After having followed Japan’s NPB closely for many years, I feel like setting down some not very analytical thoughts generated mainly by personal observation. First and foremost, I’d bet dollars to donuts that the vast majority of North American and Caribbean players to have long and successful careers in Japan started their NPB careers in their age 27 or 28 year old seasons, which is awfully old when you consider that baseball players as a group peak at about age 27.
The reasons for this are several. First, almost all players born in the Americas dream of MLB success, not going and playing in Japan for a living. Age 27 or 28 is the age at which the most talented players who haven’t yet established themselves as regular MLB players realize their chances of future MLB success are extremely slim, since everyone in MLB more or less knows that very few MLB regulars become regulars (and hold that status for a more than a season or two) after their age 26 seasons. It does happen, but not very often at all.
Particularly for players that are relatively late bloomers, many have seasons at age 26 or 27 at AAA in which they are clearly playing at a major league level, but they quickly learn the next spring that the MLB team that controls their rights really doesn’t see them as an option even if the player’s position is open at the major league level.
Second, NPB teams demand immediate production from relatively highly paid foreign players, and the level of play in NPB is high enough and different enough from MLB that it takes a veteran player at the top of his game to produce at a high level right from the get-go.
The relative short-sightedness of NPB teams with respect to foreign players is two-fold. The poor NPB teams, which is most of them, know that even if they sign a foreign player who turns out to be a real gem, they’ll typically be able to hold on to that player for only about two seasons before he moves on a to bigger salary with one of NPB three or four wealthy teams. You want immediate production from any player who’s only going to be around a couple of seasons even if he turns out to be a real star. If you are going to develop young players, almost all of them will be Japanese, since they are much cheaper to start with and can be controlled for at least eight major league seasons.
Meanwhile, the three richest teams, the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and SoftBank Hawks, fully expect to make the post-season every year, so they also want players who are going to help them do so immediately. These teams are almost never in a rebuilding mode, so they sure aren’t going to keep any foreign player around who has a mediocre season.
Sometimes, the NPB’s insistence on immediate performance is almost mystifying. Last year at age 26, Matt Clark his 25 HRs in only 467 plate appearances for the Chunichi Dragons, but they didn’t bring him back in 2014 because he hit only .238 in his NPB rookie season. At his age, Clark almost certainly would have gotten better with more experience, but he wasn’t good enough fast enough, and he was back in AAA this year.
In fact, the only North American player I can remember having an impact season in Japan before the age of 26 was Cecil Fielder all the way back in 1989. Fielder was a complete fluke, though, a guy who hit 31 home runs in 558 MLB plate appearances through his age 24 season, but somehow had been allowed to slip off to Japan by the Blue Jays because he’d had a couple of inopportune slumps and the Jays simply hadn’t given him enough opportunities. There may have been other 25 or younger North American players to have big seasons in NPB since then, but none spring to mind.
When you add in the fact that what NPB teams want first and foremost from their foreign position players is power (there are plenty of Japanese players that can hit for average, but precious few with real home run power), which means that the foreign players tend to be big boys, the result is that they tend to have an extremely difficult time staying healthy. Even starting their NPB careers at age 2y or 28, they usually don’t peak until their third season in NPB, which means they’re already about 30 years old. Burly sluggers over age 30 have a hard time staying healthy just about anywhere.
I often think that are any number of foreign sluggers who could hit 40 or 50 home runs in NPB every year if they could just stay healthy. Wladimir Balentien, Tony Blanco, Craig Brazell and this year Brad Eldred are all good examples of what I’m talking about. The only current Japanese-born NPB player who’s at all comparable is Takaya Nakamura.
Among foreign born pitchers, the ones who seem to have the most success are those who had major league stuff but lacked major league command when they last played in the MLB system. Most of these guys are also older, because it took MLB organizations a long time to give up on their great stuff. Once they get to NPB, they can take advantage of a slightly lower caliber of hitter and a wider strike zone, which means more of their pitches get called strikes and they can challenge hitters more often. Even so, except for Colby Lewis, few of these pitchers have been able to turn exceptional NPB success into later MLB success when they returned to the states.