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Another Market Inefficiency (or a Productive Bargain Bin)

Question: what do these guys all have in common?

Answer: all found homes on Major League pitching staffs after returning from stints in Japan. And I don’t need to remind this audience that Lewis, Vogelsong and Resop have pitched their best MLB ball since coming back.

I focused this list on the last year or two, but if we turn the clock back a little further, we can add Pedro Feliciano to this list. And if we lower the bar a bit to “Major League innings”, we’ll find Japan returnees like Cedrick Bowers, Buddy Carlyle, Justin Germano and Brian Sweeney. And if we include returnees from Korea, we can include Brad Thomas on the list (though Thomas spent time in Japan before playing in Korea).

For most of these guys there was nothing about their time in Japan that hinted at future MLB success. Of the pitchers I’ve mentioned, only Lewis and Atchison really had successful tenures in NPB. Lewis we know all about. Atchison was great in Hanshin’s bullpen in 2009, posting a 0.89 WHIP in 90 relief innings. The rest of the guys, though, didn’t fare well. Vogelsong spent three mostly uneventful years in Japan, making 32 starts over two seasons for Hanshin before spending a year as an occasional long man in Orix’s bullpen. Loe got all of five games to prove himself with Softbank in 2009, which was two more than they gave Carrasco in 2006. Resop couldn’t throw strikes for Hanshin, and finished his NPB career with a 6.75 ERA in 21.1 innings.

If there’s a secret to this, I can’t readily identify it. Maybe playing against a different type of competition elicits a different set of baseball skills, or maybe living abroad inspires improved focus or maturity. Maybe it’s just that these guys are all talented pitchers who played themselves on to 25-man rosters before winding up in Japan, and figured things out after a couple extra trips around the block.

So who might be next? I was hoping that Chris Bootcheck would have a Resop-style renaissance this season, after being overlooked by Yokohama last year, but he did his usual thing in 3A and has signed with the Lotte Giants of Korea. Among players currently active in Japan, Anthony Lerew is currently taking up a roster spot on Softbank’s farm team, so we might see him back in MLB-affiliated ball next year. Dennis Sarfate is enjoying breakout success with Hiroshima, with 48 strikeouts against only seven walks in 32.1 relief innings. His teammate Bryan Bullington has a 2.23 ERA through 96.2 innings, though without the dominant strikeout total. And Alfredo Figaro has had a nice first half as a mostly six-inning starter for Orix.

Every year, the 12 Japanese teams collectively carry 70 or so foreign players on their rosters. About half of these turn over from year to year. Some move on to Taiwan, Korea or Mexico, others retire, but many return to MLB affiliated ball. Some of the pitchers that do will find themselves pitching Major League innings after they return, and maybe we’ll even see another Vogelsong at some point.