D. J. Houlton, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Dodger fans will remember Houlton. He’s a 29 year old right-handed pitcher, who pitched for the Bums in 2005 and 2007.
In ’05, Houlton went 6-9 for the Dodgers with a 5.16 ERA in 129 IP. Anyone with a 5.16 ERA who plays his home games in Dodgers Stadium isn’t getting the job done. He spent ’06 in AAA Las Vegas and got hit pretty hard there too.
Houlton improved his ERA at Las Vegas by nearly two runs in 2008, and his improved performance got him another call-up with the Dodgers. He had a 4.18 ERA in 28 IP over 18 appearances, apparently mostly in the late innings of blow-outs (8 games finished, no saves).
The Dodgers must not have thought he had much of a future with them because they allowed him to sign with the Softbank Hawks for 2008. Houlton apparently had an up-and-down year last year. He was 4-7 with a 4.27 ERA in 84.1 innings with six saves. I don’t know whether he started ’08 as a starter and was moved to the bullpen or vice versa. However, he racked up 86 K’s and only 31 BB’s. What killed him was the long-ball: he gave up 10 HR’s last year.
This year the Hawks have used him exclusively as a starter, and he’s been great. After eleven starts, he’s 5-3 with a 2.13 ERA and 62 K’s against only 21 BB’s in 76 innings pitched. He currently has the fourth best ERA in the Pacific League. At his age, he’s in a great position to have a fine Japanese career.
Luis Jimenez, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. He’s a 27 year old 1Bman from Venezuala, who in eight seasons in the minors played for the A’s, Orioles (twice), Angels, Twins, Red Sox and Nationals organizations, failing to spend two full seasons in any of their organizations. He can clearly hit, compiling a career minor league batting average of .285, OBP of .369 and OPS of .840. My guess is he’s either got stone hands at 1B, or he’s a real pill.
The Ham Fighters signed Jimenez to a contract for 2009, which is surprising because he has only 58 games of AAA experience and no time at all in the majors. After 39 games with the Ham Fighters, he’s hitting only .231 with a .665 OPS. He’s hit with some power, but has few walks and many strikeouts. He’s been sent down to the Ham Fighters’ farm team, where he’s off to a good start, hitting .357 after four games.
Because of his age and obvious talent, the Ham Fighters shouldn’t give up on him too soon. He’s making just under $190,000 this year, which is not a lot a foreign player, but a lot for a Japanese player of similar NPB experience.
Dan Johnson, Yokohama Bay Stars. I really loved this signing this past off-season because of Johnson’s age (29 this year), past major league success (.763 major league OPS in more than 1,250 plate appearances), minor league power and performance at AAA Durham last year (he led the International League in OPS). He was stuck behind Carlos Pena in the Rays’ organization, and it was pretty much a no-brainer for a Japanese team to come calling. That team was the Bay Stars, and they gave Johnson a 2009 contract worth about $1.15M.
However, even the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley (Lowland Scots, an Anglo-Saxon dialect once spoken in southern Scotland, meaning “go often awry”, in case you were wondering), and Johnson has really been struggling making the adjustment to Japanese baseball. He’s hitting a feeble .193 with 35 K’s in 150 AB’s. He’s drawing walks and has nine HR’s, so his OPS is a not horrendous .704. Still, his performance isn’t cutting the mustard, and he’s been benched and only appearing to pinch hit the last seven to ten games.
My best guess would be that his one-year $1.15M contract is guaranteed, but I’m in no way certain of that. Either way, because he has hit for some power and also because the player they have starting at 1B now is 39 year old Takahiro Saeki, the Bay Stars won’t give up on Johnson just yet. At some point, I suspect that Saeki will either get hurt or stop hitting, and when that happens Johnson better start getting some hits.
Ben Kozlowski, Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Kozlowski is a 28 year old, 6’6″ left-hander who played in the States in the Braves, Rangers, Reds, Angels and Yankees organizations. His only major league experience was two September starts for the Rangers in 2002 in which he got hit hard. He appears to have had some arm problems in 2003 and 2004, and he just didn’t really didn’t develop after that the way his American organizations wanted him to.
Kozlowski had a good year at age 26 for the Yankees’ AAA team at Scranton Wilkes-Barre with a 3.00 ERA as a reliever and spot starter with nearly as many K’s as innings pitched and a K’s-to-BB’s ratio of better than 2.5 to 1. And so the Carp came calling.
In 2008, Kozlowski had an acceptable but unimpressive year for the Carp. In 38 innings over 26 appearances, he went 2-1 with two saves and 4.74 ERA. The Carp brought him back for another year this year, but at a steep cut in pay from about $550,000 to about $175,000 this year.
This year Kozlowski has made only one appearance for the Carp. He gave up 2 earned runs in a third of an inning. He’s spent most of the year pitching for the Carp’s minor league team and hasn’t done much better. After 10 games and 36.2 IP, he has a 6.38 ERA and is having great difficulty throwing strikes. His Japanese career is in serious jeopardy.
