The Best Foreign Pitchers in the History of Japan’s NPB – 2015 Update

Posted October 7, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Baseball History

Here is an update on last year’s post listing the best foreign pitchers to have pitched in Japan’s NPB in terms of career NPB wins, ERA (800 innings pitched minimum), Strike Outs and Saves.


1.  Taigen Kaku (Tai-yuan Kuo) 117-68

2.  Gene Bacque 100-80

2. Joe Stanka 100-72

4. Nate Minchey 74-70

5. Jeremy Powell 69-65

6. Seth Greisinger 64-42

7. D. J. Houlton 63-39

7. Jason Standridge 63-54

9. Randy Messenger 52-42

10. Kip Gross 55-49

Tai-yuan Kuo, known in Japan as Taigen Kaku, was a Taiwanese pitcher, who pitched for the Seibu Lions from 1985 through 1997, the most successful period in the team’s history.  Kuo/Kaku is generally recognized as the best pitcher to come out of Taiwan prior to Chien-Ming Wang breaking through to have MLB success in 2005.

Gene Bacque and Joe Stanka were two Americans whose Japanese careers roughly overlapped in the early and mid-1960’s.  Stanka was a marginal major leaguer of the type typical among players from the Americas who try to make a go of it in NPB.  He pitched in two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1959 at the age of 27, and apparently realized he had little chance of future major league success, and somehow got a job with the Nankai Hawks (now the Softbank Hawks) in 1960.

Gene Bacque was a mediocre minor league pitcher who got cut by the Hawaii Islanders of the AAA Pacific Coast League after only two relief appearances early in the 1962 season.  What he had going for him was the fact that he was still only 24 years old and apparently the physical proximity to Japan when his minor league career ended.  Japanese Hall of Famer and Hanshin Tigers teammate Masaaki Koyama taught Bacque how to throw a slider, and he also improved his knuckleball and became a star.

Bacque and Stanka both had their best NPB seasons in 1964.  Bacque went 29-9 with a 1.88 ERA and 200 Ks in 353.1 innings pitched, while Stanka went 26-7 with a 2.40 ERA and 172 Ks in 277.2 IP.  Bacque was awarded the Eiji Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award, becoming the only foreign player ever to win that honor.

Bacque and Stanka faced off against each other in the sixth game of the Japan Series that season.  I have to assume that Stanka won the game, because the Hawks won the series in seven games and Stanka was named the Series MVP.

Randy Messenger, who is currently the ace of the Hanshin Tigers, is a good bet to move up the all-time charts in a number of categories.  He just wrapped up the second year of a lucrative 3-year deal the Tigers gave him this past off-season (at least $10 million total which could climb to $15 million with performance bonuses, which is big money for a foreigner playing in NPB).

ERA (800+ IP)

1.  Gene Bacque 2.34

2.  Joe Stanka 3.03

3.  Randy Messenger 3.05

4. Seth Greisigner 3.16

5.  Taigen Kaku 3.16

6.  Jason Standridge 3.19


1.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

2.  Randy Messenger 939

3.  Joe Stanka 887

4.  Jeremy Powell 858

5.  Gene Bacque 825


1.  Marc Kroon 177

2. Dennis Sarfate 132

3.  Chang-yong Lim 128

4.  Eddie Gaillard 120

5.  Rod Pedroza 117

6.  Micheal Nakamura* 104

7.  Dong-yeol Sun 98

8. Tony Barnette 97

Foreign relief pitchers have had quite a bit of success in Japan, going back to the late 1990’s.  Marc Kroon was an American with a high 90’s fastball, who didn’t throw enough strikes in the U.S. to have MLB success, but was dominating in NPB.  Dennis Sarfate, who is currently the Softbank Hawks closer, is the same kind of pitcher as Kroon.

Dong-yeol Sun, Chang-yong Lim and now Seung-hwan Oh (80 saves in his first two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers through age 32) are products of South Korea’s KBO.  All three were or are probably good enough to be successful MLB pitchers, but ended up starring in NPB instead.

Last year’s comments indicate that NPB did not treat Micheal Nakamura as a foreign player.  However, he was born in Japan, most likely to a Japanese father and a Anglo-Australian mother.  He graduated from high school in Australia and attended college at the University of South Alabama.  Out of college, he pitched for years in the minor leagues before returning to Japan, so I have decided to list him for at least one more year.

