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

In the past couple of years, I’ve written a couple of posts on the all-time leaders among foreign hitters in the history of Japan’s NPB.  The articles have met with a positive response, so I will update them whenever new or more complete information comes to me.  This iteration adds stolen base leaders.

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, and he had almost 5,000 NPB at-bats, so it was no fluke based on a small data set.

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 Class C 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 one of only three 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.  Shosei Go 1,326

11.  Jose Fernandez 1,286

12.  Bobby Rose 1,275

13.  John Sipin 1,124

14.  Roberto Barbon 1,123

15.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 1,089.

16.  Matt Murton, 1020.

Before I wrote the original piece in 2014, 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, at least according to some sources.  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.  Shosei Go 880

3.  Alex Ramirez 866

4. In-cheon Paek 801

5.  Leron Lee 786

6.  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.

STOLEN BASES

1.  Shosei Go  381

2.  Roberto Barbon 308

3.  In-cheon Paek 212

4.  Wally Yonamine  163

5.  Larry Raines 114

As I’ve written before, it is no small task to determine who is “foreign” for NPB purposes and who isn’t.  At the time Shosei Go joined Japanese professional ranks in 1937, Taiwan was a Japanese colony, so Go was not considered a “foreign” player during his playing career.  However, as an ethnic Taiwanese born and raised in Taiwan (he attended high school there), he seems more “foreign” to me than Victor Starrfin, who lived in Japan since before his second or third birthday.  Go also seems more foreign than Hiroshi Ohshita, an ethnic Japanese who was probably born in Kobe, Japan but spent part of his childhood, including high school, in colonial Taiwan, but then attended Meiji University, one of Japan’s big six college baseball programs.

Another 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 six 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, aside from the fact that he was once tied for the single season NPB home run record with the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

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.

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One Comment on “Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB”

  1. Burly Says:

    There may yet be a few great Taiwanese or Korean NPB players who played in Japan using Japanese versions of their names. If I have missed anyone, please let me know.


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