Big in Japan: When Major League Nobodies Become NPB Somebodies

Wladimir Balentien owns the single-season home run record in Japan after hitting just 15 in his brief MLB career. (via Pokotarō)

When Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Hideo Nomo made his major league debut in 1995, he opened the door for Japanese players to cross over to the major leagues. Since Nomo, a 1995 All-Star who fired two no-hitters, became the second-ever native of Japan to play in the big leagues — and the first since the 1960s — there have been more than 100.

Many of these players have made profound impacts, most notably Ichiro Suzuki, who smacked 3,089 big league hits and set the single-season hits record in 2004. Hideki Matsui, a two-time All-Star, was the New York Yankees’ 2009 World Series MVP, going 8-for-13 with three home runs in the series. All-Star setup man Hideki Okajima and starter Daisuke Matsuzaka helped the Boston Red Sox to a World Series sweep in 2007, while closer Koji Uehara (1.09 ERA in 73 games) did the same for the Red Sox in 2013. Meanwhile, starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have been Cy Young Award runners-up, while Shohei Ohtani earned the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year Award as a designated hitter and starting pitcher.

As Major League Baseball has benefited from its share of former Nippon Professional Baseball standouts, the inverse situation — former major leaguers moving to NPB teams — is far more prevalent. Since Nomo, there have been 56 more Japanese-born-and-raised major-league players. This year’s major league Opening Day rosters featured six Japanese-born players. Meanwhile, as of July 30, NPB rosters featured 54 non-Japanese-born former major league players between their active rosters and reserves this season. The Hanshin Tigers had the most with seven, while the three teams were tied for the fewest with three: the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Saitama Seibu Lions, and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. NPB teams are allowed to have up to four foreign-born players on their active roster at any given time, although there is no limit on how many they are actually allowed to sign and have as reserves.

There have been a handful of major league stars in NPB, like Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage; Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby, who broke the color line in the American League; Cy Young Award winner/MVP Don Newcombe; longtime Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, who blasted 434 home runs in his major league career; 40-40 club member Alfonso Soriano; two-time Red Sox World Series champion Kevin Youkilis; and three-time Yankees All-Star Joe Pepitone. Many of the greatest NPB players of all time, though, are not these former major league stars: They’re former major league players you’ve probably never heard of. While some might think the former major leaguers in Japan are primarily old and washed-up big-league stars, this is not the case.

In the music world, there is a term — “Big in Japan” — which refers to groups who achieve far more success in Japan than they did in their homelands. The rock band Cheap Trick first found success on Japanese charts, while rock group Mr. Big’s “Hey Man” album charted No. 1 in Japan but did not crack the top 40 in the United States. Like their musical counterparts, some major-league inbetweeners have found their greatest success playing across the Pacific. Let’s take a look at a few of those who have been big in Japan.

Home Run King

Generally speaking, there are fewer power hitters in NPB action than there are in the major leagues, as Bleacher Report points out. That said, a number of Quad-A big leaguers top the list of the league’s greatest power hitters of all-time.

Even diehard Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds fans might have a hard time remembering Wladimir Balentien’s major-league career. Over parts of three seasons from 2007 to 2009, he popped 15 big-league home runs while hitting .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and .655 OPS. The right-handed outfielder was not productive enough to stick around in the big leagues, accruing -0.4 fWAR in 170 games, but his raw power was impressive. In his final big-league game, he launched a home run that went an estimated 500 feet. That raw power, in combination with his free-swinging nature, has turned him into an NPB superstar.

Following the 2010 season, when Balentien lifted 25 home runs in 116 Triple-A games without earning a call-up, he signed with the Yakult Swallows. After back-to-back 31 home run seasons with the team in 2011 and 2012, Balentien broke out. He set the league’s single-season home run record, blasting 60 in 130 games. That performance earned him the Central League MVP Award. Since then, he has remained a steady asset, earning six All-Star game appearances.

