Japanese Baseball Foreigners: Fun With Wlad and Wily Mo

Browsing through the Japanese leaderboards at baseball-reference is a strange occupation. The first thing you notice is all of the old friends who are doing well over there: boldfaced names who played in the majors once upon a time and took the transpacific voyage to keep playing baseball.

Of all of the hitters with at least 55 at-bats, 16 of 130 have played in the majors. Of the 200 pitchers listed, 25 have played in the majors. Some of them are foreign-born players who wound up in Japan after they couldn’t hack it in the majors any more. For example: Wily Mo Pena is the fourth-leading home run hitter in Japan.

Some of them are Japanese, who came to the major leagues and then returned to NPB, usually because they were no longer able to play at major league level. For example: Hideki Okajima has a 0.00 ERA in 18 2/3 innings, and Kaz Ishii is tied for the third-most wins in Japan.

And some of them are prospects who just never made it in America, the next big thing that never was. They didn’t die and they didn’t fade away. They just went over there. For example: Hayden Penn has a 3.98 ERA in four starts. Bryan Bullington has a 3.69 ERA in 12 starts. And Wladimir Balentien is the leading home run hitter in Japan.

Much is made of how much easier NPB may be than MLB, but it can’t have been easy for foreign players to adjust to the cultural differences. (It wasn’t for Jack Elliott.)

Of course, that cultural shock is probably nowhere near as great as what is endured routinely by Latin American teenagers on their first trip to the United States. Former Expo Lee Stevens made the comparison explicit in an old ESPN Magagzine cover story about Vladimir Guerrero, which Jonah Keri linked to in his lovely elegy to Vlad the Impaler:

When I played in Japan, I always felt lost and alone even though they always had two interpreters with me. When I came back, I had a totally greater appreciation for what Latin players go through.

The Japanese baseball leagues are in a strange position now. Back before Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Alfonso Soriano ended the taboo against players leaving Japan for the United States, creating a mass market for the best Japanese ballplayers, a few Americans went over to Japan and made good money but felt themselves very secondary: they were suketto, “helpers,” there so that the team could win but still retain its essential Japanese character. Tom Selleck’s character in Mr. Baseball was based on these players, like Derrek Lee’s father and uncle, Leron Lee and Leon Lee.

But now it is very hard to find a star Japanese player who has no desire to test his skill against the very best players in the world, nearly all of whom are in the major leagues. More than ever, NPB is like a strange version of Triple-A, where future major league stars suit up with former major league washouts and organizational filler that will never amount to much.

The difference, of course, is the fans. There are relatively few fans who purely follow a minor league team with no allegiance to its major league affiliate. Some of the most venerable teams in the minors, like the Toledo Mud Hens and Durham Bulls, play in parks with a maximum capacity of 10,000. By contrast, the Yomiuri Giants play in the Tokyo Dome, which has a maximum capacity of 55,000, and they have a fanbase and international brand to rival that of the New York Yankees and Manchester United.

The Giants are tied for first, of course — they’re pretty much always in first place. But they are doing it without much help from their foreigners. Their best foreign player this year has been D.J. Houlton, who played parts of 2005 and 2007 with the Dodgers. He’s their third starter and is 4-5 with a 3.19 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Utilityman John Bowker, a Phillie last year, has hit .190 in 161 PA.

The other first-place teams have had bigger contributions from major leaguers. Also tied for first Central League are the Chunichi Dragons, who have gotten good work from Jorge Sosa and former Nats farmhand Tony Blanco. (However, the Dragons have gotten almost nothing from former Met Victor Diaz and former Brave Kenshin Kawakami.)

And the first-place team in the Pacific League is the Chiba Lotte Marines, who have gotten major contributions from Seth Greisinger and Tadahito Iguchi, both among the league’s top players this year. Hayden Penn has also provided decent innings, as has Yasuhiko Yabuta, who threw 51 2/3 innings for the Royals in 2008 and 2009.

Japanese baseball has changed a great deal in the past century, as have the major leagues. But the direction of the talent pipeline is pretty well set in stone: the best Japanese players come from Japan to America, while fringy players from the majors often wind up in Japan. And that’s why the top of the Japanese leaderboards is crowded with people with names like Balentien and Greisinger, and Iguchi and Ishii. Very familiar names. But you can tell where they are in their career just by seeing them there.



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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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DSC
Guest
DSC
4 years 3 months ago

Soriano is Japanese? Who would a thunk it.