Tony Barnette had another fine season for the Yakult Swallows in 2015 and will likely more up the list in the future.

Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB – 2015 Update

Posted October 7, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Baseball History

Last year I wrote a post attempting to list the all-time leaders among foreign (to Japan) hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball, because I have never been able to find such lists on the internet.  The post met with a positive response, so I have decided to update the lists at least annually when current players add their names and career stats.  Here is the post-2015 NPB regular season update:


1.  Leron Lee .320

2.  Boomer Wells .317

3.  Wally Yomamine .311

4.  Leon Lee .308

5.  Alex Cabrera .303

6.  Alex Ramirez .301


1.  Bobby Rose .325

2.  Matt Murton .310

3.  George Altman .309

Leron Lee was not, as his wikipedia page suggests, the first American player to go to Japan during the prime of his professional career.  However, he was the first first major leaguer of his ability and past MLB success to go to Japan before his age 30 season.  Lee is not just the best career hitter among North American players, he has the highest NPB batting average of any player with at least 4,000 at-bats.

Leon Lee was Leron’s little brother and the father of former MLBer Derrek Lee.  Pops never played in MLB, but he was nearly as great an NPB player as his big brother, and that’s saying something.

Wally Yonamine, a Nisei (Japanese American) from Hawaii, was the first foreign player to play in NPB after the Second World War, breaking in with the Yomuiri Giants, far and away NPB’s most popular team, in 1951.  Yonamine was sort of the poster boy for a class of Japanese American athletes during the era between about 1920 and 1950 who were famed on the West Coast and Hawaii for their abilities on both the baseball diamond and the gridiron in semi-pro leagues.

Yonamine was really an exceptional athlete.  He was 5’9″ and 180 lbs, fast and tough.  He was the first Asian American to play pro football that I am aware of, playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, the team’s second season in the All-American Football Conference.  He played in 12 of the team’s 14 games that year and started three times.  He ran for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards, ran back an interception for 20 yards and returned a total of nine punts and kick-offs.  He quit football after injuring himself playing baseball the next summer.

In his only season of minor league baseball, he hit .335 as a catcher in the Pioneer League at age 25 in 1950.  At that age, his MLB chances were slim, so he went to Japan in 1951, where he mostly played outfield.  He had a major impact on NPB, bringing his tougher, more aggressive American style of base running.  He is the only foreign player in the NPB Hall of Fame (NPB’s first 300 game winner Victor Starfin was born in Russia but grew up in Japan after his family fled the Russian Revolution), something I’ll comment on below.


1.  Alex Ramirez 2,017

2. In-cheon Paek 1,831

3. Tuffy Rhodes 1,792

4. Leron Lee 1,579

5.  Leon Lee 1,436

6.  Bobby Marcano 1,418

7.  Boomer Wells 1,413

8.  Alex Cabrera 1,368

9.  Wally Yonamine 1,337

10.  Jose Fernandez 1,286

11.  Bobby Rose 1,275

12.  John Sipin 1,124

13.  Roberto Barbon 1,123

14.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 1,089.

15.  Matt Murton.

Before I wrote the original piece last year, I’d never heard of Bobby Marcano, John Sipin or Roberto Barbon (or if I have I’ve long since forgotten).  Marcano hit .317 with an .857 OPS in the AAA Pacific Coast League at the age of 23, but elected to sign with an NPB team the next season.  I don’t know anything about his story, but it was apparently a good move, as he had a very successful 11 career in Japan playing mostly 2B.

John Sipin got into 68 games for the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969.  A couple of big years in the Pacific Coast League at ages 23 and 24, and off he went to Japan for a nine year NPB career.  He also mostly played 2B.  Both Marcano and Sipin played most of their NPB careers in the 1970’s.

Roberto Barbon was a light-hitting (.241 career NPB batting average) middle infielder from Cuba who played 11 seasons in Japan starting in 1955 at the age of 22.  His defense was probably very good for him to last so long, and his 308 career NPB stolen bases is the record for Gaijin players.  Here is a NY Times article about Barbon, who still lives in Japan and is involved in baseball.


