Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2017/2018

October 24, 2017

Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball produces an increasing share of top MLB pitchers.  Here are some prospects (in terms of MLB) I’m keeping my eyes on:

Shohei Otani (age 23 in 2018; MLB ETA 2018-2020).  By now, just about everyone following MLB has heard of Otani, particularly because rumor has it he wants to join MLB in 2018 in spite of the fact that he would make at least $100 million more by waiting two more years until he turns age 25 and is no longer subject to signing bonus/contract limits.  Otani is generally regarded as the next Yu Darvish / Masahiro Tanaka, except that Otani is also a legitimate elite MLB prospect as a hitter.

Otani injured his hamstring running the bases early in the 2017, which limited his pitching efforts to a mere 25.1 innings pitched this season.  MLB teams couldn’t care less, because Otani can command a 102 mph fastball and has a number of other MLB plus pitches.

Otani wants to continue hitting as well as pitching in MLB, and who can blame him.  He slashed .332/.403/.540 in the 65 games he played after coming back from the hamstring injury.  He slashed .322/.416/.588 in 104 games last year.

Did I mention he’s only 23 years old and commands a 102 mph fastball?  The question is which MLB team will win the Otani sweepstakes if he elects to sign this off-season.

Miles Mikolas (29; 2018).  Mikolas is a former MLBer who elected to take guaranteed money to pitch for NPB’s Yomiuri Giants three seasons ago.  It has worked out extremely well for him and his wife, who has also become a celebrity in Japan.  This year Mikolas’ 2.25 ERA was the second best in Japan’s Central League, and he led the six-team circuit with 187 strikeouts in a league-leading 188 innings pitched.

Mikolas now has a combined 2.18 ERA across his three NPB seasons and has steadily improved most of his peripheral numbers.  In particular, he walked only 23 and allowed only 10 home runs in his 188 IP this year.

Mikolas looks to be the next Colby Lewis.  However, an MLB team will likely have to beat the two-year $10 million offer the Yomiuri Giants will likely offer to keep him.  Given what MLB starters are now getting that seems likely.

Yusei Kikuchi (27; 2020-2021)  Kikuchi moves up sharply from last year’s list, because one of last year’s negatives has become a positive.  Prior to 2017, Kikuchi had never pitched more than 143 innings in an NPB season.

This year, at age 26 he led NPB’s Pacific League with 187.2 IP.  He also led the league with a 1.97 ERA and finished a close second with 217 Ks, while allowing only 122 hits.

I rank Kikuchi higher than the next pitcher on this list, because Kikuchi was used so sparingly before the age of 26 and also because at a listed 6’0″ and 220 lbs, he’s got an MLB-sized body.  Kikuchi is also a left-hander, which only adds to his potential appeal.

Takahiro Norimoto (27; 2020-2021).  Norimoto has been every bit as good an NPB pitcher as Kikuchi, but he’s a small right-hander who has been worked hard in his five NPB seasons.  He led NPB with 222 Ks (in a second-best-in-league 185.2 IP).  Norimoto has now struck out 200+ batters four years in a row.

His 2.57 ERA was second best in the Pacific League, and his ERA has improved every year he’s been in his league.  The knock on Norimoto is his size (5’11”, 180 lbs), and the fact that he’s almost certainly thrown more pitches than anyone else in his league over the last five seasons.  If he stays healthy, he should be the next Kenta Maeda when his MLB turn comes.

Tomoyuki Sugano (28; 2022).  Sugano convinced me a year ago that he’s the real deal, and this year he was even better.  He led all of NPB with a 1.59 ERA and struck out a second best in the Central League 171 batters in 187.1 innings pitched.  He’s been too good for too long not to give him his props and rate him as an elite MLB-level talent.

That said, the Yomiuri Giants will not post him before he becomes a unrestricted free agent, he started his NPB career at a relatively old 23, and, if he’s still healthy after the 2021 season, the Yomiuri Giants will likely give him a record setting four year deal of at least $25 million and probably more.  In short, Sugano will only come to MLB if he decides he wants to test himself against the best.

Shintaro Fujinami (24; 2021-2023).  In last year’s post on this subject, I wrote, “The Hanshin Tigers seem determined to burn out their young ace before he ever reaches MLB.”  The Tigers may have done so.

Fujinami had an absolutely brutal 2017 season, making only 11 major league starts and allowing 53 walks and HBPs against only 41Ks in 59 innings pitched.  It’s little short of amazing that he managed a run average below five per nine innings pitched, given the number of base runners he allowed, and probably attests to Fujinami’s abilities as a pitcher.

