A New Day in Japan’s NPB
Wladimir Balentien set the all-time single season record for home runs in a season in Japan’s NPB by blasting his 56th and 57th HRs of the season for the Yakult Swallows earlier today. This is a big day not just for Balentien but also for NPB.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, NPB has a long history of not letting foreign players break Sadaharu Oh‘s old record of 55 HRs in a season. The fact that NPB has now allowed a foreign player to set a new record in one of it’s most hallowed categories is fantastic. Records are made to be broken, and no professional league should ever discourage any player from generating the excitement that comes with a successful record-chase. The record only has meaning if future players receive a full and fair opportunity to break it.
There has been some talk about the fact that a new livelier baseball in use this year in NPB made Balentien’s record possible. However, the new baseball merely restored the offensive levels that NPB enjoyed before 2011 when a deader baseball was introduced and offense plummeted to ridiculously low levels.
Moreover, Balentien is leagues ahead of NPB’s other top sluggers this year. So far, only Tony Blanco (37) and Shinnosuke Abe (31) have topped 30 dingers. Blanco is a former NPB league leader in HRs, and Abe is an NPB superstar who was far and away Japan’s top hitter in 2012.
Balentien should have become a major league star, and I think he eventually would have, at least for a couple of seasons, if he had not elected to go to Japan at the still young age of 26 in 2011. Any doubts about his talent should be dispelled by this link of him hitting an adam’s-apple-high fastball off top Japanese ace Kenta Maeda for his 54th HR of the season. He also hit a 495 foot HR for the Reds at the end of the 2009 season. (Thanks to Jerry Crasnick’s article for the links to Balentien’s homers off Maeda and in 2009.)
Balentien will be an 29 next season (he turns 30 on July 2, 2014), so there’s at least a possibility that he could sign a two or three year deal with an MLB team this off-season and return to the U.S. Another possibility is that Wladimir will jump to the Yomiuri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers or the Softbank Hawks next year, since they are the only NPB teams that can afford to pay him a salary commensurate with the season he’s now wrapping up.