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

This is the post-2016 season update on a topic I’ve been writing about for the last couple of years, which I hope to continue updating annually, at least so long as the leader boards change. The post lists 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. Tadashi Wakabayaski 237-144

2. Taigen Kaku (Tai-yuan Kuo) 117-68

3.  Genji Kaku (Yuen-chih Kuo) 106-106

4.  Gene Bacque 100-80

5. Joe Stanka 100-72

6. Nate Minchey 74-70

7. Randy Messenger 73-65

8. Jason Standridge 71-62

9. Jeremy Powell 69-65

10. Seth Greisinger 64-42

11. D. J. Houlton 63-39

One of the things you learn when blogging is that the answers to simple questions often aren’t that simple.  Who exactly qualifies as a “foreign” player for NPB purposes?  For a couple of players the answer is quite complicated.

Tadashi Wakabayashi was a Japanese American born in Hawaii. He played in NPB from 1936 until 1953. He originally held duel citizenship but renounced his Japanese citizenship in 1928, but then renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1941 and became a Japanese citizen again, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

On the other hand, I don’t consider Victor Starfin, who went 303-176 as one of NPB’s all-time great aces, as a “foreign” player for NPB purposes, because while he was born in Russia, his family emigrated to Japan after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when he was a small boy. He grew up in Japan, before becoming NPB’s first 300 game winner.

Wally Yonamine, another great Nisei star of NPB, clearly seems more “foreign” to me for NPB purposes than Wakabayashi because Yonamine had a professional sports in the U.S. before going to Japan, and he died in Hawaii as well as being born there.

Wakabayashi played high school ball in Hawaii and then went on a playing tour in Japan, where his pitching earned him a scholarship at a top Japanese University (Hosei University). That certainly makes Wakabayashi less “foreign” than Yonamine — even today foreign players who play at Japanese Universities for four years before going pro are not considered “foreign” for NPB roster-limit purposes.

Is Wakabayashi more foreign than Micheal Nakamura, mentioned below, who was born in Japan, but graduated from high school in Australia, played college ball in the U.S. and then had a long U.S. minor league career before joining NPB?  A comment to the original post said that Nakamura was treated as “Japanese” for NPB roster-limit purposes, presumably due to his Japanese birth.

Technically, however, Wakabayashi is still a “foreign” player by virtue of his U.S. birth, so he makes my list.

Tai-yuan Kuo and Yuen-chih Kuo, known in Japan as Taigen Kaku and Gengi Kaku, respectively, were Taiwanese pitchers, who pitched who both starred in NPB in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The two Kuos/Kakus were the best pitchers 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, which Stanka won, throwing a complete game shutout.  Stanka’s team, the Hawks, won the series in seven games, and Stanka was named the Series MVP.

Randy Messenger, who is now age 35, is expected to sign a two-year deal with his current team, the Hanshin Tigers, this off-season, so he will continue to move up the career lists.  Jason Standridge is also still active.  He pitched well enough this year that the Chiba Lotte Marines will probably bring him back in 2017 when he will be age 38.

ERA (800+ IP)

1. Tadashi Wakabayashi 1.99 (ERAs were ridiculously low in Wakabayashi’s era)

2.  Gene Bacque 2.34

3.  Glenn Mickens 2.55

4.  Joe Stanka 3.03

5.  Randy Messenger 3.05

6. Seth Greisigner 3.16

7.  Taigen Kaku 3.16

8.  Genji Kaku  3.22

9.  Jason Standridge 3.24

STRIKE OUTS

1.  Genji Kaku 1,415

2.  Randy Messenger 1,116

3.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

4.  Tadashi Wakabayashi 1,000

5.  Joe Stanka 887

6.  Jeremy Powell 858

7.  Gene Bacque 825

SAVES

1.  Marc Kroon 177

2. Dennis Sarfate 175

3.  Chang-yong Lim 128

4.  Eddie Gaillard 120

5.  Rod Pedroza 117

6.  Genji Kaku 116

7.  Micheal Nakamura* 104

8.  Dong-yeol Sun 98

9. Tony Barnette 97

Foreign relief pitchers have had quite a bit of success in Japan, going back to the late 1980’s, starting with Genji Kaku who both started and closed at different times in his NPB career.  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 and absent some very unusual events will break Kroon’s foreigner saves record in 2017, is the same kind of pitcher as Kroon.

Dong-yeol Sun and Chang-yong Lim. like Seung-hwan Oh who saved 80 games in 2014-2015 before jumping to MLB, are products of South Korea’s KBO.  Sun and Lim were probably good enough to be successful MLB pitchers, but ended up starring in NPB instead.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, Baseball History, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals

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

  1. Burly Says:

    Inning-eater Jason Standridge will be returning to the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2017. We will see how much he has left at age 38.

  2. Burly Says:

    This post was updated to reflect my discovery today of the career of Genji Kaku and the fact that Glenn Mickens pitched enough innings to qualify for his career 2.55 ERA.

  3. Burly Says:

    With five quick saves to start the 2017 NPB season, Dennis Sarfate is now the all-time career leader among foreign pitchers with 180 saves and counting. Congratulations!

  4. pathat33 Says:

    I disagree with you about Victor Starffin. He grew up in Japan, but he was always Russian. He endured an awful lot of discrimination in his life in Japan, particularly during the war years. And he was always registered as a foreign player in baseball, so I think he belongs at the top of a few of your lists.

  5. pathat33 Says:

    Randy Messenger is up to 78 wins after a 5-0 start to the season. With Hanshin off to a great start, he could really rack up the wins this year. It would be great to see him join Bacque and Stanka as Americans with 100 wins before the end of his NPB career.

    • Burly Says:

      Randy Messenger is also currently leading the Central League in Ks. Messenger is even more likely to become the all-time foreign leader in strikeouts than he is to win at least 100 games, unless you consider Victor Starffin to be a “foreign” player.

  6. Burly Says:

    The question of who is “Japanese” and who is “foreign” for purposes of NPB baseball is extremely complicated. If NPB treated Victor Starfin, Sadaharu Oh and Isao Harimoto as “foreign,” then they should probably be on my list. However, I doubt that NPB would treat them as “foreign” today for roster limit purposes, given that all of these players lived much of their lives before professional baseball in Japan.

    Making these determinations raises complicated questions about race and racism in Japan since the 1930’s through today, which are somewhat beyond the scope of a blog which attempts to focus primarily on baseball. Suffice it say, I think NPB should drop the limits on foreign players on team rosters, and instead try to be a true major league that attempts to put the best possible on the field.

    The fact that NPB does not do so has as much or more to do with money as Japanese baseball fans’ supposed desire to watch Japanese stars play. Foreign players cost more money, and more foreign players would mean bigger team payrolls, and possibly more importantly Japanese players demanding comparable salaries to foreign imports. NPB teams can push off the salary demands of Japanese players in part by the fact that the number of highly paid foreigners is strictly limited.

    Thanks for your comments. They add to the discussion in a way I had been hoping for.


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