Slugging It Out in Japan – A Listing of NPB’s All-Time Top Gaijin Hitters
As long as I’ve been following Japanese baseball, which is about the last 25 years, I’ve wondered who were the top players from the Americas (and elsewhere) to play in Japan’s NPB. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to find lists of the career leaders in the major categories, so I thought it would be a good idea to make such a list myself. Today I will focus on the major offensive categories.
BATTING AVERAGE (4,000 ABs)
1. Leron Lee .320
2. Boomer Wells .317
3. Wally Yomamine .311
4. Leon Lee .308
5. Alex Cabrera .303
6. Alex Ramirez .301
BATTING AVERAGE (3,000 ABs)
1. Bobby Rose .325
2. 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.
[Based on the comments below and a little more internet research, I added In-cheon Paek (whose real name is Baek In-cheon in Korea, because there are no B’s in Japanese), who my best information suggests should be considered a “foreigner” for NPB purposes, because he probably grew up in Korea and not Japan. I’m not perfect and my lists certainly aren’t, so if I’ve missed someone, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. We strive for accurate obscure lists here at Burly’s Baseball Musings …]
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.
[See comments below for Ta-Feng Chen.]
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 seven 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 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 only 14 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 27 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.