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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.