Nagoya 2019 Draft Preview: The Three Divisions of Makuuchi
With the opening weekend of Nagoya 2019 approaching, it's time to consider some draft approaches for the basho. If you have a wide-open draft, you probably want to pick the top-ranker most likely to win the yusho. If you've got keepers, you're probably looking for a steal lower down the banzuke. No matter what you're looking for, though, interpreting the banzuke is key to drafting. And perhaps its best to understand that while Makuuchi is the top division of sumo, it is really three divisions in one.
42 rikishi are in Makuuchi, and in theory all of them are competing against each other for the yusho. But they will only get 15 matches in a basho, which means they aren't literally competing against the other 41. Instead, they compete against the rikishi most similar to them in rank. The top 16 will all face each other, the bottom 16 will all face each other, and the other ten fill in the gaps. That's not literally how it works because stablemates can't face each other, guys go kyujo, and the last few days tend to see matchups designed around records rather than rank. Still, a Maegashira 15 is almost certainly not going to face a Yokozuna.
Nagoya is, generally speaking, an odd basho. This one has an odd banzuke going in, because much of the lower Maegashira ranks performed rather poorly and there were strange groupings of records. So there were some overpromotions and odd assemblages in the rankings. That makes it even more important to look at the three tiers of the Banzuke.
Tier-One: Sanyaku and the Joi-jin
The top four named ranks in sumo, Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake, and Komusubi, are specially named ranks and collectively known as the Sanyaku. You have to be officially promoted to Yokozuna and Ozeki by difficult standards and don't get automatically demoted with a losing record. (And Yokozuna can't be demoted.) Yet even the Sekiwake and Komusubi, who are subject to promotion and relegation, only get there by winning consistently.
There are only ten Sanyaku wrestlers for Nagoya, so the six wrestlers in the Maegashira 1 to 3 slots round out the top tier. This is why Maegashira 1 to 3 are probably best avoided. They are the "joi-jin," which basically means "top rankers." Sanyaku rikishi don't usually count in that, because they have their own name. The joi-jin will almost always be facing someone of better rank. Even wrestlers like Hokutofuji, Endo, and Daieisho, who have held steady at these ranks, are okay bets to put up 7 to 8 wins but unlikely to rack up double digits. This is why you could be hopeful about Asanoyama's new highest rank at Maegashira 1 after his Yusho win in May, but he is facing tougher competition than he's ever seen.
There is a good reason why the worst historical performance comes from the upper Maegashira ranks. Those unlucky rikishi ranked in the joi will face people who are just plain better than they are. A Maegashira gets a bonus for beating a Yokozuna because it's a relatively shocking event. Yokozuna and Ozeki beat Maegashira, no matter how high ranked.
The slots from Maegashira 4 to Maegashira 8 are in the no-man's land of Sumo. While being in a slot with a more fortunate schedule than those right above them, they also are facing a relatively tough slate. Additionally, they will be called upon to face those above them if anyone goes kyujo or to fill in the matchups that are precluded by the ban on stablemates competing. Tochinoshin and Aoiyama are both in Kasuagano-beya, while Daieisho and Endo are both Oitekaze men. That means Meisei and Ichinojo will probably face one or two of those competitors.
The other thing about Mid-Maegashira is that it's maybe the most competitive day-to-day. This is a mix of veterans with enough ability left to compete at a decent level (Kotoshogiku, Chiyotairyu, and Myogriyu) and emerging rikishi trying to establish themselves at a new level (Meisei, Shimanoumi, and Tomokaze). They would all like to pop into the lower Sanyaku, so each match is a real battle.
The talent and ability levels are fairly even here, although there are still some wrestlers who can shine. Usually when they do, it's an invite to step up a level. Yet they also seem to have their record dotted with, if not upsets, at least wins that don't make sense after the basho is done and we see both men's records.
Tier Three: Bottom of the Banzuke
The final 16 men on the Banzuke, in Nagoya 2019's case Maegashira 9 through 16, are their own small grouping. There are three ways rikishi get here. The first is by performing well enough in Juryo to shoot up into Makuuchi. The second is by getting beaten heavily at upper or mid-Maegashira. The third is by holding steady after one of the first two.
Records can be all over the map at any rank, but the Bottom seems to always have someone getting double digit wins and double digit losses. Clearly this is a way station for certain rikishi who are really a level above. Yet it also is a rude wake up call for plenty of wrestlers.
That's not always based on their rank and performance at a previous basho. If someone falls because of injury, like Kaisei right now, they could right the ship and dominate. Someone like Takagenji who rocketed up from Juryo might struggle facing Makuuchi wrestlers for the first time. Or maybe Kaisei will continue his slide and Takagenji will surprise most of his opponents.
The key to winning in Fantasy Basho isn't getting one excellent performer, but selecting two or three. If you could find the one who would win ten or more matches in each tier, you'd be set. Of course, that's the actual tricky part.