Archive for October 2015

Current KBO Players Most likely to Join MLB in 2016

October 15, 2015

The only two players currently playing in South Korea’s KBO who I think have a reasonable shot at playing in MLB in 2016 are Eric Thames and Byung-ho Park.  They completely dominated KBO’s batting statistics this past season, both have proven records of performance, and both are still relatively young.

Eric Thames, who will be 29 in 2016, has already enjoyed some MLB success, batting a combined .250 with .727 OPS in more than 500 MLB at-bats in 2011 and 2012.  After a strong rookie year for the Blue Jays in 2011 at age 24, he slumped in 2012 and had an injury plagued minor league season in 2013.

Moving to KBO in 2014, he was an immediate success.  He was even better in 2015.  His slash line, .381/.497/.790 led KBO in all three categories.  He hit 47 HRs and stolen 40 bases in 48 attempts, becoming KBO’s first 40-40 player.

Byung-ho Park, who will also be 29 in 2016, hit 53 HRs in 2015, becoming the first KBO player to hit 50 or more in consecutive seasons, and he led the KBO in HRs for the fourth straight seasons.  His 146 RBIs set a single season KBO record.  His slash line, .343/.438/.714, were 5th/5th/2nd best in the league.

The only real concern about Thames and Park as MLB players is just how wildly their numbers are inflated by playing in KBO.  KBO is an extreme hitters’ league right now, and predicting how much Thames’ and Park’s performance would drop in MLB is hard to gage.

The pitcher with a shot moving up to MLB in 2016 is Hyeon-jung Yang.  His 2.44 ERA led the KBO by a lot — no other qualifier had an ERA lower than 3.13.

However, I’m not sold on Yang.  MLB passed on him when he was posted a year ago, so he’s now a year older (he’ll be 28 in 2016).  More importantly, his other numbers really don’t look significantly different from 2015 when he posted a 4.25 ERA.  He’s a good pitcher, but his K/BB ratios don’t suggest he’s capable of making the jump to MLB.

However, I could see any of Yang, Kwang-hyun Kim, Eric Hacker, Andy Van Hekken or Josh Lindblom moving on to Japan’s NPB next year.  For that matter, the odds are at least as good for either Thames or Park playing in NPB next year as they are for MLB.

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2015 KBO Attendance Unimpressive

October 11, 2015

According to mykbo.net, as of September 27, 2015, South Korea’s KBO topped seven million in total attendance for the second time in league history.  However, while that sounds great, because KBO added a 10th team in 2015 (the KT Wiz), average attendance through the season’s first 690 games was only 10,158, the lowest since 2007.  With only 30 more regular season games to play as of September 27th, it’s doubtful the final per game average attendance changed much by season’s end.

KBO’s failure to improve attendance in recent seasons is a cause for concern, since the league has added two new teams in the last few years, and salaries for the most talented veterans are escalating rapidly.  Two years ago, the league raised the roster limits on foreign players from two to three, and foreign players are relatively highly paid, although none are paid as well as the very best South Korean players who have reached their KBO free agency.

Like Japan’s NPB, KBO teams are owned by large corporations that see the teams as advertising and public relations vehicles.  However, with ten teams in a country of 49 million, compared to 12 NPB teams in a country of 127 million, KBO is never going to have the same kind of TV and advertising revenues that NPB teams enjoy.  Thus, if KBO wants to stop NPB from poaching its best players and put on a world class baseball product, it needs to improve its attendance figures dramatically.

Based on this year’s NPB attendance figures, NPB could, if it wanted to, increase the number of relatively expensive foreign players on its rosters from four to six (I’ve suggested a way to do that wouldn’t overly disadvantage low revenue NPB teams).  However, I can’t see any possibility of KBO teams increasing the current foreign player roster limit of three any time soon unless league attendance improves significantly.

NPB Attendance Well Up in 2015

October 10, 2015

Japan’s NPB had one of its best seasons ever in terms of regular season attendance.  According to Yakyu Baka, both the Central and Pacific Leagues set new records for per game average attendance, even though the schedule was reduced from 144 games to 143 games per team this season.  At least five of NPB’s 12 teams set single season per game average attendance records.

Here is a list of each team’s total attendance (and per game average):

Yomiuri Giants                              3.001 M (42,270)

Hanshin Tigers                              2.878 M (39,977)

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks           2.536 M (35,221)

Hiroshima Toyo Carp                  2.110 M (29,722)

Chunichi Dragons                        2.050 M (28,469)

Nippon Ham Fighters                 1.960 M (27,221)

Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars       1.814 M (25,546)

Orix Buffaloes                               1.767 M (24,890)

Yakult Swallows                           1.657 M (23,021)

Seibu Lions                                   1.617 M  (22,456)

Rakuten Golden Eagles             1.542 M (21,467)

Chiba Lotte Marines                  1.322 M (18,620)

There have been essentially no changes between the rich teams (Yomiuri, Hanshin and Softbank) and the poor teams (Orix, Yakult, Seibu, Rakuten and Lotte), but the Hiroshima Carp have firmly moved into middle tier of teams, the Yokohama Bay Stars threatened to do so, and it was mostly poor teams that set team attendance records this year.