Has Fujinami’s arm been ruined, or is it a mechanical problem with his motion? It’s hard to say.  On July 29, 2017, he reportedly hit 98 mph on the radar gun in an NPB minor league start, matching a major league pitch Yusei Kikuchi reportedly threw around the same date.  In 61 innings for Hanshin’s minor league club, Fujinami struck out 77 but also walked 31 and posted an ERA of 2.66, but a run average of 3.39.

I would guess that overwork has something to do with it, as his 2016 performance was down from his breakthrough 2015 campaign.  We’ll have a better idea a year from now.

Yuki Matsui (22; 2022).  A small (5’8.5″, 163 lbs) left-handed closer for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Matsui has electric stuff (366 Ks in 303.1 career NPB innings pitched) and what appears to be close to four full seasons of NPB experience through his age 21 season.

As I wrote a year ago, it’s anybody’s guess whether a pitcher this small and this young can hold up to the often high-stress workload of a closer long-term.  He had a 1.20 ERA this season and was almost unhittable, but his strikeout rate was down from 2016.

Takeru Imamura (27; 2020). A reliever who moved into the closer role in 2017, he’s got an MLB-sized body (6’0″, 216 lbs) and has impressed the last two seasons with sub-2.50 ERAs and high strikeout rates.

Kodei Senga (25; 2023-2024).  A very talented young starter who now has a career NPB ERA of 2.52 and 467 Ks in 418 innings pitched.  He’s not real big (6’1″, 189 lbs) and has many more years to put in in Japan before he’ll have an opportunity to pitch in MLB.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (25; 2023).  A small right-hander (5’11”, 187 lbs) who has saved 96 games in his three NPB seasons, has a career 2.35 ERA and 211 Ks in 179.2 IP.

Shota Imanaga (24; 2024).  A small lefty starter who has been good enough his first two NPB seasons to put a bookmark in.

NPB pitchers available this off-season include:  Yoshihisa Hirano (34), Hideaki Wakui , Kazuhisa Makita , Hirotoshi Masui (34), Scott Mathieson (34) and Josh Lueke (33).

The St. Louis Cardinals reportedly have interest in Hirano. Wakui has expressed interest in pitching in the U.S., although I suspect he’ll get better offers from NPB teams.

Makita and Masui are both NPB “domestic” free agents, meaning their teams would have to post them.  Masui has good stuff, but is awfully small (he’s listed as weighing 154 lbs.)  Makita is a ground ball pitcher (46 HRs allowed in 921.1 IP) who might draw MLB interest, if MLB teams think he can prevent MLB hitters from hitting home runs.

Scott Mathieson has had a great NPB career and could potentially return to MLB.  However, I suspect he’s probably just making noises to get a better offer from the Yomiuri Giants.  It looks like Josh Lueke has burned his bridges with the Yakult Swallows, and I don’t know how interested MLB teams would be given his history.

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Go East, Not So Young Men, Part II: The Pitchers

October 20, 2017

Here are some starting pitchers who seem like good bets to sign with a KBO or NPB team for 2018:

Drew Hutchinson (27 in 2018).  Hutchinson looked like a burgeoning star in 2014 after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s only thrown 24 major league innings since the start of the 2016 season.  He didn’t pitch in the Show at all this year, despite posting a strong 3.56 ERA in 26 starts for the International League’s Indianapolis Indians.

One would think that Hutchinson would be receptive to a guaranteed offer from an NPB club; and one or two strong seasons in Japan could put his MLB career back on track.

Wilmer Font (28).  Font hasn’t pitched much in the majors (7 IP over eight appearances with an ugly 11.57 ERA), but he was dominating for the Pacific Coast League’s Oklahoma City Dodgers in 2017.  His 3.42 ERA was the only ERA under 4.00 by any PCL pitcher who threw at least 115 innings, and his pitching line of 134.1 IP, 114 hits, 11 HRs and 35 BBs allowed and a whopping 178 Ks was even better.

Font will have a hard time breaking through with the pitching rich Dodgers, and I would expect a KBO team in particular to make him a strong offer.

Justin Masterson (33), Tom Koehler (32) and Dillon Gee (32).  A trio of veterans with substantial MLB resumes, all three look to be at a point in their respective careers where the Asian majors would be each pitcher’s option, at least if they want to continue starting.  Masterson, also pitching for the OKC Dodgers, recorded the PCL’s second best ERA at 4.13 and recorded 140 Ks in 141.2 IP, but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015.

Koehler pitched well in relief for the Blue Jays late in the 2017 season, but might well get a better offer to be a starter for an Asian team than a reliever for an MLB one in 2018.  Pretty much the same for Dillon Gee.

