Update on North American Players in Japan, Part X: “T” through “Z”

Ryan Vogelsong, Orix Buffaloes.  Giants and Pirates fans will remember Vogelsong, a right-handed pitcher who’s 31 this year.

Vogelsong has more major league experience than most pitchers who go to Japan, but he didn’t have much success at the highest level in the States, finishing with a career major league 5.86 ERA in 315 IP.  The Pirates gave him many opportunities to establish himself as a major league pitcher, but Vogelsong didn’t get it done.

Vogelsong was signed by the Hanshin Tigers, and he gave them one and half solid seasons as a starter before hurting his arm last year.  In ’07, he went 7-6 with a 4.13 ERA with 91 Ks and 41 BBs in 106.2 IP.

In ’08, he was 3-4 with a 3.99 ERA before injuries ended his season.

Vogelsong signed with the Orix Buffaloes for 2009 at a roughly $300,000 pay cut, down to a little over $500,000 for the season.  However, it has not been a good sign for the Buffaloes.

Vogelsong has made 17 appearances for the Buffaloes and has compiled a 0-3 record with an ugly 6.84 ERA in 25 IP.  His other numbers really aren’t bad: 31 hits allowed, 2 HRs, 10 BBs and 33 Ks.  He must be allowing the hits in bunches.

Vogelsong has been sent down to the Buffaloes’ minor league team for “readjustment”, as they say in Japan when they send someone down.  He’s 4-3 for the minor league team with a mediocre 4.50 ERA.  Unless he suddenly puts it together, this will be his last year in Japan.

Les Walrond, Yokohama Bay Stars.  Les Walrond is a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, who’s 32 years old this year.  He started in the Cardinals’ system and got major league cups of coffee from the Royals in 2003, the Cubs in 2006 and the Phillies in 2008.

Walrond has good stuff, with 1.026 strikouts in 1202.1 minor league innings pitched, but he doesn’t have major league control.  His career major league ERA is 7.07 in 35.2 IP with 28 walks and 39 K’s.

Walrond is the kind of American pitcher Japanese teams have had some success with, as their good stuff is hard for Japanese hitters to hit and the strike zone is larger in Japan.

Walrond has been a good pick-up for the Yokohama Bay Stars.  Although he is only 5-7 with a 3.86 ERA, that’s not bad for on a team that’s currently 30-54 and in last place.  Walrond has been the Bay Stars second best starter, after Daisuke Miura who’s 7-6 with a 3.65 ERA.

Walrond also has 71 K’s, which is currently tied for 8th in the Central League.  He’s still pretty wild, and he’s already 32, so it’s no certainty that he’ll have a long career in Japan.

John Wasdin, Saitama Seibu Lions.  MLB fans will remember John Wasdin.  He had a long MLB career, pitching for the A’s, Red Sox, Colorado, Orioles, Blue Jays, Rangers and Pirates.  He bounced around a lot, because he never lived up to his promise.

Wasdin’s best year in America was probably 1999, when he went 8-3 for the Red Sox with a 4.12 ERA as a reliever.  He also recorded four saves for the 2005 Rangers.  Wasdin finished his MLB career with a 39-39 record and a 5.28 ERA in 793.1 IP over 328 appearances.

Wasdin is 36 this year, and usually Japanese teams have more sense than to sign an American pitcher of this advanced age and marginal talent level.  However, Wasdin had pitched briefly for the Yomiuir Giants in 2002; and, obviously, the Lions thought he might have something left.

It doesn’t appear that he does.  Wasdin was demoted to the Lions’ minor league team after starting the season with a 5.48 ERA after twelve starts.  Wasdin has pitched well at the minor league level, however.  He’s only 1-3 after six starts, but has an excellent 2.65 ERA.

Jeff Williams, Hanshin Tigers.  Jeff Williams is a 37 year old AUSTRALIAN (an Aussie wrote in and took me to task for identifying pitcher Adrian Burnside as a “North American” for purposes of this series, even though Burnside spent twelve years pitching professionally in the U.S., so I don’t want to make that mistake again), who played college ball at Southeastern Louisiana University (I wonder how he ended up there?) and spent six years in the Dodgers’ farm system.

Williams was undrafted and didn’t begin playing for the Dodgers organization until the year he turned 25, so I assume he was older than normal when he left college and that he pitched in one of the Independent A leagues before being signed by the Dodgers.

The Dodgers gave Williams cups of coffee every year from 1999 through 2002, but except for the first one in 1999, he never pitched well at the major league level.  His major league career ERA of 7.49 in 57.2 IP pretty much says it all.

In 2002 Williams had a fantastic season at AAA Las Vegas, finishing the year with a 6-4 record, a 2.60 ERA and 28 saves.  He also recorded 75 Ks and only 22 walks in 79.2 IP.  He was probably ready to be a major league pitcher at this point, but he was already 30 years old and pitched poorly in his last, late-season cup of coffee in Los Angeles.

The Hanshin Tigers signed Williams for 2003, and he quickly won the closer role.  He recorded 25 saves for the Tigers in ’03 to go with a miniscule 1.54 ERA and better than 4-to-1 Ks-to-BBs ratio.

