Category > mlb

160 Pitches? Let’s Ask Masahiro

» 11 February 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 8 Comments

Much has been written about Masahiro Tanaka’s famous two-day, 175-pitch Nippon Series pitch-a-thon. If you’re reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Pretty much all the commentary in the North American media has been that Tanaka throwing 160 pitches in a start (a loss no less), and then 15 in relief the next day is, at best, a bit of a question mark, and, at worst, a sign of abuse or overuse. It seems that few that have provided commentary cite primary sources, or even saw the games.

I was traveling on the days that games 6 and 7 took place, and I didn’t see game 6 live, but I did catch the tail end of game 7, including Tanaka’s relief appearance. He certainly did look worn out, but not quite worryingly so. What was a little odd was that of his 15 pitches, about 10 were splitters, and only two or three were fastballs. His velocity was okay, but didn’t approach his peak. In retrospect, Tanaka and Rakuten were fortunate that he was able to shut down the Giants when he did, as continuing to pitch could have been disastrous.

What’s getting lost in the shuffle a bit is that Tanaka voluntarily kept himself in game six, and made himself available for game seven. There are plenty of times when it’s totally reasonable to criticize Japanese managers for overworking pitchers, but I’m not sure this is one of them. It’s not unreasonable to fault Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino for risking injuring Tanaka, but in this case I don’t blame him. Put yourself in his shoes: you’ve got a real shot at winning your first Nippon Series, you’ve got the best pitcher in the league, he’s telling you he’s ready to go, and this is your last chance to use him. What would you do?

With that commentary out of the way, let’s take a look at what Hoshino and Tanaka had to say about this at the time it happened.

Hoshino after game 6, on wanting to remove Tanaka after throwing 120 pitches: “He wasn’t in the mood to be replaced, and he himself was planning on going. He felt like he wanted to be on the mound until the end.”

Hoshino after game 6 again: “I think it’s an ace’s will. This could be his last day to pitch in front of the fans, so there’s also that. It’s wonderful. The fans would be very happy to see Tanaka lose. Well, no they wouldn’t.”

Tanaka after game 6: “I want to do what I can.”

Hoshino during game 7 (really this is Sponichi’s reporting with a quote from Hoshino): “Hoshino asked him numerous times ‘are you really okay?’ but his determination was unchanged.”

Tanaka after game 7: “I was feeling depressed because my pitching yesterday was so pathetic. So I prepared myself in the bullpen, with the feeling that I would be ready to go any time, if I was to be put in the game. I want to show my appreciation for my teammates and fans, who set this stage.”

Tanaka, after game 7 again: “I had some fatigue, but since we’ve come this far I couldn’t just say that, so I pitched with the feeling that this would be the end.”

Hoshino, prior to the Asia Series: “Tanaka, Norimoto, and Mima aren’t going (in the Asia Series). You’d call me dumb if I had them pitch here.”

My opinion is that Tanaka’s game 6 and 7 workload was more gutsy than risky. I think Tanaka felt like he could do it, so he went for it, and it was more like a calculated risk than recklessness.

And one last thing: Tanaka was just the sixth pitcher in NPB history to throw over 160 pitches in a Japan Series game. The most recent prior to Tanaka? Ephemeral Pittsburgh Pirate Masumi Kuwata, who threw 167 pitches in game 5 of the 1994 Series.

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Starting Pitcher Skills

» 01 February 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about Masahiro Tanaka and how he might perform in year one of his newly-minted mega deal.

My theory is that observable skills are a better predictor of MLB success than statistics. As an example, a pitcher with good control of an obvious out pitch is a better bet than a pitcher who is good all around, but lacks a dominant skill. This might sound obvious, but the media and casual baseball conversation centers around Tanaka’s 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA, rather than his ability to suppress walks and home runs.

So, I took a look back on the group of starters that have moved from NPB to MLB on Major League contracts since I began writing in mid-2008.