Marc Kroon, Yomiuri Giants. Marc Kroon has been one of the great recent Gaijin success stories in the Japanese leagues. He’s a right-handed closer, who’s now 36 years old.
Almost twenty years ago, Kroon was the Mets 2nd Round pick in the 1991 Draft (51st overall). The Mets clearly liked his arm strength, Kroon throws the ball exceptionally fast. However, like a lot of fireballers, control has been a career long problem.
Between 1995 and 1998, Kroon had four major league trials with the Padres and the Reds, and his pitching was brutal. He apparently suffered a serious arm injury in 1999, because from 2000 through 2002, he pitched a combined total of only 3.2 minor league innings.
Once he was back for good in 2003, even though he was now good pitcher in the high minors, he was already 30 years old. Also, his control was still suspect. He had a fine year at Colorado Springs, a very tough place to pitch because of the altitude, in 2004, picking up 20 saves with a 2.70 ERA in 50 appearances, with 72 K’s and 26 BB’s in 49.1 IP. This performance earned him his final major league cup of coffee for the Rockies late that year, but he gave up 10 BB’s in 6 IP, and that was pretty much all she wrote for his major league career.
Kroon signed a contract with the Yokohama Bay Stars for the 2005 season, and his time in Japan has been an almost unmitigated success. In his first four full seasons in Japan he has posted save totals of 26, 27, 31 and 41 and has had ERA’s of 2.70, 3.00, 2.76 and 2.21. In a total of 228.2 career innings pitched in Japan, he has 314 K’s agains 85 BB’s.
In 2005, he set an all-time Japanese record by throwing his fastball in a game at 161 kilometers per hour (a little over 100 mph) and topped that with a 162 kph pitch in 2008.
After the 2007 season, Kroon wanted a big raise which the Bay Stars were unwilling or unable to give him, so they cut him loose and he signed with the Yomiuri Giants for 2008 for roughly $3M, a million dollars more than he made the year before. He rewarded the Giants by leading the Central League with 41 saves. Along with foreign stars Seth Greisinger and Alex Ramirez, whom the small market Yakult Swallows couldn’t provide the money they wanted and whom the Giants could, Kroon helped the 2008 Giants to their first Japan Series since 2002.
What explains Kroon’s phenominal success in Japan after never really being able to put in together in the U.S.? Part of it, obviously, is that the level of play in MLB is higher than in the NPB. There’s more to it than that, however. Pitchers who throw as hard as Kroon last longer and often have their best success after age 30 when they finally develop some control.
HOFer Dazzy Vance is probably the best example: he won 197 major league games and led the NL in strikeouts seven times, all of it after his 31st birthday. A more recent example is Randy Johnson, who had his first truly great season at age 29 and is still pitching at age 45.
Another thing: the home plate used in Japan is wider than that used in the U.S. Any pitcher with great stuff but little control will benefit more than anyone else by a bigger strike zone. A great example in the U.S., was the 1960′s. In 1963, the strikezone was lengthened to encompass the bottom of the hitter’s knee to the top of his shoulders.
Guess what happened? Pitching and particularly power pitching dominated the major league game in the 1960′s. Just about every team had a power pitcher who became absolutely dominating for at least a couple of years, because of the taller strikezone. A 95 mph fastball at the shoulders is just about impossible to hit, and most power pitchers are wild high. In the 1960′s, those pitches were called strikes and pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Jim Maloney, Bobby Veale, Dick Radatz, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson and Jim Bunning dominated.
In 2009, Kroon got off to perhaps the best start of his Japanese career. In his first 22 appearances, he notched 11 saves and had an ERA of 1.13. However, on June 6, in a game in which Kroon picked up his tenth save of the season, as the Giants beat Japan’s best pitcher, the Ham Fighters’ Yu Darvish, 3-2, Kroon tore a tendon in his left middle finger (non-pitching hand) on a rundown play. According to Kroon’s official website, the pain from the injury was intense enough that he decided to have surgery on June 17. Post-surgery recovery time is anticipated to take four weeks.
One thing I found amusing about Kroon’s web post about his decision to have surgery is that he apologizes to Yomiuri fans for getting hurt. This is extremely Japanese. American fans probably remember a few years ago when Hideki Matsui was seriously injured for the first time since becoming a Yankee, and he apologized to Yankee fans for getting hurt. There was something kind of refreshing about Matsui’s apology, but I suspect that it’s common practice in Japan. In the U.S., of course, the attitude is that it’s kind of ridiculous for a player to apologize for getting hurt, since no one wants or tries to get hurt and miss games.
Anyway, it’s hard to imagine that an injury to his non-pitching hand will have any effect on Kroon’s long-term success in Japan, and if he’s still throwing in the high 90′s, he’ll probably be a top closer there for at least another four or five years.