1.  Tuffy Rhodes 464

2. Alex Ramirez 380

3. Alex Cabrera 357

4.  Leron Lee 283

5.  Boomer Wells 277

5.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 277

7.  Leon Lee 268

8.  Ralph Bryant 259

NPB teams pay their relatively high-priced foreign position players to hit home runs, so it isn’t particularly surprising that eight foreign players have topped 250 career home runs in NPB.  Ralph Bryant hit a lot of home runs and also set strike out records, striking out 204 times in 127 games played in 1993, in his eight year NPB career.


1.  Alex Ramirez 1,272

2.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,269

3.  Alex Cabrera 949

4. Leron Lee 912

5.  Boomer Wells 901

6.  Leon Lee 884

7.  Bobby Marcano 817

8.  Bobby Rose 808


1.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,100

2.  Alex Ramirez 866

3. In-cheon Paek 801

4.  Leron Lee 786

5.  Alex Cabrera 754

NPB teams pay foreign hitters to drive in runs rather than score them, which is why the RBI totals are so much more impressive than the runs scored totals.

One thing my original research in compiling these lists pointed out is just how much of a fungible commodity NPB teams apparently consider foreign players to be.  A total of fewer than 20 players made any of my five lists.  There are easily more than four times this many foreign players who were great in NPB from between three to seven seasons who didn’t stick around long enough to make my lists.

Since most foreign players are at least 26 to 28 years old in their first NPB season and often quite a bit older, a lot of them simply didn’t have much left by the time they reached their mid-30’s.  However, it’s just as true that in a majority of cases it only took one bad year, even after many good ones, for a foreign player to be sent packing.

Given the fact that NPB teams have become exceptionally good at picking out the most promising foreign players available (usually what we call 4-A players: guys who hit like major leaguers in AAA but have become too old to contend for major league starting jobs), but that even among these players only about half succeed quickly, long and consistently enough to stick around more than a year or two in NPB, its something of a shock how quickly NPB teams give up on foreign players with a proven track record.  This is so much the case that I’m always shocked on those rare occasions when a foreign hitter sticks around as long as three NPB seasons if he’s never had a single season OPS higher than about .815.

In fact, some of the best available foreign players are probably never considered by NPB teams, since their value is in their gloves rather than their bats.  In NPB, all the glove-tree guys are Japanese.

The best Gaijin hitter in NPB history has to be Tuffy Rhodes.  While he wasn’t a .300 hitter, his power and his ability to draw walks account for his exceptional RBI and Runs Scored totals.

Foreign hitters who should eventually join Wally Yonamine in the NPB Hall of Fame are Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Leron Lee.  Whether they will is another matter.  Apparently it takes a longer period of retirement before former players become eligible, and NPB’s Hall of Fame seems relatively more exclusive than MLB’s Hall of Fame, at least in terms of players.  The NPB Hall is particularly heavily stacked with non-players — for example, Lefty O’Doul is in Japan’s Hall of Fame for his goodwill tours to Japan in the 1930’s which increased the game’s popularity there, even though he isn’t in the MLB Hall of Fame despite an accomplished lifetime in the U.S. professional game.

The fact that Leron Lee isn’t in the Japanese Hall of Fame 28 years after his retirement, despite being the NPB’s all-time batting average leader raises some unpleasant questions.  It’s interesting that Hideo Nomo is in the Japanese Hall of Fame, almost entirely because of his break-through success in MLB (he won only 78 games in five NPB seasons before coming to the U.S.), but Leron Lee is not.  Nomo was certainly a better baseball player, but Lee accomplished far more in NPB than Nomo did.

Time to Play the Youngsters

Posted September 30, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Los Angeles Dodgers, National League, San Francisco Giants

Now that Clayton Kershaw has disabused the Giants of any further dreams of an historic comeback, it’s time to play all the youngsters, so we can find out who might actually be able to help the team in 2016.  At this point there is no good reason why Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson and Trevor Brown should not be starting  every single day (or in the case of catcher Brown, at least four of the remaining five games).