1st MLB Season Pitcher Strengths Weaknesses MLB fWAR
2014 Masahiro Tanaka suppressed walks, great splitter, good slider, healthy not quite Darvish ?
2012 Yu Darvish dominant in every way year after year The legacy of Daisuke Matsuzaka 9.8
2012 Hisashi Iwakuma great splitter, groundball machine, limited home runs injured in 2011, didn’t look like himself 4.8
2012 Wei-Yin Chen lefty who at one time showed electric stuff, dominant in 2009 had regressed quite a bit by 2011 4.3
2012 Tsuyoshi Wada decent control, decent changeup undersized; poor fastball velocity; looked spent at the end of 2011 0
2010 Colby Lewis phenomenal K:BB ratio, good arm was improvement in control due to him or the league? 9.6 (post return)
2009 Kenshin Kawakami great cutter, innings eater not much upside beyond #3 starter 2.4
2009 Koji Uehara phenomenal K:BB ratio, great splitter injury history, could he handle starting? 8.8 (mostly in relief)

My first reaction is that this is pretty good group. Wada was a bit of a bust, but he was injured. Kawakami comes the closest to being evidence of my theory, as he didn’t really dominate any statistical category, but I think he could have shown more if the Braves hadn’t buried him. The rest of these pitchers have either met or exceeded expectations since moving to MLB.

This seems to bode pretty well for Tanaka, as he shows two above average pitches and dominated a number of statistical categories in NPB. We’ll see how it bodes for the pitchers who are currently active in Japan in a follow up article in the next couple of days, assuming the writing gods smile upon me.

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Masahiro Tanaka’s 2013 Pitch Counts

» 22 January 2014 » In mlb, nichibei » 3 Comments

I keep getting asked for this, so here it is, taken from Isao Chiba’s article in the December 16 2013 issue of Shukan Baseball.

Note: regular season only.

Date Opponent IP Runs Allowed Pitches
April 2 Orix 7 1 89
April 9 Nippon Ham 7 1 109
April 16 Softbank 7 3 122
April 23 Orix 8 3 133
May 1 Nippon Ham 8 1 129
May 8 Nippon Ham 7 2 95
May 14 DeNA 8 3 128
May 22 Yomiuri 9 1 113
May 28 Hanshin 6 2 99
June 3 Chunichi 9 1 113
June 9 Yomiuri 7 0 96
June 16 Hanshin 9 0 127
June 25 Seibu 7 0 93
July 2 Lotte 8 0 116
July 9 Nippon Ham 9 0 116
July 16 Orix 9 1 105
July 23 Lotte 9 2 90
August 2 Nippon Ham 9 1 136
August 9 Softbank 7 0 92
August 16 Seibu 8 1 106
August 23 Lotte 7 0 116
August 30 Softbank 7 3 102
September 6 Nippon Ham 9 2 128
September 13 Orix 9 2 125
September 21 Nippon Ham 8 1 104
September 26* Seibu 1 0 19
October 1 Nippon Ham 6 2 97
October 8 Orix 7 2 83
Totals 212 35 2981

*Relief appearance in Rakuten’s Pacific League clincher.

Tanaka averaged 106.4 pitches per game in 2013, or, more importantly, 109.7 pitches per start.

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The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball

» 17 January 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

“This isn’t because I wanted to play in the Majors at all costs. It’s just that I feel I can’t play for that manager (Keishi Suzuki), that’s all”

 

僕は、別にどうしてもメジャーでやりたかったわけじゃない。ただ、あの監督(鈴木)の下ではやれないと思った、それだけなんです」

Hideo Nomo, speaking about his decision to pursue an MLB career (source)

Nomo’s retirement and Suzuki’s insanity pre-dates my following of Japanese baseball, but I have read a little bit about Nomo and Suzuki. Suzuki’s treatment of Nomo was particularly grueling, including 191-pitch and 180-pitch starts, and comments like “to cure your pain, throw more.”

Nomo is rightfully credited as the player that opened the door for Japanese and Asian players in Major League Baseball. But he might not have done it Keishi Suzuki had been, you know, sane.

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Hmm?

» 22 December 2013 » In mlb » 5 Comments

So, Jeff Passan wrote this:

First are the revenues. Back in 2006, a year before the recession started, baseball’s revenues were around $5.5 billion. Today, they are nearly $8.5 billion. And only now is free-agent spending catching up; over the previous three offseasons, it fell somewhere in the $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion range.

 

More than that are the mechanisms in place that more or less force teams to spend their money on free agents. Simply put: They can’t spend it anywhere else. [emphasis added]

Huh? Sure they can. Pay scouts more, pay baseball operations people more, pay minor league players and coaches more, refund some of the government subsidies used to pay for stadiums, fund more NCAA baseball scholarships… there are lots of ways to invest in baseball as an industry that will be more beneficial over the long term than simply shoving even more money into the pockets of free agents. Some of this revenue should find it’s way to everyone who contributes.