Condor
Guest
Condor
4 years 3 months ago

With his contract up at the end of the season, I can see Ichiro returning to play in Japan.

joser
Guest
joser
4 years 3 months ago

Maybe. He’s going to end the year at around 2600 hits, given his current rate. If he can actually get back to last year’s rate — which may be possible now that he’s back to the lead-off spot — that’ll put him less than four years away from 3000. Who knows if that matters to him (assuming he can even reach it), or if it matters more that he return to Japan on his own terms. Given his unique relationship with Mr. Yamauchi, I could imagine the Mariners coming up with some kind of unusual contract with him, paying him less than his current deal with every year being a mutual option, or something. Heck, I could see him getting an ownership stake taken from Nintendo’s part of the pie. (I also could see him running for Prime Minister in 15 or 20 years, so maybe I just see a lot of things, or see things a lot.)

But if he does go back to Japan, he’ll be yet another ex-Mariner — like Willie Mo Pena and Wladimir Balentien — showing up at the top of the NPB leaderboards.

Dylan
Guest
Dylan
4 years 3 months ago

I feel like Wlad was always meant to have a fantastic career in Japan. Just seemed like the perfect ceiling for him.

Right Field Rob
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Right Field Rob
4 years 3 months ago

Interesting update.

A minor point – to call OF and occasional 1B John Bowker a utility player might be stretching it, right? I always figured a utility player was a RH fielder that played at least one of 2b, 3B or SS…

BenH
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BenH
4 years 3 months ago

I was looking at the stats and wondering what happened to Matt Murton? He is only batting .225.

Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

One my most treasured moments as a baseball fan was at Jingu Stadium (Home of the Yakult Swallows) sitting behind a guy wearing a Hensley Muelens Swallos jersey. I asked him if “Bam Bam” was popular when in Japan and he said “Oh yes! He helped us win the Japan Series and remains loved by Swallows Nation.”

Kevin
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Kevin
4 years 3 months ago

I’m an American Yakult Swallows fan living in Tokyo – happy to see our post.
Also, current Phillies’ manager, Charlie Manuel, is a former Swallow (& Kintetsu Buffalo)!

Little Cuba
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Little Cuba
4 years 3 months ago

What about Korean League? Scott Proctor are playing in there.

jorgath
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jorgath
4 years 3 months ago

If NPB is extremely popular AAA ball, Korean League is extremely popular AA ball.

JasonP
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

From what I’ve read in the past couple of years, KBO is actually a much tough proposition for foreign players in that there is less money and “catering” to foreigners, and if they don’t produce fairly quickly, they often find themselves on the way back home in short order. While the quality of play may not be as high as in NPB, the stress level for foreigners can be higher.

Someone really needs to corner Julio Franco and get started on his 5 volume biography. As easily the most accomplished MLB player to succeed at every stop in his career, it would be wonderful to get his in-depth thoughts on the different leagues.

Raf
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Raf
4 years 3 months ago
question
Guest
question
4 years 3 months ago

damned feriners. they took er jobs!

Angry Yokel
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Angry Yokel
4 years 3 months ago

BRRT DRRRT GRRRRRR!

Wesley
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Wesley
4 years 3 months ago

(First off, I grew up in Japan as a child and breathed Japanese baseball. Just to let you know where I’m coming from. I feel like this is practically an article of my own :-P )

A couple of things:

Minor detail: the Tokyo Dome’s “capacity” of 55,000 is a number who knows who came up with it, but when all the seats are filled, the number of people counted is actually 47,000. (That’s an entirely different story)

Most of the best Japanese power hitters never make it to the majors (Hideki Matsui is the pretty much the only exception) for several reasons. MLB generally has plenty of power people, so there’s no demand. Also, by the time the power hitters are eligible for free agency, they’re 28-31 and past their prime. They can’t make up for the adjustments (which seem to take a bit longer with power hitters) with any speed or fielding that they may have once had. And the general adjustment is that Japanese hitters tend to bail out and have excellent plate coverage on the inside half, while in MLB, it’s the opposite (“get arms extended,” “out over the plate,” etc.)

Remember Norihiro Nakamura? He was essentially a power-hitting moster in Japan, in a big home stadium, but because of his unorthodox swing (they dubbed it “the windmill” in Japan), he had a super short leash with the Dodgers. Had given a chance, he could have probably adjusted and been a good 20+ homer guy in the majors, but his fielding had slipped a little since he was past his prime.

Or, they’re people like Iwamura, who is more of a “pure hitter,” but had a Brady Anderson-like fluke 44 home run season in a small ballpark. They’ve adjusted/built most of the ballparks to around 330-380-400 now, but park effects were a huge difference in the 1990s-2000s.

Probably because of the parks being expanded, these last two years have EASILY been “Years of the pitcher” in Japan, with something like 10+ starters with under 2.00 E.R.A. There are 12 teams. I was kind of skeptical of Darvish because he’s post a 1.71 E.R.A in a stadium that’s essentially Turner Field with a 20 foot fence, and finish second in the league.