Almost Kings

Balentien won’t break Sadaharu Oh’s all-time NPB home run record of 868, but he does have him beat in the single-season category — and isn’t the only little-known former major-league player to achieve that feat. Both Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera tied Oh’s single-season best 55 home run mark, and Randy Bass came within one. And had it not been for resistance within the league, they might have surpassed Oh. Rhodes had just 14 major league home runs and a .659 OPS in 590 at-bats over parts of five seasons from 1990 to 1996. But his raw power transferred well to Japan, and he set the record for most home runs for a foreign-born player, hitting 464 over 13 seasons. His best NPB season came in 2001, when he blasted 55 home runs in 140 games.

With 13 games left in the season, however, he already had 54 homers. Out of respect to Oh, some pitchers pitched around Rhodes to try to prevent him from breaking the record. The most blatant example of this came when he faced the Oh-managed Daehi Hawks. ESPN reported that in one Sunday game against the Hawks late in the season, only two of the 18 pitches Rhodes saw were strikes. The Japan Times reported catcher Kenji Johjima “could be seen grinning during the walks.” The team’s pitching coach, Yoshiharu Wakana, admitted to The Times he gave his pitchers the order to pitch away from Rhodes, saying, “It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record.”

The same thing happened to both Cabrera and Bass at the end of their respective standout seasons. After launching 35 home runs in 53 Double-A games as a 28-year-old in 2000, Cabrera would appear in 31 games before being sold to the Seibu Lions. Launching 49 home runs his rookie year, he put up 55 in 2002, but though might have put up more if he’d gotten pitches to hit. “They didn’t want me to get the record,” Cabrera told ESPN. “The last 20 at-bats of the season, I think I only saw one strike. All records are for the Japanese.”

Bass, a .212 hitter with a .610 OPS in 130 major league games over parts of six seasons from 1977 to 1982, showed the same kind of power in NPB as he did in Triple-A. In 1979 and 1980, Bass hit 36 and 37 Triple-A home runs, respectively. He had a highly-productive NPB tenure, setting the career batting average record by hitting .337 over parts of six seasons. He also had a chance to tie and potentially beat Oh’s home run record in 1985, but ran into a major obstacle: the team he faced in the final series was managed by Oh. Pitchers tried to pitch around Bass every time he was up at the plate. He walked six times in his final nine plate appearances of the season, per Sports Illustrated.

A Successor of Ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki might hold major league baseball’s single-season hit record, but in NPB that title is no longer held by the longtime Seattle Mariner. It has been surpassed twice, the first time by Matt Murton.

A productive right-handed hitter for the Chicago Cubs from 2005 to 2008, Murton was dealt to the Oakland Athletics and later the Colorado Rockies, where he struggled to carve out a role. Following the 2009 season, Murton’s moderately productive 346-game major league career was over; the Rockies sold his contract to the Hanshin Tigers. There, Murton, a .310 hitter in 314 Triple-A games, truly shined.
As a rookie in Japan, the then-28-year-old established himself as Hanshin’s leadoff hitter, playing in all 144 games and amassing 214 hits. This bested Ichiro’s 210 hits in 130 games for the Orix Blue Wave in 1994. The record would not stand long, however, as Shogo Akiyama of the Seibu Lions got 216 hits in 143 games in 2015.

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In subsequent years, Murton got more days off, but still had a highly-productive career with the Tigers. Over six seasons, he batted .310 with a .790 OPS and collected 1,020 hits. In 2016, he attempted a  major league comeback, but could not crack a spot on the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs despite faring well in Triple-A action (.314 batting average, .747 OPS in 76 games). He also had a brief tenure with the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, the following season.

20th-Century Standouts

Although some of the records broken by foreign-born players have occurred recently, some happened decades ago — and not by standout major league players. Some of the top NPB players from the 1980s include Greg Wells, a first baseman who played in 47 big league games in 1981/1982; second baseman Bobby Rose, who appeared in 72 games from 1989 to 1992; and Ralph Bryant, who played in 79 major league  games for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1985 to 1987.