Why does MLB have record revenues anyway? I would argue that it’s more to with improvements to marketing, analytics and team operational models than anything the players are doing differently.

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Pitching: Here, There, Everywhere

» 20 December 2013 » In mlb, mlb prospects, npb » 5 Comments

Every time an NPB pitcher transitions to MLB, we see a number of projectsions for he might perform statistically. For me these projections are always a bit of a shot in the dark — there is just too much variance among too many factors to make a linear statistical project realistic.

The big, obvious difference for pitchers is simply that MLB hitters are better than NPB hitters. The best MLB hitters are better than the best NPB hitters, and the average MLB hitter is better than the average NPB hitter. But beyond that, there are a number of more subtle factors that make projections difficult. Here are the ones I can think of, from the perspective of NPB:

  • There are fewer legitimate power threats in Japan. Every lineup has at least couple of regulars who just don’t hit home runs.
  • On the other hand, there are rather few strikeout machines like Adam Dunn and Pedro Alvarez.
  • Japanese managers are still in the habit of regularly throwing away outs with sacrifice bunts.
  • Most Japanese ballparks have massive foul ground.
  • The NPB ball is slightly smaller and lighter than the MLB ball. I’ve also heard that it is a bit tackier than the MLB ball and easier for some pitchers to command.
  • Japanese starters, at least the good ones, go a bit deeper into games. 120 pitch starts are on the high end in MLB, but are not uncommon in Japan. Yu Darvish was no stranger to pitch counts in the 140’s in his NPB days.
  • NPB starters normally get six days between starts, which includes a weekly off day. Pitchers sometimes get in a rhythme of pitching on the same day each week. The most famous example of this was Lotte ace Choji Murata, who was nicknamed “Sunday Choji”.
  • NPB starters also stay home the day before their scheduled starts.
  • Playing in Japan requires less travel. All of Japan is in one time zone, and five of the 12 NPB teams are based in the vicinity of Tokyo.
  • NPB has 12 teams total, six in each league. Normally a starter will face each team in the opposite league once during interlegue play, and see the other five teams in his own league four of five times each. Most MLB starters will see a bigger variesty of lineups.

Stats are good, they just need to get filtered through all this stuff, plus whatever else I didn’t think to include. Ultimately the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that skills are translatable, but stats less so.

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A Conversation About the Posting System With My Brain

» 09 December 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 6 Comments

So, Brain, the posting system is changing. Apparently the details are still being formalized, but the main changes are that the NPB chooses the posting fee, the $20m limit on fees, and the player’s right to negotiate with any team that makes the maximum bid. Thoughts?

Well, it looks like MLB is trying to save its teams from themselves. It feels like both of the proposals started from the point of MLB wanting to reduce posting fees without significantly increasing the Japanese team and player’s negotiating leverage. In that sense, NPB did a good job securing some new leverage for it’s players. Giving the players multiple MLB teams to negotiate with is a surprisingly player-friendly inclusion, which has been welcomed by a union that has so little come their way.

The real, immediate loser here is Rakuten — and any other NPB that intends to post a marquee player. For teams in that situation, the $20m limit is almost diabolical.

What do you mean by that?

In case like Masahiro Tanaka’s, the new posting system makes the deal significantly better for the player and significantly worse for the team. So the incentive for the player to go and for the team to hang on have both increased. I think this could drive a wedge between the player and team, which we’re kind of seeing with Tanaka and Rakuten right now.

But the highest posting fees were indeed astronomical.

Yeah, they were. There’s no denying that. But there have only really been two huge ones, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, who both clocked in at about $51m. Matsuzaka was a flop; Darvish is looking good so far. No one seems bothered by the $25m fee the Dodgers paid for Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu last year, and the Yankees $26m bid for Kei Igawa seems to have been written off as a miscalculation, a knee-jerk reaction to the Red Sox’ acquisition of Matsuzaka. Then we have Ichiro at $14m way back in 2000, then Kazuhisa Ishii at $11m in 2001. All the other postings have been sub-$5m.

And let’s not forget that the MLB teams have set the market for big postings. People in Japan were shocked when Boston bid $51m for Matsuzaka, and later on, that was thought of as an outlier. The expectation was that Darvish would draw a bid of $30-40m. MLB teams have a knack for spending more than anyone expects.