T.J. House (28).  House was pretty good for the International League’s Buffalo Bisons in 2017, posting a 4.32 ERA and 108 Ks in 133.1 IP.  He also has enough of an MLB track record that he might interest an Asian team.

Anthony Bass (30).  Bass pitched for NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters in 2016 and pitched pretty well (3.65 ERA in 103.2 IP), although he was not invited back.  This year, he pitched well enough for the PCL’s Round Rock Express (4.18 ERA, 87 Ks in 75.1 IP) to get a two game cup of coffee with the Rangers.  He seems like he’d be a good bet for a KBO team in 2018.

Other starting pitchers who might well get an Asian offer too good to pass up are Williams Perez (27), Cody Martin (28), Michael Blazek (29), Vance Worley (30) and Paolo Espino (31).

The relief candidates for NPB in 2018 (KBO teams only want starters) number as many as 50.  These are the ones I like best.

Louis Coleman, Al Alburquerque and Ernesto Frieri (all 32).  A trio of live-armed, proven MLB relievers who pitched great in AAA in 2017, but aren’t likely to get major league contract offers for 2018.  It’s reasonable to assume that at least one of them will be pitching in Japan next season.

Preston Claiborne (30).  He’s all the way back from Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, but didn’t get much of a look from the Rangers in spite of a 1.89 ERA and 16 saves at AAA Round Rock.

Bruce Rondon (27) and Blaine Hardy (31).  A couple of Tiger hurlers who may well be non-tendered this off-season, because both are arbitration eligible.

Jack Leathersich (27), Dayan Diaz (29) and Simon Castro (30).  Will they or won’t they receive major league contract offers from their current MLB teams?  That is the question that will most likely determine their receptiveness to any Asian offers.

Other reasonable relief possibilities: Michael Tonkin (28), Alex Wimmers (29), Brandon Cunniff (29), Deolis Guerra (29), Felix Doubront (30), Josh Smith (30), Jason Gurka (30), Zac Rosscup (30), Jeff Beliveau (31), Rhiner Cruz (31), Erik Davis (31), Pat “Switch Pitcher” Venditte (33) and Edward Mujica (34).

Go East, Not So Young Men

October 20, 2017

Every year around this time, I like to do a post regarding MLB-system players who are good bets to be playing in Japan’s NPB or South Korea’s KBO next season.  In the past, these posts typically identify players who had great seasons in AAA, but didn’t get much MLB playing time.

This year, I’ve decided to try to be a little more thorough about the subject, including looking at contract issues more likely to push some players, but not others, to try their luck in Asia.  The biggest factors for a player entering his age 26 or older season in deciding whether to give up the MLB dream and go to Asia are likely whether he has received a major league contract offer from an MLB team and also his personal, subjective belief about his likely future chances of MLB success.

I suspect that a lot players who play in MLB for the first time in September of their age 26 or 27  seasons and play well during that cup of coffee will elect to stay in the MLB system the next season, even if they get a better offer from an NPB or KBO team.  On the other hand, players who received substantial major league playing time in their early or mid-20’s, who then spend the next couple of years mostly at AAA, have a much better idea how tenuous MLB success can be and are a lot more tempted by better offer from abroad.

Here’s my list of some hitters who are good bets to be playing in Asia next year.

Oswaldo Arcia (27 in 2018).  Arcia played in 200 games for the Twins in 2013 and 2014 at the ages of 22 and 23.  Since then, his major league career has gone straight downhill, in large part because he isn’t patient enough, i.e., he doesn’t walk enough and strikes out too much.

At age 26, Arcia led the Pacific Coast League with a 1.049 OPS.  However, he didn’t play in even one major league game because he got hurt on August 30th, right before the September roster expansions.  I wasn’t able to determine the nature of his injury, and injuries have plagued him the last few seasons.  If he’s fully healthy by December 1st, though, he’d be a great bet for an Asian team.

Bryce Brentz (29).  Brentz hit a league-leading 31 home runs (Asian teams want their foreign hitters to hit the long ball) and his .863 OPS was second best in the International League.  Even so, the Red Sox never called him up, even after the rosters expanded in September.  A player can’t get a much stronger message his team doesn’t see him as part of their future than that.

Jabari Blash (28).  Blash has a lot of talent, but through his age 27 season, he hasn’t been able to put it together at the major league level.  If the Padres don’t offer him a major league contract, he should seriously consider any Asian offers he receives.

Leonys Martin (30).  NPB teams love Cubans as much as cigar aficionados do.  Small wonder — Alex Guerrero and Alfredo Despaigne respectively led the Central and Pacific League in home runs this past season.

