This annotated week in baseball history: March 1-7, 2009

On March 5, 2009 the second World Baseball Classic kicked off as Japan shut out China. The clear favorites in this year’s pool are Japan and Korea, two countries with well-known baseball histories, but today Richard looks at less baseball-oriented Asian countries.

Asked to name an Asian baseball player, most fans would probably come up with someone from Japan. Ichiro. Hideki Matsui. Daisuke Matzusaka. Or “classics” like Hideo Nomo and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

Others might name Koreans like Chan Ho Park or memorably inept World Series performer Byung-Hyun Kim. (Of course these are South Koreans; Kim Jong Il is said to be more of a basketball guy.)

Or a fan might choose to ignore all these people and name Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang, who is from Taiwan—“Chinese Taipei,” as it is styled in the World Baseball Classic. But Wang’s status as a third or fourth option demonstrates the dominance of Japan and South Korea in Asian baseball. Through 2008 Japan has sent 44 players to the major leagues, and Korea 13.

(As with all countries, not all of these players are, strictly speaking, Japanese or Koreans. Some were born to families in military bases or otherwise living there. But if Nick Punto can play for Italy this year, I can have some flexibility for my column.)

Meanwhile, Taiwan has sent just five players to the majors, and other Asian nations even fewer. Far and away the most distinguished players to come from countries not baseball-mad in Asia are Wang and Danny Graves.

Graves was born in Vietnam, during the American-led conflict there, to an American father and Vietnamese mother. His family moved to the United States when Graves a little over a year old, and—in a very, very good decision—a little before the fall of Saigon. Graves was drafted by the Indians and performed well in their system (in 1996 he record 19 saves with a 1.48 ERA for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons) before being traded to Cincinnati.

Graves flourished with the Reds, breaking out in 2000. That year, Graves posted a 2.56 ERA, made the All-Star team and won 10 games while saving 30. Graves remains one of only three pitchers this decade to record double-digit totals in both wins and saves in a single season.

After five solid seasons in the bullpen, the Reds made the choice to shift Graves to the starting rotation. While it is true that if Graves had maintained his performance level he would have been more valuable as a starter, the move ultimately proved to be too clever by half. Graves’ ERA went from 3.19 to 5.33, he lost 15 games and has not started in the majors since.

Though Graves recovered sufficiently to record 41 saves and make his second All-Star team in 2004, he was never the same pitcher again. He has not pitched in the majors since a disastrous spell with Cleveland in 2006, and is currently a longshot to make the Astros as a non-roster player.

Nonetheless, he remains the only player born in Vietnam to play in the majors, a distinction is one he shares with Robin Jennings, the only major league player to be born in Singapore. Like Graves, whose father was a serviceman, it is on account of the United States government that Jennings owns his place in history. His father worked in the Foreign Service, and Jennings lived not only in Singapore, but also Indonesia and Europe as a youth.

Unfortunately for Jennings, his career can be roughly summed up in the title of a USA Today story about him: “When a Prospect Becomes a Journeyman.” Jennings’ best season probably came in 1996 when he put up nearly a .900 OPS for the Cubs’ Triple-A team. But he could never translate that performance in the majors, in part because Jennings was chased by the injury goblin.

Nonetheless, he continued to play—and to his credit, hit—in the minor leagues a late as 2007. But he never made it back to the majors after 2001 and Singapore will have to wait for a star player to carry its mantle.

Of course, a country can send more than one player to the majors and still be a relatively minor nation in the larger sense. Such is the fate of Taiwan, which has sent five players to the major leagues, albeit all since 2003. The first of the bunch was Chin-Feng Chen, an outfielder who saw very limited time for the Dodgers beginning in 2002 until his release in 2005.

Chen was seemingly the classic Quadruple-A player: He put in four minor league seasons with an OPS of .890 or better, but never hit in limited chances in the majors. The first successful Taiwanese player was Chin-hui Tsao, a pitcher. Tsao was a well-regarded prospect in the Rockies system. Baseball America listed him as the Rockies’ top prospect in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

Unfortunately for Tsao, injuries nagged him throughout his career. The Rockies attempted to make him a closer in 2005, but the plan did not succeed. Currently two pitchers, the Yankees’ Wang and Dodgers’ Hong-Chih Kuo represent Taiwan most successfully in the major leagues, while Red Sox prospect Che-Hsuan Lin was the Futures Game MVP last year. Although unlikely to top Japan, it seems clear Taiwan is on the rise as a baseball power in Asia.

Other Asian countries have sent a player or two to the majors. This includes the Philippines (birthplace of pitcher/domestic abuser Bobby Chouinard), Guam (John Hattig, who received a cup of coffee in 2006) and Indonesia (ineffective Indians reliever Tom Mastny).

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Even added up, the players produced by these nations only approach the total produced by South Korea. And Japan remains way in front, and figures to stay that way for the foreseeable future. But anyone who follows baseball, and sees players like Wang and Matzusaka knows that Asian players are on the rise.

Teams have long recognized the importance of scouting Caribbean players, with countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic producing top line talent. It may be only a matter of time before academies in Asian countries are as common as they are now in the Caribbean. When that time comes, the Asian pool in the World Baseball Classic may become the one to watch.

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