People seem particularly annoyed by the $51m fee that Boston paid to Seibu for Daisuke Matsuzaka, and it’s understandable given his performance, but what gets overlooked is that it’s not unusual MLB teams transfer money to one another. No one batted an eye at Detroit including $30m in the recent Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade. No one cared that Texas agreed to send the Yankees $67m to help them undo their A-Rod mistake either.

So this is really about one guy then.

Yeah, probably. If Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t perfectly positioned to command another $50m+ posting fee, I doubt anyone would be having this discussion, at least not right now. There’s no one else in NPB that immediately commands to mind as being that hot a commodity; the other elite players are a few years away. So this is really about preventing his price from getting out of hand. The smarter thing might have been for MLB to try to push this kind of change through last year, when there were no postings from NPB. Hyun-Jin Ryu was posted from KBO, but I have to assume that it would have been easier to sell KBO on a $20m limit.

Maybe that’s a good thing, right? What if he’s a bust?

That’s part of the risk that MLB front offices are paid to evaluate. There was no limit imposed on what MLB teams were allowed to spend on Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jhonny Peralta…

Hang on. The luxury tax is a deterrent from going overboard on player salaries.

So prorate the posting fee over the term of the contract and apply it to the acquiring team’s luxury tax number. That way, at least the number comes from what the market is willing to pay, rather than a an artificial cap. The luxury tax is a deterrent, not a hard cap.

Yeah, I know they can’t do that because the MLB CBA is set in stone for the next couple years, but then so be it. MLB teams have made their beds, they can lie in them.

Why would NPB ownership agree to this?

Some of them don’t recognize the Posting System and refuse to use it. They don’t care if there’s a limit or not. I can only speculate as to why the others would go along with this… maybe they see it as something that won’t come into play very often, or maybe they see it as a disincentive to post their own players. Or maybe they just don’t want to face Tanaka next year.

No one seems to like the Posting System. Why does it exist?

It comes down to NPB teams needing to have a way to get something in return for players than are inevitably going to lose to MLB via free agency. Conceptually there is nothing wrong with this; in fact MLB clubs transfer players to Japanese teams for fees that range up to the low seven figures. Case in point, Softbank paid the Cubs $950k last year for Bryan LaHair’s contract.

What does it matter anyway?

From a practical standpoint, I don’t know, actually. Seibu invested the money they got from Matsuzaka into improvements to their home stadium, the Seibu Dome. Nippon Ham doesn’t seem to have re-invested their Darvish money back into their baseball operation in an obvious way. Perhaps there are more subtle ways that I haven’t picked up on.

In the bigger picture, a vibrant Japanese baseball culture and a financially healthy NPB is a very good thing for MLB and baseball in general, and limiting how much a team can benefit from developing a superstar player can’t possibly help.

There are two baseball leagues in world where a significant number of players earn over $1m annually — MLB and NPB (there might be a few guys in Korea by now). Having 42 organizations that employ baseball players is certainly better than having 30. If we include Korea’s 11 teams to the mix, it’s better to have 53 than 42.

Another thing is that part of the reason that Japan is a good market for MLB is because Japanese Major Leaguers bring huge fan followings with them. Guys like Darvish, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were stars before they ever stepped on a Major League field. I don’t have the numbers on this, but I would assume that the market for MLB has grown many times over since Hideo Nomo braved the Pacific in 1995.

Thanks Brain.

No problem. I’m gonna go back to thinking about other things now.

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Ichiro & Me

» 27 August 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » Comments Off

Last week, Ichiro reached perhaps the capstone achievement of his career: 4000 career hits as a professional in NPB and MLB. This put me in kind of a refelective mood, as Ichiro has been an omnipresent figure in my observation of professional baseball over the last 16-17 years, and a central character in my development from someone who knew little about Japanese baseball to someone who is capable of writing competently about it. Here’s 950+ words about how it happened.

The offseason, 1996 — I saw Orix Blue Wave’s [1] Ichiro play for the first time, on TV, in the bi-annual Nichibei Yakyu All-Star Series that has since been rendered obsolete by the WBC. This particular series was notable as it featured Hideo Nomo, a Japanese player, representing the American side. I don’t remember much about that series, other than the broadcasters pointing out that Ichiro was thought of as the likely candidate to be the first position player to make the leap to MLB, which turned out to be a prescient expectation. Ichiro, with his distinctive high-kick swing and mononymous name, was implanted on my mind from then onward.