Martin isn’t likely to hit 35 home runs in a season even in Japan, but he could 25-30 in a season there, and he still runs well. He has more than three full seasons of MLB service time, entitling him to salary arbitration, and will almost certainly be non-tendered by his current MLB club.  I’m guessing his best free agent offer will come from Japan.

Will Middlebrooks (29).  Middlebrooks’ MLB career has gone down the toilet, but he’s the kind of power-hitting 3Bman NPB teams like.

Mark Canha (29).  I could definitely see him getting a $1M offer from the Doosan Bears this off-season, if the Bears decide to replace Nick Evans as their foreign position player.

Cody Asche (28).  Another 3B candidate with power potential in Japan’s smaller ballparks, Asche was the Phillies’ main 3Bman in 2014 and 2015.  Now he’s just another guy coming off a strong minor league season looking for a decent contract going into his age 28 season.  Still, Asian teams love past MLB experience.

Xavier Avery (28).  A center fielder whose .816 OPS was 5th best in the International League, Avery’s only major league experience (32 games with the Braves) came way back in 2012.  You would have to think he’d be receptive to a foreign offer.

Nick Buss and Brandon Snyder (both 31).  A couple of left fielders coming off strong AAA seasons.  Buss led the Pacific Coast League with a .348 batting average, and his .936 OPS was 7th best.  Snyder’s .846 OPS was 3rd best in the International League.  You can guess which of the two AAA leagues is a pitchers’ league and which is a hitters’ league.

Chris Johnson and Eric Young, Jr. (both 33).  Two aging veterans with substantial MLB experience, both played well enough in AAA to suggest they still have something left going into 2018.  Both would provide an Asian team with a certain amount of defensive flexibility.  Johnson is probably more likely to get an offer because he has more power.

In my opinion, age 27 is the ideal age for a foreign MLBer to try his luck at a successful Asian career.  Here is a list of players who will be 27 next season, had great AAA seasons, have at least a little MLB experience, but don’t look likely to receive major league contract offers for 2018: Richie Schaffer, David Washington, Christian Walker, Mike Tauchman, Tyler Naquin, Ji-man Choi, Garrett Cooper, Tyler White, Christian Villanueva, Luke Voit, Max Muncy and Cesar Puello.

Almost all of these guys will elect to stay in the MLB system, but don’t be surprised if you hear that one or two of them have signed with Asian teams later this off-season.  Tyler Collins (28) and Travis Taijeron (29) are a couple of slightly older players who are reasonable possibilities of getting Asian offers.

Will Chris Carter Be Playing in East Asia Next Year?

October 17, 2017

Chris Carter popped into my mind today, possibly having something to do with the Yankees hitting two three-run homers in today’s play-off game.  He has sure fallen a long way since leading the National League in home runs in 2016.  Now he’s just a soon-to-be 31 year old, lead-footed slugger looking for a major league offer.

After the Yankees released him, the Oakland A’s signed him and sent him to AAA Nashville.  He hit pretty well there in 36 games, slashing .252/.357/.512, but he didn’t get a September call-up even though it only would have cost the A’s a pro-rated portion of the MLB minimum salary.  The A’s instead elected to promote Mark Canha, who is two years younger and can also play the corner outfield positions.

He should be a free agent again this winter, since he’s still between four and five seasons of MLB experience, and the A’s surely won’t offer him salary arbitration.  It’s hard to see him getting a guaranteed MLB contract for 2018.

There was talk last off-season about the possibility of a Japanese team signing Carter when he wasn’t immediately able to find an MLB offer to his liking.  Carter would certainly command a $2 million offer from a South Korean KBO team, with maybe a quarter to half of that amount guaranteed; or a guaranteed contract in a similar amount, maybe $2.5M, from an NPB team.

It’s a fun exercise imagining how many home runs Carter might hit in the smaller ballparks of East Asian against a lower level of pitching.  If he’s healthy, I would expect him to be a threat for 60 HRs in the KBO and 50+ in NPB.

His odds of success are much greater in KBO, because NPB is not an easy place for foreign hitters to hit for average, and Carter is already highly challenged in that department.  Still, Japhet Amador was able to stick around all season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles based on only one skill (power), although Amador only cost the Golden Eagles $290,000, and the Eagles probably have some sunken costs in buying Amador’s rights from his old Mexican League team in 2016.

If an NPB team guarantees Carter $2M+, they’ll certainly give him time to adapt to Japanese baseball, before giving up on him.  Also, a big year in Japan could possibly earn him a ticket back to MLB’s prime-time.

The fact that Carter was reported to be seriously considering playing in Japan until the Yankees came up with their $3.5M offer means it’s whole lot more likely that Carter might actually cross the ocean in 2018.  He certainly won’t be seeing an $3.5M MLB offers this off-season.