Kelby Tomlinson, of course, will continue to play in all the remaining games barring injury, because the Gints don’t have anyone else healthy.  At this point, it looks all but certain that Tomlinson has earned a back-up job with the 2016 Giants anyway.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jarrett Parker.  The power and raw talent are undeniable, but so his strikeout rate.  Parker is batting .667 (12 for 18) when not striking out, and no one can keep that up.  Parker has always struck out a tremendous amount, and you have to think that it’s just a matter of time before the National League’s pitchers all figure out the holes in his swing.

The last five games are a chance to get him some more MLB at-bats and perhaps add some clarity on his making the team as a fourth outfielder out of Spring Training next year.  However, his Spring Training performance will have more to say about that.

Mac Williamson needs all the major league at-bats he can get.  Trevor Brown’s performance has been eye-opening, although I definitely think both he and Williamson need to start next year at AAA Sacramento so they can play every day and continue to develop as hitters.

As for the Giants September call-up pitchers, none has looked particularly impressive and all will need an exceptional 2016 Spring Training to avoid being sent back to AAA.  It would be nice to see Clayton Blackburn get a start, but since the Giants did not promote him in spite of his fine season at Sacramento, where he led the Pacific Coast League in ERA and finished 10th in strikeouts, it looks like the Giants have decided to shut him down for the year.

No rush — he’s still only 22.  However, I hope the team gives Blackburn a chance to make the team out of Spring Training next year.

NL Is Still the Fastball League

Posted September 19, 2015 by Burly
Categories: American League, National League, New York Mets

Some years ago, I read or heard that National League pitchers threw more fast balls than American League pitchers.  I believed it at the time, but today I wondered if it was still true.

In 2015, at least, it is.  With the season almost over, of the eight teams that have thrown fastballs 60 or more percent of the time, the Orioles are the only Junior Circuit team, while of the 13 teams to have thrown less than 57% fastballs, only three are in the Senior Circuit.

This helps to explain why some players have a big jump (or slump) in performance when they switch leagues, including perhaps Yoenis Cespedes.  Fastball hitters (and pitchers) should do better in the NL, while hitters who are particularly good at hitting off-speed stuff, hanging or otherwise, should do better in the AL.  Since Cespedes is such an especially toolsy player, I would expect him to be a fastball hitter.

Team Chemistry

Posted September 16, 2015 by Burly
Categories: San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals

Before the San Francisco Giants started winning World Series rings in 2010, I was long suspicious of the importance of team chemistry.  My feeling was that performance by the players on the field had more to do with winning than how well the players got along together in the locker room.  Players didn’t have to be friends, so long as they weren’t actively at each other’s throats — in other words, team chemistry is mainly an issue when it was so bad that it interfered with the players’ ability to perform on the field.

The success of the 2010 through 2014 Giants has me re-thinking my position on this issue.  The organization and the Giants players very clearly believe that chemistry is important to their recent success.  In fact, on paper the 2010-2014 Giants don’t look any better than the 1997-2004 Giants.  The recent Giants had more pitching, but the Barry Bonds/Jeff Kent Giants had more hitting.

What teams do in the post-season is something of a matter of luck, because anything can happen in a short series.  Even so, after three World Series championships in five seasons, its hard to argue that the current Giants aren’t the better the better team because of their greater post-season success.

Today I read a piece written by Giants third-sacker Matt Duffy, in which Duffy writes about how welcoming and helpful the team’s players were when he first came up last season.  Duffy suggests that this “San Francisco Giants’ way” has been one of the reasons that young players brought up by the Giants have been so successful so quickly upon reaching the major leagues in recent years.

If the players think that clubhouse chemistry is part of the reason for their success, you have to give that a certain amount of credence.  Players will develop better in an atmosphere that inspires self-confidence, preparation and professionalism.  Needless to say, drafting and trading for talent is just as important.  However, it’s no secret that some teams are better at developing young talent than others and finding diamonds in the rough like Matt Duffy.  Right now the Giants and the Cardinals seem to be doing it about as well as anyone.

Go East, (Not So) Young Man! Part 2: the Pitchers

Posted September 11, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Minor Leagues, Oakland A's

Here are some of the minor league pitchers I think mostly likely to be pitching in Asia next season:

Michael Bowden.  Bowden turned 29 two days ago and was one of the best pitchers in the International League this year, finishing 3rd in wins (11), 3rd in ERA (2.63) and 10th in strikeouts (99).  However, the Twins haven’t given him a September call-up, which suggests he isn’t in the team’s future plans.  Bowden has pitched in over 100 MLB games, most notably with the Cubs in 2012-2013.  His age and track record would be popular with Asian teams.

