lowest-ranked Makuuchi holdover at M14w, followed by the six Juryo promotions: Azumaryu, Ikioi, Tochiozan, Kaisei, Kiribayama, and Tokushoryu. The last of these went 8-7 at J1w, which proved a strong enough promotion claim to push Tomokaze down into the second division. The six promotions are the most we’ve seen since May 2016.

What the crystal ball got wrong

I wrote that the biggest uncertainty was how far 2-win Tochinoshin would fall from Sekiwake. The banzuke committee treated him far more favorably than the range of possibilities I had envisioned, with the former Ozeki ending up at M6w, making this my biggest miss, by three and a half ranks. This had a knock-on effect on my picks for the subsequent slots, so that the next rikishi to be placed correctly didn’t come until Kotoshogiku all the way down at M13e.

The other discrepancy between my predictions and the official rankings was the strong tendency by the banzuke committee to favor losing records over winning ones. The most extreme examples, and arguably the snubs of the banzuke, are Yutakayama and Terutsuyoshi, who stayed at M9w and M14e, respectively, despite posting 8-7 records. This is the first time I’ve seen rikishi with winning records not get a promotion outside san’yaku. Similarly, Ishiura, Chiyotairyu, and Chiyomaru got only minimal half-rank promotions for their 9-6 performances, and Takanosho and Kagayaki only moved up a couple of ranks following double-digit kachi-koshi. I guess that in these cases, the committee considered that in going from a san’yaku with 11 rikishi to one with 8, staying at the same rank means being three spots higher on the banzuke. But no similar consideration appears to have been applied to make-koshi rikishi such as Aoiyama, Ryuden, and Sadanoumi, with the committee assigning them typical numerical ranks given their Kyushu banzuke places and performances.

Bonus: Makushita Joi

I also took a shot at guessing who’d end up in the top 10 spots in Makushita, from which promotion to sekitori is possible without a 7-0 record. Who’ll be fighting it out for a ticket to Juryo? As expected, the top three Juryo dropouts made it: Kaisho, Wakamotoharu, and Akiseyama. Joining them in seeking immediate re-promotion is Ichiyamamoto, whom I had on the bubble (he got the last Ms5w slot). Also as predicted, moving up from lower down in Makushita are Midorifuji, Shiba, Oki, Chiyonoumi, and Naya. Hakuyozan, another bubble rikishi, also made it. That’s all ten spots spoken for, which brings me to one surprise: former Makuuchi man Chiyonokuni, who went 3-4 at Ms2w, is just below the “invisible line” at Ms6e. I thought he’d done just enough to have another shot at Juryo at Hatsu; technically, he still does, but he’ll have to be perfect to do it.

Overall, the crystal ball acquitted itself creditably, given the many unusual features of the banzuke and departures by the committee from customary practices. On to the basho!

Hatsu Banzuke Crystal Ball

We have to wait until Christmas Eve (December 24th) for the release of the first rankings of 2020. In the meantime, here’s what the Crystal Ball thinks they’ll look like.

The Guess

The predicted ranks are in the middle column, with East-side rikishi on the left and West-side ones on the right. Current rank and record is shown for each rikishi.

You’ll note that I am forecasting an eight-person san’yaku, with only the standard two Sekiwake and Komusubi slots joining the two remaining Ozeki and Yokozuna ranks. While arguments can be made for promoting Abi to Sekiwake and/or for keeping Endo and Hokutofuji at Komusubi, I don’t find them persuasive. Having three fewer san’yaku ranks than on the current banzuke means that many rikishi will find themselves ranked lower than they would be otherwise, as being 12th in Makuuchi in Kyushu places one at M1e, while at Hatsu it would correspond to M2w.

Biggest Question Marks

Ozeki to Sekiwake to… ? How far will Tochinoshin fall? We don’t have a lot of data for 2-win Sekiwake, but the two most recent instances saw demotions to M8e, and the lowest modern rank was M9e (Konishiki, March 1994). Given the downward pressure created by the reduced san’yaku, and the need to give promotions to Kagayaki, Yutakayama, Ishiura, and Chioyomaru, I have placed the Georgian at a historic low rank of M10e, but anything between M8 and M11 wouldn’t surprise me.

What will happen to poor Tomokaze? Again, there is not a lot of data for an M3 with zero wins, but rikishi in this situation escaped demotion in 4 of the 5 recent instances. While those odds suggest Tomokaze might stay in the top division, J1w Tokushoryu (8-7) has a rather strong promotion case—will it prove strong enough to force the committee’s hand? I’ve provisionally placed Tomokaze at M16w, and left Tokushoryu in Juryo, but this feels like a coin flip. Note that if Tokushoryu is promoted, he’ll get the last slot in Makuuchi, M17w, with Kaisei and Kiribayama moving up half a rank.

Biggest Moves

I have M10w Shodai (11-4) jumping up 6.5 ranks, M12w Takanosho (10-5) moving up 6, and M13w Kagayaki (10-5) rising 5.5. This trio posted the only double-digit-win records in the top division aside from Hakuho and Asanoyama.

There are not many big moves in the other direction, other than the aforementioned Tochinoshin and Tomokaze. Well, not within Makuuchi, anyway. M7w Kotoeko (5-10) is the only maegashira with double-digit losses on the projected banzuke, and he is predicted to fall 7 full ranks to M14w. In general, because of the overall shift of the ranks, this was not a good basho to end with a losing record, as a number of rikishi are forecast to fall 5 ranks after posting 6-9 records, as opposed to the usual 3 ranks, and Sadanoumi is facing a 3-rank demotion despite a minimal 7-8 make-koshi.

The worst records in the top division were concentrated in the last four ranks, and all of these rikishi will be fighting in Juryo come January, alongside the absent Ichinojo. This quartet includes injured M16e Wakatakakage (4-1-10) and hapless M15w Daishoho, M15e Daishomaru, and M14w Nishikigi, who managed only 12 wins among them.

Do you have thoughts on the Hatsu banzuke and the projection? Let me know in the comments. And come back in a little over two weeks to find out what the actual banzuke will be and how these predictions fare.