Winter, 1997 or 1998 — As an early eBay user, I was able buy a Japanese Nintendo 64 baseball game, King of Pro Yakyu[2]. I quickly learned to recognize the Orix Blue Wave logo, and the first Japanese phrase I learned to read was Ichiro. Or, more accurately, I could understand which series of characters read “Ichiro”, but I couldn’t tell you which one the “chi” was. Nonetheless, Orix was the only team I ever played with in that game and evenually I learned about So Taguchi, Koji Noda, Troy Neel and DJ.

At some point around this time, I discovered Michael Westbay’s JapaneseBaseball.com, simply by typing “japanesebaseball.com” into a browser to see if anything was there. It became an invaluable resource for me as time went on.

August 2000 — I set foot in Japan for the first time, to spend a semester as a foreign exchange student. As luck would have it, I found myself in the Kansai region, not far from Orix’s home in Kobe. As luck wouldn’t have it, Ichiro was injured, so I defaulted to mostly watching nationally televised Yomiuri games, becoming a fan of Hideki Matsui, Darrell May, Hideki Okajima and Akira Etoh[3]. Ichiro did eventually return to play in the final game of the season, which I saw on the news but not live. I had no idea that it would be Ichiro’s last game (to date) with Orix. A month or so later, Ichiro’s intent to move to MLB was announced and it was a huge news story.

By the time I returned to the States in December, Ichiro’s rights had been won by the Mariners. It kind of seemed like a predestined move, as Ichiro has spent some time with the Mariners during spring training in 1999, and the team is owned by Nintendo.

Spring 2001 — Back home, my Dad and I attended an early-season White Sox-Mariners game, during Ichiro’s first trip to Chicago. Ichiro went 3-6 and made at least one perfect throw back to home plate, but what I remember most about that game was the number of Japanese photographers stationed around Comiskey Park. We saw groups of three or so photographers in several spots around the stadium, capturing even the most mundane Ichiro moments from every possible angle.

Ichiro, of course, went on to win the MVP award and the Mariners had a historic regular season, but fell short in the playoffs. By the time they did, I had returned to Japan to begin my eikaiwa[4] job. Like everyone else in Japan I wanted to see Ichiro in the World Series, but I wasn’t disappointed by the terrific Yankees-Diamondbacks series. I figured the Mariners would get another shot, which wound up never happening.

September 2004 — Early in 2004, I relocated from Japan to San Francisco. Ichiro appeared to be somewhat in decline, as batting had tailed off a bit in 2003 and he had gotten off to a slow start in 2004. Then in May something clicked and Ichiro was locked in the rest of the season, particularly in July and August. By September it seemed clear that he was going to set the MLB record for most hits in a season, and it looked like he might do it during a four game series in Oakland during the last week of the season. Being semi-employed at the time, I had the free time to attend all four games that week, but Ichiro cooled off and wound up setting the record after the Mariners returned to Seattle.

10 years earlier Ichiro set the NPB record for most hits in a season with 210, so he held the single season hits record in both leagues, until Matt Murton broke his NPB record with 214 hits in 2010.

2008-2009 — For the next couple years, nothing much happened. Ichiro continued to rack up 200+ hits per year, but the Mariners were never really in contention for a playoff spot. I continued living in the Bay Area and reading Shukan Baseball[4], until 2008, when I started this blog, which both of you are reading right now. Two of my earliest attention-grabbing posts where Ichiro-related, or more specifically, Ichiro pitching related: Ichiro pitching in the 1996 NPB All-Star game, and again in preparation for the 2009 WBC. Certainly, I owe some portion of the audience I managed to build to the fascination with Ichiro.

[1] The Blue Wave name is now defuct. In 2004, the Orix Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and became the Orix Buffaloes.
[2] Atlus software’s clone of Konami’s Powerful Pro Yakyu. Here’s a clip.
[3] All but Etoh evetually played in the Major Leagues.
[4] Eikaiwa is a contraction of “Eigo kaiwa”, meaning “English Conversation”. It’s a job were a native English speaker teaches conversational skills a group of one to four students.

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Why I Root For Every Minor League Veteran Who Goes to Japan

» 29 July 2013 » In mlb, nichibei » 2 Comments

In a link, here’s why.

In a quote:

“How about apologizing to all the minor leaguers who are trying to make it on PB&J’s?”

I’ll leave it up to you to read the linked article, but I hope Brett Pill gets a shot to make a few bucks in Japan or Korea in the next year or two.

