I’ve been following Japanese baseball for the last 20 years, and I still don’t have an extremely clear idea on which foreign players will succeed in NPB and which will not. I have a few ideas on the subject, but I can name exceptions to just about all of them.
The single most important factor is talent level. Players who should be MLB stars, based on their minor league performance, but for some reason weren’t able to establish themselves in MLB; and position players who can hit at the major league level but don’t have enough power for the positions at which they can provide adequate MLB defense, tend to do well in NPB. So do late-bloomers who establish themselves as major league caliber hitters in AAA in their age 26 or 27 seasons.
However, NPB teams are extremely good at identifying and signing these players, but they don’t all succeed fast enough in NPB to stick around more than one season. Meanwhile, Tony Blanco established himself as a major NPB star, despite not accomplishing all that much in many years in the MLB system (injuries appear to have played a role).
In my mind, the ideal age for a North American player to start his NPB career is his age 27 or 28 season, at least in terms of having a long NPB career. Players younger than 27 usually either aren’t willing to give up their MLB dream just yet, and if they are, it is typically a reflection of the fact that their talent level isn’t quite high enough.
Even so, many players who are the right age don’t last in NPB, because they don’t perform at a high enough level immediately. NPB wants its foreign players to be stars immediately and are rarely willing to develop highly paid foreigners who show promise but not enough actual production in their first NPB seasons.
Two good examples of this are Dan Johnson and Matt Clark. Dan Johnson, a proven MLB hitter and high 4-A talent, hit only .215, but with 24 HRs and a .791 OPS, in his age 29 season for the 2009 Yokohama Bay Stars. However, he had signed a roughly $1 million contract with the Bay Stars based on his MLB track record, and the Bay Stars weren’t willing to bring him back for a second season.
Matt Clark hit .238, but with 25 HRs and a .785 OPS, in his age 26 season for the 2013 Chunichi Dragons. Given his age and fact that his reported deal only cost the team about $450,000, the Dragons’ decision not to bring him back in 2014 struck me as extremely short-sighted.
NPB teams often sign over age 30 players with proven MLB track records precisely in the hopes that they will get immediate performance. These players tend to be expensive, and while they succeed often enough to keep NPB teams signing these types of players, most are on the downside of their careers and either can’t make the adjustments to Japanese baseball or can’t stay healthy. This year, for example, Jonny Gomes has already washed out of NPB in less than two months, and Garrett Jones is now struggling (.224 batting average, .747 OPS) in spite of a fast start.
In the case of Jones and Gomes, I tend to think that former major leaguers who held their MLB roster spots because of their dramatic platoon differentials don’t tend to do well in NPB, where they are paid to play every day but typically find they can’t hit NPB pitchers when they don’t have the platoon advantage. However, Dayan Viciedo, who had a big platoon differential in almost 1,800 career MLB plate appearances, is thumping the ball so far in his NPB rookie season (.314 batting average, 1.030 OPS). Of course, Viciedo is still only 27 years old this season.
On the other hand, Brad Eldred, a 4-A player who didn’t join NPB until his age 31 season (he turned 32 in July of his rookie NPB year), has gradually and despite frequent injuries, established himself as a big NPB star. He’s the second best hitter in NPB so far this year in terms of OPS (1.116) even though he turns 36 in a couple of months.
Among pitchers, guys with major league stuff but not quite major league command often have success. Marc Kroon and Denis Sarfate are good examples. However, long-time project Erik Cordier (he has a 100 mph fastball), hasn’t shown adequate command at the NPB level this year either.
Also, guys who are bottom the bullpen MLB pitchers have recently had success moving on to a bigger role in NPB. Randy Messenger, Logan Ondrusek and Marcos Mateo are examples.
Others, however, are fairly standard 4-A types who happened to make it in Japanese baseball, like Rick van den Hurk, Jason Standridge and Brandon Dickson. van den Hurk used South Korea’s KBO to work his way up to NPB.