In 2004 Williams’ ERA jumped to 3.28, and although he saved 14 games that year, he appears to have lost the closer role and never won it back.  A lot of that has to do with the rise of flame-throwing Kyuji Fujikawa in 2005.  From 2005 through 2008, Fujikawa posted ERAs of 1.36, 0.68, 1.63 and 0.67 with a Ks per nine innings over the four seasons of 13.0 and a Ks-to-BBs ratio of better than 6-to-1.  Wow!  Those numbers put even Joe Nathan to shame.

Williams hasn’t been quite that good, but he’d probably close for a majority of the other teams in Japan.  From 2005 through 2007, Williams posted ERAs of 2.11, 1.90 and 0.96 with a Ks per nine innings rate of 9.7 and a Ks-to-BBs ratio of roughly 3.75-to-1.

Williams’ ERA jumped to 3.09 in 2008, but his ratios were still great, and he went 5-4 with 5 saves, his highest saves total since 2004.

So far this year, Williams clearly seems to have lost something.  His ERA is a respectable 3.58 at the Japanese All-Star break (the Japanese All-Star Series is being played as I write this), but he has allowed 20 walks, more than in any of the past three seasons, in only 27.1 IP.  He’s notched 35 Ks to go with all the walks, so the walk total may be a fluke.  However, for a guy with consistently great control for years and years to suddenly give up walks at a rate of more than 6.5 per nine innings hints that he’s nearing the end of his career.  It’s been a good one, in Japan at least.

The Hanshin Tigers are the wealthiest team in Japan after the Yomiuri Giants, and they have paid amply to have the best two-man reliever combination in Japanese baseball.  Williams is being paid 230 million yen for the third year in a row in ’09, which at current exchange rates means he’s making about $2.4 million this year.

This is an astronomical sum for a Japanese team to spend on a set-up man, even one as good as Williams.  By way of comparison, Fujikawa made 170 million yen in ’07, 280 million yen in ’08, and a whopping 400 million yen this year.

By way of further comparison, veteran position stars Michichiro Ogasawara (.318 career batting average, 329 HRs) and Kazuhiro Wada (.314 batting average, 213 HRs) are being paid, respectively, 380 million yen by the Yomiuri Giants and 280 million yen by the Chunichi Dragons this year.  If an American team, say the Mets, were willing to give their top relievers similar salaries to what the Hanshin Tigers have given Fujikawa and Williams, in terms of current MLB salary scales, K-Rod would be earning about $20 million a year and J. J. Putz about $12M a year, roughly double what they’re actually making this year.

Ryan Wing, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.  Ryan Wing is a 27 year old left handed pitcher, who pitched in the White Sox, Rangers and A’s minor league systems.  He had a fine year last year at AAA Sacramento, the A’s top farm team, where he had a 2.33 ERA in 47 relief appearances.

Wing had a major arm injury in late 2005, and after signing with the Ham Fighters for 2009, he hurt his left shoulder.  He has yet to pitch a game in Japan at either the major league or minor league level, and the most recent reports indicate that he will have shoulder surgery in the near future.  His Japanese career may be over before it begins.

Jonah Bayliss, Saitama Seibu Lions. The Lions obtained Bayliss on July 23 from the Toronto Blue Jays AAA team.  Bayliss is a 28 year old right-handed pitcher, who pitched briefly for the Royals and Pirates in 2005 through 2007.

Bayliss’ one extended major league opportunity came with the Pirates in 2007, and it was ugly.  He appeared in 37 games, and posted a brutal 8.39 ERA coming from 51 hits and eight HRs allowed in 37.2 IP.  His strikeout and walks numbers weren’t bad, but who cares when you get hit like that?

This year, Jonah was 7-2 with a 3.96 ERA and 5 saves for Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.  He allowed 39 hits, 24 walks and recorded 48 Ks in 50 IP.  He looks like a good player at this moment in his career for the Lions to take a chance on.

I think I have now covered every “American” player to play in Japan this year.  If I’ve missed anyone, let me know.

As you can see, most of the American players who have gone to Japan and had success there have been just a hair below MLB-calibre regulars, developed at too old an age to be taken seriously in the U.S., had an injury or two at the wrong time, or got off to bad starts on their major league trials and so didn’t get into enough games to show what they could really do.

As you can see, there is a natural relationship between NPB and MLB in terms of the kinds of players who go back and forth.  The very best Japanese players can make far more money in the U.S. than in Japan, so there’s a strong incentive, aside from the higher level of talent and the bigger stage, for the Icharo’s and Godzillas and Dice-K’s to come to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the 4-A minor leaguers, who are really too good to be stuck in the minors, but too old to get a shot for a major league team, can make a lot more money playing in Japan than in the Pacific Coast League or the International League or in any league outside the U.S.  The Japanese teams seem to be getting better and better at identifying the best of these 4-A players to bring over at large salaries by NPB standards.

Certainly, the Japanese teams are bringing in fewer over-the-hill MLB stars than they once did.  Like MLB teams, the Japanese teams are looking for stars who will last a few seasons.

Of course, like establishing one’s self as an MLB player, for most of the 4-A players going to Japan, it’s still something of a crap shoot as to which ones will develop into stars and which ones will be sent unceremonially packing.  Even more so than in the U.S. major leagues (and they are not bastians of patience either), American players in Japan have to adapt quickly or be lucky enough to get off to good starts, or their Japanese careers are over.

I hope you have enjoyed this series.  At the end of the season, I’ll provide briefer summaries of how all these luminaries finished out their Japanese league seasons.

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