The Pacific League MVP in 1984, Wells became the first foreign-born Triple Crown winner in NPB history. He played 10 seasons in Japan and in three of them, he launched 40 home runs or more. Rose holds NPB’s single-season RBI record of 153, a figure he got while blasting 37 home runs as the cleanup hitter for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 1999.

The free-swinging Bryant holds the single-season record for most strikeouts in a season with 204 in 1993. Still, his aggressive disposition at the plate did not hurt his career in Japan. He lifted 49 home runs in 1989 and was named the Pacific League MVP.

On The Mound

Although most of the ex-major league stars in NPB action are hitters, a handful of pitchers have excelled.

In recent years, Kris Johnson is the most prominent example. The 2006 Red Sox first-round draft pick is an ace for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. The lefty showed his potential with the Indianapolis Indians in 2013, posting a 2.39 ERA in 26 appearances. Making his major league debut at 28 years old, he was not quite big-league material, posting a 5.32 ERA in 23.2 innings in seven outings over 2013 and 2014.

As a 30-year-old rookie in Nippon Professional Baseball, however, he earned the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award: the Eiji Sawamura Award. He posted a 1.85 ERA in 28 starts, beating out Kenta Maeda for the honor.

In the late innings, Bronx native Marc Kroon’s electric arm and poor command transferred well to Japanese action. Although he walked 26 batters in 26.2 major league innings over parts of four seasons (1995, 1997, 1998, 2004), he was an effective closer for six NPB seasons, recording 177 saves. He had the fastest recorded pitch in league history at 162 km/h (100.7 mph) until Shohei Ohtani broke the record in 2016.

One of the top active closers in the league is another New Yorker: Queens native Dennis Sarfate. A fringe back-end right-handed reliever in the majors, he had a 4.53 ERA in 92 games over parts of four seasons before signing with the Carp for the 2011 season. They put his 96 mph fastball to use as a closer, the role he played for the Norfolk Tides in 2010. Since then, Sarfate has been elite. From 2011 to 2018, he posted a 1.57 ERA and recorded 234 saves for three teams. He earned the Pacific League MVP Award in 2017, the year he broke Koon’s saves record for a foreign-born pitcher.

NPB Exclusives

Not every pro baseball player from the western hemisphere who enjoyed success in NPB action played in the majors. Some of them could not make it at all.

Xavier Batista of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp never made it past short-season A ball in five pro seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization. The Cubs released him following the 2013 season, but he attended the Carps’ Academy in his native Dominican Republic and in a surprising move, the team signed him in March 2016 as a developmental player. Batista made his Carp debut in 2017, homering in each of his first two at-bats. Still active, he put up 32 home runs in 128 games for the Carp last season.

Like Batista, Tyrone Woods never played in a major league. In his 10th minor league season, the 27-year-old first baseman hit .352 with nine home runs in 29 games for the Pawtucket Red Sox. This landed him a contract with the OB Bears (now the Doosan Bears) of the Korean Baseball Organization. As a rookie in Korea in 1998, he blasted 42 home runs and earned the KBO MVP Award. After four more productive seasons in the KBO, he signed with the Yokohama BayStars of NPB and kept shining, launching 240 home runs in six seasons from 2003 to 2008. He led the league in home runs three times and never hit fewer than 35 home runs in a single year.

A family connection allowed Leon Lee, father of Derrek Lee, to do the same. The brother of Nippon superstar Leron Lee, who had an eight-year big league career, the former St. Louis Cardinals prospect earned a spot on the Lotte Orions alongside his brother in 1978. Leon blasted 41 home runs in 1980 and 268 over his 10-year career with three different teams.

