John Bowker Slugging It Out in Japan

Former San Francisco Giant John Bowker has just re-signed with the Yomiuri Giants of NPB’s Central League for the 2013 season for 30 million yen, which comes to about $360,000 in the U.S.

Bowker is a player I have long thought should give Japan a shot, and he finally did so in 2012.  However, he had one incredible roller coaster ride of a season, which deserves some elaboration here.

Bowker started the 2012 season as Yomiuri’s starting left-fielder, but he got off to terrible 1 for 27 start in his first seven games.  With the introduction of new baseballs two years ago, NPB has become an extremely difficult place to hit, and generally speaking foreign players don’t get long to prove they can perform there.

However, Bowker must have received a guaranteed contract from the Yomiuri Giants, because they gave him half a season to straighten things out, and when he didn’t, they sent him down to their farm club in Japan’s Eastern League (NPB teams have only a single minor league franchise in which to develop talent — I’d speculate that the level of play in the two Japanese minor leagues is roughly equivalent to AA ball in the U.S.).

In 43 games in the Japanese minors, Bowker played well, batting .295 and posting an .816 OPS, the latter number better than any Eastern League qualifier (there were 23 in the seven team league) except Yusuke Kosai, a Japanese minor league veteran who’s a couple of month older than Bowker.

Bowker was called back up by Yomiuri late in the year, but still finished with a .196 regular season batting average and a .575 OPS.  However, despite Bowker’s piss-poor performance, Yomiuri finished with the best record in NPB’s Central League; and the post-season gave Bowker a chance to redeem his 2012 season.

In the second round of the Climax Series between the Giants and second place finisher/first round winner Chunichi Dragons, the Giants came back from losing the first three games of the series to win the last three games and take the series 4-3 (as the first place team, Yomiuri started the series up 1-0).  Bowker didn’t play until the third game of the Climax Series, but he got hot at the right time, going 5-for-10 and establishing himself as Yomiuri’s starting 1Bman for the Japan Series against the Pacific League champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Bowker went only 3-for-17 in the Japan Series, but two of his hits were home runs, and he drove in seven runs in the series.  His three-run homer in the fourth inning of Game 1 broke the game open, and his second home run in Game 5 staked the Giants to an early 2-0 lead.  Yomiuri went on to win both games and the Japan Series in six games.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  After what could only be considered by Yomiuri to be a very disappointing season, Bowker’s exceptional performance in the last ten games of the post-season and particularly his two timely home runs in the Japan Series convinced the Giants he deserved the opportunity to return to Japan in 2013.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here.  North American players should insist on contracts that guarantee their full first season salary when they sign with a Japanese team, and they should be willing to play in Japan’s minor leagues if they get off to a slow start in NPB.

Most of the North American 4-A players signed by NPB teams have the talent to play NPB’s level of baseball, but they need time to adjust to a different game and living in a different culture.  Those who don’t make the adjustment quickly or who simply get off to a slow start often find themselves released before they’ve had a full and fair opportunity to show what they can do.

Japanese teams are shooting themselves in the foot when they don’t give the foreign players they recruit sufficient time to acclimate to the Japanese game.  In the greater scheme of things, the $360,000 they will pay Bowker in 2013 is peanuts given the revenue streams the Yomiuri Giants enjoy (despite playing a shorter schedule, the Giants drew more fans than at least 20 of the major league clubs over the last three seasons, and their television revenues are at least that good).  On the other hand, Bowker would be lucky to receive half that amount if he returned to AAA ball in 2013, even if he received a September cup of coffee in the Show.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, San Francisco Giants

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