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Bari Bari Major Leaguers

» 04 December 2012 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

Today’s Japanese word of the day is bari bari. In a baseball context, bari bari is frequently used to describe a big star, like this: “bari bari Major Leaguer came to our restaurant today!” In English we might translate that by saying “a real Major Leaguer,” but that doesn’t feel quite right. The very useful Jisho.org has a definition that doesn’t quite capture this context; maybe some of the more skilled linguists in the audience can help me find  a better English equivalent.

The Softbank Hawks imported a bari bari Major Leaguer this offseason, signing Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair to a two-year deal. LaHair was coveted NPB teams last winter, but the Cubs gave him a chance to be their starting first baseman, and he responded with a great first half and an All-Star appearance. Unfortunately, he cooled off in the second half and lost his job to prospect Anthony Rizzo, and wound up moving to Japan anyway. But as an All-Star, he commanded a higher salary than he otherwise would have, and crosses the Pacific with the feel of an established Major Leaguer.

LaHair’s move inspired me to write about some of the other players that have moved to NPB after strong performances in MLB. Japan has a long history with MLB veterans, so I didn’t attempt to include all of them (this is the longest thing I’ve written in quite some time as it is). For whatever reason most of the guys I’ve chosen to include were busts. I didn’t set out to make it that way, I guess those just seemed like the more interesting stories.

This isn’t an attempt to compare LaHair with any of these players. Most of these guys were well passed their prime years by the time they went to Japan. LaHair is only 30 years old and fits the mold of being a consistent 3A performer with some upside left to explore.

So with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look back at some of the bari bari Major Leaguers from the years gone by.

2012 Brad PennyLooking to replenish a rotation depleted by the departures of starters Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and DJ Houlton, Softbank signed Penny to lucrative (by NPB standards) one-year deal. Penny started one game, then put himself in the injured list and eventually requested his release, which was granted.

2011 Chan Ho ParkPark was well passed his prime years as a starter, but in the midst of somewhat of a late-career revival as a reliever when Orix signed him for 2011. Park was a starter in Japan, and looked a bit better than his 4.15 ERA implies, but got hurt after 42 innings and was never heard from again. He moved on to the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO for 2012, where he retired after posting a poor season.

2005 Tony Batista: In late 2004, the troubled Daiei supermarket group sold the Hawks baseball team to Softbank as part of a large reorganization. On their way out the door, Daiei’s management weakened the team by sending 3B Hiroki Kokubo to Yomiuri in a musho (uncompensated) trade, and releasing 2B Tadahito Iguchi so that he could pursue a career in MLB. Softbank made a splash in replacing them, signing Big Leaguers Batista and Jolbert Cabrera to replace them. Despite his on-base flaws, Batista was an established 30 home run hitter in MLB, and signed for a massive $14m over two years. Batista spent 2005 as the Hawks’ number three hitter, and his .263/.294/.463 line in 2005 was about in line with his MLB career norms. Apparently this wasn’t enough for Softbank, as they released him prior to the second year of his contract.

2003 Kevin MillarMillar was coming off two very good offensive seasons for the Marlins when his contract was sold to the Chunichi Dragons for $1.2m, with whom he provisionally agreed to play for at about $3m a year. But when the Marlins put Millar on waivers, a procedural move so he could sign his contract with Chunichi, the Red Sox violated protocol and put in a claim on him. After the Red Sox claim, Millar had a change of heart and refused to complete his contract with the Dragons. Chunichi put up some opposition at first, but eventually relented and let him go to Boston, where he continued to hit well and became a clubhouse fixture. In his place, Chunichi signed Alex Ochoa, who spent four years in Nagoya and contributed to two Central League winners.

2000 Tony FernandezUnlike many of the players on this list, Fernandez’s move to Japan was unmarred by contract or performance problems. Fernandez had put up strong seasons for Toronto in 1998 and 1999, didn’t miss a beat with Seibu in 2000, posting a .905 OPS. After his season with the Lions he returned to MLB for 2001, closing out his excellent career with a curtain call in Toronto. Coincidentally, 2000 was my first year in Japan, and my reaction to seeing him on TV was “oh cool! Tony Fernandez is here!” I was less excited to see Tony Tarasco playing right field for Hanshin.