If this year’s attendance trends continue for the next few years, NPB, or at least its wealthiest half dozen teams, should be in a position to begin challenging MLB for some of the world’s top baseball talent.  To date, however, NPB teams, even the truly rich ones, have shown no interest in making salary offers to elite players that would make the teams truly world class.

Even with terrific attendance and national television contracts, NPB teams are not as wealthy as MLB teams, because they are not run as efficiently.  NPB teams are owned by individual corporations, and largely serve as public relations and advertising vehicles for those corporate owners.  This is hardly as economically efficient as non-corporate ownership, which would be better positioned to make advertising and sponsorship deals with many corporations based on highest-bidder principles, rather than advertising primarily for only one corporation.

It’s a little like the history of television in the U.S.  In the first ten years of TV (1948 to 1957), TV shows frequently were sponsored by only a single advertiser.  Since 1960, TV stations have firmly decided that 30-second commercial slots going to the highest bidder are a lot more profitable.

In MLB, brewery owners like Anheuser-Busch (Cardinals) and Jerry Hoffberger (Orioles) once owned baseball teams because of the synergies between professional sports and beer sales.  However, the baseball teams were eventually spun off, because they are simply more profitable if you have multiple bidders for the right to sell and advertise beer for the teams.

For most of NPB’s history, almost all of the teams played in Japan’s two largest markets, Greater Tokyo and Greater Osaka, presumably because NPB’s corporate owners thought their brands were best positioned in Japan’s two largest markets.  This was clearly a mistake, as the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers dominate these two markets, and the poor NPB teams are almost all the less-popular teams in these two markets.

Ever so gradually, teams have been moving into smaller markets like Fukuoka, Sapporo and Hiroshima, and these teams have developed local fan bases and drawn much better than they did as less popular teams in Tokyo or Osaka-Kobe.

Yet, even today seven of NPB’s 12 teams still play in greater Tokyo and greater Osaka, five in greater Tokyo alone, at least one or two teams too many.

Ultimately, I’d like to see NPB teams run as profit-making ventures in their own right, the rules on foreign players relaxed, and teams try to put on a truly world class product by spending the dough on top professional talent.  However, NPB has operated for about 80 years now on its own particular model, and I doubt it will change much any time soon.

The Best Foreign Pitchers in the History of Japan’s NPB – 2015 Update

October 7, 2015

Here is an update on last year’s post listing the best foreign pitchers to have pitched in Japan’s NPB in terms of career NPB wins, ERA (800 innings pitched minimum), Strike Outs and Saves.

WINS

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

7. Jason Standridge 63-54

9. Randy Messenger 61-54

10. Kip Gross 55-49

Tai-yuan Kuo, known in Japan as Taigen Kaku, was a Taiwanese pitcher, who pitched for the Seibu Lions from 1985 through 1997, the most successful period in the team’s history.  Kuo/Kaku is generally recognized as the best pitcher to come out of Taiwan prior to Chien-Ming Wang breaking through to have MLB success in 2005.

Gene Bacque and Joe Stanka were 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 just wrapped up the second 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).

ERA (800+ IP)

1.  Gene Bacque 2.34

2.  Joe Stanka 3.03

3.  Randy Messenger 3.05

4. Seth Greisigner 3.16

5.  Taigen Kaku 3.16

6.  Jason Standridge 3.19

STRIKE OUTS

1.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

2.  Randy Messenger 939

3.  Joe Stanka 887

4.  Jeremy Powell 858

5.  Gene Bacque 825

SAVES

1.  Marc Kroon 177

2. Dennis Sarfate 132

3.  Chang-yong Lim 128

4.  Eddie Gaillard 120

5.  Rod Pedroza 117

6.  Micheal Nakamura* 104

7.  Dong-yeol Sun 98

8. Tony Barnette 97

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.  Dennis Sarfate, who is currently the Softbank Hawks closer, is the same kind of pitcher as Kroon.

Dong-yeol Sun, Chang-yong Lim and now Seung-hwan Oh (80 saves in his first two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers through age 32) 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.

Last year’s comments indicate that NPB did not treat Micheal Nakamura as a foreign player.  However, 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 have decided to list him for at least one more year.

Tony Barnette had another fine season for the Yakult Swallows in 2015 and will likely more up the list in the future.

Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB – 2015 Update

October 7, 2015

[The most recent update of this post is here.]

Last year I wrote a post attempting to list the all-time leaders among foreign (to Japan) hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball, because I have never been able to find such lists on the internet.  The post met with a positive response, so I have decided to update the lists at least annually when current players add their names and career stats.  Here is the post-2015 NPB regular season update:

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.  Matt Murton .310

3.  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.

HITS

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.

15.  Matt Murton, 1020.

Before I wrote the original piece last year, 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.

HOME RUNS

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 eight foreign 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.

RBIs

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

RUNS

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 original 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 fewer than 20 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 28 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.