Dan Straily.  Straily will be 27 next season, and he had MLB success in Oakland in 2013, so he may not be ready to give up his major league dreams.  However, his MLB career has gone south in a big way the last two years, and he may be willing to go to Japan if the offer is right.  While his 4.77 ERA for Fresno in the Pacific Coast League wasn’t in the top ten, he led the 16-team circuit with 124 K in only 122.2 IP.   He certainly looks like he has the stuff to be successful in NPB, if he decides to give it a whirl.

Toru Murata.  Murata will be 31 in 2016.  He’s a Japanese pitcher who has never pitched in NPB’s Ichi-gun, i.e., major league.  He was a first round draft pick by the Yomiuri Giants out of college but they released him after three minor league seasons  The Tribe signed him in 2010 after he pitched in the Arizona Fall League in 2009.   He made one unimpressive start for the Indians in June, but he pitched well at AAA Columbus, going 15-4 with a 2.90 ERA (6th best in IL)  His strikeout rate was not impressive, but he may have pitched well enough to get another shot at NPB if he wants it.

Chris Smith.  A smallish right-hander who pitched in 50 major league games before pitching his way out of the MLB system in 2011, he worked his way back through the Independent-A leagues and had a strong season for El Paso in the PCL this year.  His 3.60 ERA was 5th best in the league and his 121 Ks was 2nd best.   The question is whether an Asian team would be willing to give him a shot in light of the fact that he turns 35 next April.

Go East, (Not So) Young Man!

Posted September 11, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Arizona Diamond Backs, Baseball Abroad, Minor Leagues, Oakland A's, Toronto Blue Jays

Here are several minor league hitters I reasonably expect will be playing in Asia next season.

Matt Hague.  Hague was the top hitter in the AAA International League this year, at least among players with enough plate appearances to qualify.  He led the IL with a .338 batting average and an .885 OPS.  It was an extremely poor year for offense in the International League in 2015, with Hague the only qualifier to post an OPS over .850 and only three other qualifiers finishing over .800.

Hague turned 30 in late August, and while he received a September call-up from the Blue Jays to reward him for his fine minor league performance, his MLB future looks doubtful.  He’s a 1Bman and emergency 3B with not enough power to be a major league player.  He presently has a career major league OPS of .527 in 78 plate appearances, which is just enough to gain him serious consideration by a Japanese NPB or South Korean KBO team.

In fact, I think Hague is an ideal NPB prospect in that players like him who can hit for average and have alley power often succeed in NPB, where the caliber of pitching is relatively high, thus favoring players who can hit and don’t strike out too much, and where the smaller ballparks can boost power production for these players significantly.

Jamie Romak.  Romak turns 30 at the end of this month, and like Hague, he received a September call-up from the Diamondbacks for his strong performance this year at Reno in the Pacific Coast League, where his .912 OPS was fifth best among qualifiers.  Romak isn’t as good a pure hitter as Hague, but he has more power, and he has more defensive value.

Romak played mostly 3B at Reno this year, and his raw defensive numbers look good enough for him to be a league-average 3Bman in NPB.  Romak also played games at 2B, 1B and the corner outfield positions, meaning he’s a potentially a useful bench player, and this could keep him in MLB.  Given his age and the fact that his major league career to date constitutes only 34 plate appearances, however, his brightest future, at least financially, is probably in Asia.

Jason Pridie.  Pridie turns 32 in October, and also received a September call-up from the A’s for posting the 6th best OPS (.894) in the PCL at Nashville.  Pridie still runs well enough to play center field, at least in a pinch, although he played mostly the corner outfield positions at AAA this year.

Pridie has more MLB experience than Hague or Romak (273 MLB plate appearances).  He hasn’t played too badly as a major league back-up outfielder, so it’s possible he could hang around as a sometime major league bench player, particularly because he runs well.  However, at age 32, this would definitely be the time to see if he can become an NPB or KBO star if he’s open to the idea.


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