1997 Mike GreenwellIn what has become the standard bearer incident for gaijin busts in NPB, Greenwell signed a big ($3m or so) contract with Hanshin, broke his leg seven games into the season, and immediately retired, claiming he got a “message from God to quit baseball” (野球を辞めろという神のお告げ). That’s the way it’s told in the Japanese media anyway. The counterpoint that I’ll offer is that he likely would have missed significant time anyway with his injury, and the “message from God” statement was probably not a great translation of what he actually said. I don’t have the original English quote, but I’m going to assume it was something less literal, like a metaphoric “sign from God”. Mike, if you’re reading this and can clear that up, I would love to know what actually happened. Incidentally, Greenwell’s $3m salary still stands as the most Hanshin has ever paid a foreign player.

1995 Shane Mack (Yomiuri), Kevin Mitchell (Daiei), Julio Franco (Lotte), Glenn Davis (Hanshin), Darrin Jackson (Seibu), Pete Incaviglia (Lotte): In the wake of the 1994-95 MLB player’s strike, a number of big league free agents signed with teams in Japan. The notable moves for me as a teenager were Franco and Jackson, two players who helped my hometown White Sox to an excellent record in 1994. Aside from those two, the under-appreciated Mack was very good for Yomiuri, Mitchell couldn’t adjust to Japan and bolted, and the other guys were mostly pretty good. Amazingly, Franco, despite being 37 in 1995, played another 12 seasons between NPB, KBO, MLB and Mexico.

1992 Jack Eliott: Okay, just kidding. For the real story, see the next paragraph.

1987 Bob HornerIn a season immortalized in text by Robert Whiting, Horner turned to Japan when he couldn’t find an MLB team to meet his contractual demands. Japan Inc. was at the peak of it’s bubble-driven economic powers, and the Yakult Swallows signed Horner for a year at about $2.6m, on par with what the top Major Leaguers were earning at the time. Horner got off to a hot start, hitting six home runs in his first four games, and despite being injury-limited to 93 games, slashed .327/.423/.683. Still, Horner was never comfortable in Japan and turned down a 3-year/$15m deal from Yakult, which would have made him the highest-paid baseball player in the world. Instead he replaced Jack Clark with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he lasted a year before retiring.

1984 Warren CromartieIn the late 70’s and early 80’s, Cromartie played a very capable outfield in Montreal alongside future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tim Raines (2013?). He left as a free agent for Yomiuri, where he played seven seasons and became one of the representative NPB players of the 1980’s. Cro slugged 30 or more home runs in each of his first three NPB seasons, and twice batted over .360. He remains revered by Kyojin fans, and still occasionally turns up in Japan for TV commentary and other media appearances.

1974 Frank HowardHoward signed with the Taiheyo Club Lions (currently the Saitama Seibu Lions) to close out his venerable career. Unfortunately, he injured his back in his first at-bat in Japan and never played again.

1973 Joe PepitoneYakult, then known as the Atoms, signed Pepitone to much fanfare in 1973. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Pepitone would up playing only 14 games in Japan. Pepitone now turns up in Shukan Baseball’s annual foreign player issue, mainly as a source of ridicule for his hairpieces and habit of claiming to be injured, only to be spotted at nightclubs.

1962 Don Newcombe, Larry Doby: 1962 saw the first players with significant MLB careers move to NPB, with Doby and Newcombe both joining the Chunichi Dragons. Neither should need an introduction to baseball fans: Doby broke the color line in the American League and is a Hall of Famer; Newkcombe was among the first generation of black Major Leaguers, an ace pitcher and on a path to the Hall himself before alcoholism lead to a premature decline. Doby had retired from MLB in 1959, and hit .225/.302./.396; Newcombe played left field and hit .262/.316/.473. Neither player made a big impact on the field with the Dragons, but they started the trend of MLB veterans extending their careers in Japan, which still continues to limited extent today.

1953 Leo KielyThe first Major Leaguer to play in NPB, Kiely was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who was drafted into the military and stationed in Yokosuka. The Mainichi Orions (currently the Chiba Lotte Marines) needed pitching help and, in August 1953, signed him to a “part-time” contract that allowed him to appear in games around his military schedule. Kiely went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 45 innings over six games on the mound, and 10-19 at the plate. In September, Kiely’s assignment to Yokosuka ended, and he returned to the US. Kiely resumed his career with the Red Sox the following year, and NPB’s commissioner enacted a rule prohibiting teams from signing US servicemen as part-time players.

The late Cappy Harada said NPB of the early 50’s was around the level of an American Class C minor league (modern day 1A). The league has come a long way over the last 60 years.

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