Gene Bacque toiled in the minors from 1957 to 1962 before being cut from the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders and trying out for the Hanshin Tigers. There, the soft-throwing right-hander thrived for eight seasons, posting a 2.34 ERA primarily as a starting pitcher. He earned the NPB’s Cy Young Award equivalent, the Eiji Sawamura Award, in 1964 and threw a no-hitter one year later.

Rod Pedraza, the Montreal Expos second-round draft pick in 1991, stalled out in Triple-A as a starting pitcher. This was in part because of reconstructive shoulder surgery, according to The Japan Times. Due to budget concerns, it appeared as though the Fukuoka Daiei would not have any foreign-born players on their roster in 1999. Instead, they took a low-risk chance on Pedraza, used him in relief, and got a fine closer out of it. When first called up to the varsity club, Pedraza was supposed to be a starter but got thrown into a game in the eighth inning with his team short on arms. He recorded the save. A few days later, he got another save opportunity and again delivered. He recorded 117 saves over four seasons with the team.

Conclusion

More than 600 American-born players, in addition to players from other countries, have played in NPB, although most played only supporting roles.

Even so, Japan is an appealing place for fringe major-league players, in part because the salaries are far better than those of the minor leagues. For example, Kris Johnson earns more than $3 million annually while his teammate Xavier Batista makes more than $350,000. Meanwhile, in America, the minimum Triple-A salary is $2,150 per month, and only during the season.

This also explains why starting pitcher Carter Stewart bypassed the 2019 major league draft and instead took the financial security of a career in NPB. The 19-year-old had arm issues in 2018 and could not agree to terms with the Atlanta Braves, who selected him eighth overall that year. A projected 2019 second-round draft pick, he signed a six-year, $7 million deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, earning far more guaranteed money than he would have as a second-rounder (less than a $2 million signing bonus). Since the odds of a major league second-round pick making it to the big leagues for more than three seasons are 31.5%, Stewart took the safe bet and got the money where it existed.

Nippon Professional Baseball isn’t just for players like Jack Elliot in the movie Mr. Baseball. Like the Korean Baseball Organization, it provides a real opportunity for major league depth players to make a serious living playing baseball — and sometimes for them to achieve greatness.

References and Resources

“2019 MLB Opening Day Rosters Feature 251 Internationally-Born Players,” Mister-Baseball.com, March 30, 2019.

Billboard, February 17, 1996.

“How Good Is the Japanese Professional Baseball League?,” Bleacher Report, November 12, 2013.

“The last time Wladimir Balentien appeared in an MLB game he hit a baseball to the moon,” MLB.com, March 21, 2017.

“Team managed by Oh pitched around Rhodes,” ESPN, October 5, 2001.

“Equaling Oh’s HR record proved difficult,” The Japan Times, October 31, 2008.

“The Phoniest Records in Sports,” ESPN, February 28, 2003.

“A Tough Challenge That he had a shot at a home run mark shows Tuffy Rhodes’s stature in Japan,” Sports Illustrated, October 8, 2001.

“Fighters ace Otani sets new NPB speed record,” The Japan Times, June 5, 2016.

“The Best Reliever Available Might’ve Pitched in Japan,” FanGraphs, November 28, 2017.

“Hawks’ Pedraza found relief in Japan,” The Japan Times, October 29, 2000.

“Amazing grace and the wonderful world of the Ortiz baseball Family,” Clover Roundup, March 15, 2018.

“Salaries of NPB Hiroshima Toyo Carp Players in 2019,” Hatena Blog, April 27, 2019.

“Here are the 2019 Draft pools and bonus values,” MLB.com, June 3, 2019.

“The Chances of a Drafted Baseball Player Making the Major Leagues: A Quantitative Study,” Society for American Baseball Research, 2017.

Baseball-Reference.com.


Tom is a freelance sportswriter based in southeastern Massachusetts who has covered professional baseball since 2013. He has written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today, and many other outlets.
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Paul G.
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Paul G.

Thank you. That was an interesting and informative article.

I suppose the complementary article would be for established major league players that went to Japan and how they performed.