There are a few people who “found it” in Japan then came to the U.S. with more success. Cecil Fielder is probably the most famous example in 1989, where I can guess he learned how to hit breaking balls. And Colby Lewis who pitched in the über band box of Hiroshima Stadium in 2008 (300 poles, 360 alleys, 380 center, 6ft fence), before the moved into their more normal-sized stadium in ’09 (but put up similar numbers there, too, huh).

Also, NPB has a rule now that if you as a player become eligible for free agency (9 years), your “foreign” status is removed and doesn’t count towards the team’s “suketto” total. Orix took advantage of this once, having three: Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, and Greg LaRocca.

A lot of these players are there for financial reasons, too. Tuffy Rhodes once he succeeded, adapted, and was “naturalized,” he could make FAR more money in Japan than in MLB. Salaries aren’t as high as MLB, but they’re WAY better than AAA for the top level players. Hideki Matsui was offered $10 million/year to stay in Japan, but he opted to play in the U.S.

“Mr. Baseball” is a movie made in 1992 about Japanese baseball in 1981 (when the Lee brothers played). It’s the Japanese baseball equivalent of “You’ve Got Mail” being released 2 years ago.

joser
Guest
joser
4 years 3 months ago

Probably because of the parks being expanded, these last two years have EASILY been “Years of the pitcher” in Japan, with something like 10+ starters with under 2.00 E.R.A.
They also changed the ball, apparently. I don’t have a link handy but it was a point of discussion when the Mariners and A’s opened the season there. (You’re probably better able to find links than I am anyway.)

joser
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joser
4 years 3 months ago

Blockquote fail. Sorry. 2nd para obviously mine.

JasonP
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

Being a late-to-the-party fan of Tuffy Rhodes, I was excited when Orix landed both LaRocca and Cabrera. It was absolutely maddening to see all three go down with injuries to the point that we almost never got to see them in the lineup at the same time (and Tuffy was having an awesome year before getting drilled in the hand). For Japanese baseball that would have been like having a 3-4-5 punch of Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of your lineup.

Brandon H
Guest
Brandon H
4 years 3 months ago

And a Korean who signed a big money contract is second in HRs and third in OPS. Lee chalks his success in Japan up to the diet that his Japanese team has enforced along with his contract. It would be interesting to see if it is a matter of the Japanese league being “easier” or the training being better and the players showing actual improvement. After all, when was the last time a western nation won a major baseball tournament?

Jeff Mathis does Steroids
Guest
Jeff Mathis does Steroids
4 years 3 months ago

I’ve wondered something before. Say Byron Buxton didn’t like what the Twins were offering him, while at the same time he didn’t want to go to a university and make nothing. Could he sign, say a 6 year for 1 million a year contract with a Japanese team as an international free agent? That way when he hits age 24, he can hit the open market in the MLB? Hell, if thats possible I would consider it if I was a top highschool talent. And I would try to do it as much as possible if I was a NPB team.

KaminaAyato
Member
4 years 3 months ago

While not quite the same, Shuuhei Fujiya, born in the US, played for USC and was drafted in the 6th round by the Chiba Lotte Marines. Now, he’s no Byron Buxton, but I would suppose it could be possible. Also, since the NPB regularly drafts HS players and throws them onto their ichi-gun team (majors), it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be toiling on the farm either, though that’s no guarantee depending on how long the player wants to stay.

Jeff Mathis does Steroids
Guest
Jeff Mathis does Steroids
4 years 3 months ago

I would be mildly worried as an MLB fan if it IS possible. I know that the new CBA caps what teams can spend on amatuer talent in both the draft and internationaly, which I guess in theory could open the door for some opprotunistic Japanese franchises.

Again, in THEORY the Pirates could only be able to offer Appel a 3 million dollar bonus, or the next Yeonis Cespedes or Soler could only be offered 6 million dollars by any MLB team, and the NPB could just throw money at these guys and the MLB teams could not compete. I don’t know if the NPB has a salary cap or anything like that, or if the MLB has any safeguards against this, but it would be pretty interesting (if not a little scary) if this senario came true.

JasonP
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

“The Giants are tied for first, of course — they’re pretty much always in first place. But they are doing it without much help from their foreigners. ”

This is now little more than a myth, leftover from “You Gotta Have Wa!” Over the last 10-15 years, the Giants have used just as many foreign players as any other team, in just as prominent roles. For the last 15 years they’ve relied on the power of the likes of Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Seung-Yeop Lee, and pitching support from Seth Greisinger, Dicky Gonzalez, Marc Kroon and Wirfin Obispo. They are far from the “pure” team they liked to project themselves as being in the 1970s & 1980s.

My echo and bunnymen
Guest
My echo and bunnymen
4 years 3 months ago

Love this article, it’s always interesting to reflect back on all the japanese culture I’ve learned, especially when I started personally studying Japanese Baseball.

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