The Best Foreign Pitchers in the History of Japan’s NPB

A few days ago, I wrote a post on the best foreign hitters, in terms of career stats, in the history of Japan’s NPB.  Today, it’s the follow-up piece on the pitchers, listed by career NPB wins, ERA (800 innings pitched minimum), Strike Outs and Saves.


1.  Taigen Kaku (Tai-yuan Kuo) 117-68

2.  Gene Bacque 100-80

2. Joe Stanka 100-72

4. Nate Minchey 74-70

5. Jeremy Powell 69-65

6. Seth Greisinger 64-42

7. D. J. Houlton 63-39

8. Kip Gross 55-49

9. Jason Standridge 53-47

10. Randy Messenger 52-42

Until the late 1990’s, when the number of foreign players allowed on each NPB team was increased from two to four in the space of a couple of seasons, there were very few foreign pitchers in NPB, successful or otherwise.  NPB teams wanted their foreign players to be power hitters, something Japan didn’t produce enough of.  NPB always had the attitude that it could produce its own pitchers, and in point of fact very few of the already few foreign pitchers had much success in Japan before about 1995.

The exceptions were Gene Bacque and Joe Stanka, two Americans whose Japanese careers roughly overlapped in the early and mid-1960’s.  Stanka was a marginal major leaguer of the type typical among players from the Americas who try to make a go of it in NPB.  He pitched in two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1959 at the age of 27, and apparently realized he had little chance of future major league success, and somehow got a job with the Nankai Hawks (now the Softbank Hawks) in 1960.

Gene Bacque was a mediocre minor league pitcher who got cut by the Hawaii Islanders of the AAA Pacific Coast League after only two relief appearances early in the 1962 season.  What he had going for him was the fact that he was still only 24 years old and apparently the physical proximity to Japan when his minor league career ended.  Japanese Hall of Famer and Hanshin Tigers teammate Masaaki Koyama taught Bacque how to throw a slider, and he also improved his knuckleball and became a star.

Bacque and Stanka both had their best NPB seasons in 1964.  Bacque went 29-9 with a 1.88 ERA and 200 Ks in 353.1 innings pitched, while Stanka went 26-7 with a 2.40 ERA and 172 Ks in 277.2 IP.  Bacque was awarded the Eiji Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award, becoming the only foreign player ever to win that honor.

Bacque and Stanka faced off against each other in the sixth game of the Japan Series that season.  I have to assume that Stanka won the game, because the Hawks won the series in seven games and Stanka was named the Series MVP.

Randy Messenger, who is currently the ace of the Hanshin Tigers, is a good bet to move up the all-time charts in a number of categories.  He is currently wrapping up the first year of a lucrative 3-year deal the Tigers gave him this past off-season (at least $10 million total which could climb to $15 million with performance bonuses, which is big money for a foreigner playing in NPB).  His 3.20 ERA is only 12th best in NPB this season, but he’s the leader in innings pitched (208.1) and strikeouts (226) as I write this.  He’s 32 this season, so he isn’t particularly old for a pitcher blowing his league’s hitters away.

ERA (800+ IP)

1.  Gene Bacque 2.34

2.  Joe Stanka 3.03

3.  Randy Messenger 3.07

4.  Jason Standridge 3.09

5. Seth Greisigner 3.16

6.  Taigen Kaku 3.16


1.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

2.  Joe Stanka 887

3.  Jeremy Powell 858

4.  Gene Bacque 825

5.  Randy Messenger 745


1.  Marc Kroon 177

2.  Chang-yong Lim 128

3.  Eddie Gaillard 120

4.  Rod Pedroza 117

5.  Micheal Nakamura* 104

6.  Dong-yeol Sun 98

Foreign relief pitchers have had quite a bit of success in Japan, going back to the late 1990’s.  Marc Kroon was an American with a high 90’s fastball, who didn’t throw enough strikes in the U.S. to have MLB success, but was dominating in NPB. Dong-yeol Sun, Chang-yong Lim and now Seung-hwan Oh (39 saves in his first season with the Hanshin Tigers this year at age 31) are products of South Korea’s KBO.  All three were or are probably good enough to be successful MLB pitchers, but ended up starring in NPB instead.

Finally, I don’t know how to categorize Micheal Nakamura, who is probably most accurately described as a citizen of the world.  He was born in Japan, most likely to a Japanese father and a Anglo-Australian mother.  He graduated from high school in Australia and attended college at the University of South Alabama.  Out of college, he pitched for years in the minor leagues before returning to Japan, so I’ll consider him a foreign player for NPB purposes.  That said, I don’t know how NPB treated him for purposes of the foreign player roster limits.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, Chicago White Sox

7 Comments on “The Best Foreign Pitchers in the History of Japan’s NPB”

  1. nbpcardguy Says:

    Stanka threw a complete game shutout against the Tigers in Game 6 of the 1964 Series, striking out eight with no walks and only giving up two hits.

    I believe that Michael Nakamura was treated as a Japanese player when he played in NPB. He was subject to the draft – the Fighters took him in the fourth round of the October, 2004 draft.

    • Burly Says:

      That would explain, at least in part, why Stanka was the Japan Series MVP that year. Thanks for your informative comment!

  2. Greisinger would be much higher in these categories had he not had so many health issues these past few years.

    Brian Falkenborg is another guy who deserves a mention – he’s a bit off the saves total at 64 but he’s had a pretty fine number of years in NPB.

    As of right now his career numbers in 261 games are 1.71 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 11.7 K/9. I’d say that’s pretty dominant.

    • Burly Says:

      Dennis Sarfate is an even better bet to top 100 NPB saves next year. He’s currently at 91 saves and he’s a couple of years younger than Falkenborg.

      • Yeah, Falkenborg hasn’t really been a full time closer until this year, though. That career WHIP is absurd, Safarte’s is quite a bit higher.

        I keep thinking of Safarte being a part of that atrocious Seibu pen from last year – only reason they made a late season run was Wakui killed it as closer the last month of the season.

  3. Burly Says:

    Sarfate reminds me a lot of Marc Kroon. Both are very hard throwers who didn’t quite have enough command to succeed in MLB. In NPB, however, they achieved enormous success as closers. We’ll see if Sarfate can eventually challenge Kroon’s record for most saves by a foreign reliever.

  4. Burly Says:

    I just discovered Taigen Kaku (Tai-yuan Kuo), who constitutes a rather glaring omission from the lists above. He was a great Taiwanese ace who won 117 games in NPB.

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