 

NPB Attendance Up Slightly in 2017

October 14, 2017

Here are the final regular season attendance numbers for NPB’s Pacific and Central Leagues.  NPB attendance was up in 2017, but by less than one percent.

The Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and the SoftBank Hawks continue to be NPB’s rich teams, no surprise there. Hanshin drew in more than 3M fans for the first time since 2010.  The Central continues to the rich league, with the last place Yakult Swallows drawing better than four Pacific League clubs.

The Hiroshima Carp, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and the DeNa BayStars all set attendance records in 2017, with Hiroshima drawing for than 2M fans for the third year in a row.  The Golden Eagles play in a ballpark in Sendai that only holds about 26,000 and they’re filling it most games, and the Yokohama BayStars will likely cross the 2M threshold for the first time in 2018.

The Seibu Lions had their highest attendance since 2005, although that’s not saying much.

The Best Foreign* Pitchers in the History of Taiwan’s CPBL

October 12, 2017

* This post is a work in progress.  The CPBL’s website is in Chinese using Chinese characters.  Figuring out who the foreign players are for someone like me who has no knowledge of written Chinese is an inexact science.  I have not included Japanese or Korean players in my lists, if there are any who qualify, because it is simply too difficult to figure out who all the Japanese and Korean players are.  I invite anyone with an interest to correct or supplement my lists.

I’ve been following Taiwan’s CPBL closely for the last three or four years now, and it strikes me as time for a list of the best foreign pitchers in CPBL’s 28 year long history.  I won’t bother with foreign hitters at this time, since it does not appear that any foreign position players have played in the league since the end of the 2015 season.

WINS

1.      Osvaldo (Ozzy) Martinez  108-85     MiLB, WiL Stats and more MiLB Stats

2.      Jonathan Hurst       76-52     MLB, NPB, MiLB Stats

3.      Mike Loree                62-33     MiLB, Indy-A stats

4.      John Burgos             58-34     MiLB, Indy-A Stats

5.      Jose Nunez                56-25     MLB, NPB, KBO, etc Stats

6.      Mark Kiefer               55-27     MLB, MiLB, KBO stats

7.     Joe Strong                  47-33     MLB, MiLB, Indy-A Stats

8.     Orlando Roman       44-28     MiLB, NPB Stats, WiL

9.     Gabriel “Gab” Ozuna     43-39     MiLB Stats

Martinez and Hurst are the only long-term veterans among pitchers I could find in my search of the CPBL website.  Martinez pitched nine seasons, Hurst pitched seven.  Burgos had a terrific 4.5 seasons, Kiefer had four terrific seasons, and Nunez had an even better than either three seasons.  Kiefer won 34 KBO games over three seasons later in his career.

Mike Loree is the most successful foreign pitcher currently pitching in CPBL.  His 2017 season, in which he won his second pitching Triple Crown (2.18 ERA, 16 wins, and 154 Ks) in only four full seasons, firmly establishes him as one of the circuit’s all-time best foreign pitchers.

Joe Strong was a 37 year old MLB rookie in 2000 for the Florida Marlins, but he pitched better in the Show in limited use in 2001.  He pitched professionally through his age 41 year old season.

ERA   (650 IP)

1.      Jose Nunez               2.13

2.     Jonathan Hurst       2.56

3.     Joe Strong                 2.71

4.     Mark Kiefer              2.82

5.     John Burgos             2.84

6.     Gab Ozuna                3.16

7.     Osvaldo Martinez    3.20

7.     Enrique Burgos   3.20     MLB, MiLB Stats

9.     Mike Loree               3.22

10.    Orlando Roman     3.78

I set the 650 IP limit because I wanted to include both Nunez (687) and Roman (691).  Nunez won 56 games over three seasons, before moving on to greener Japanese NPB pastures.  He also pitched in the Taiwan Major League (TML) in 1998, during that competitor league’s six-year history before it folded/merged into the CPBL after the 2002 season. But, no surprise, I haven’t been able to find the stats for the TML on line.

In this extreme hitter-friendly era of the CPBL, Mike Loree’s and Orlando Roman’s higher ERAs are at least equivalent to what the best foreign pitchers accomplished in different, less offensive eras than today, based on their W-L records, the fact that Loree has been arguably the league’s best pitcher in each of his four full CPBL seasons, and the fact that Roman used the CPBL as a springboard to a four year NPB career, where he won a total of 18 games and saved another six, before returning to CPBL in 2016.

Roman will be 39 in 2018, and it remains to be seen if he will return to CBPL next season.  Given his experience, he is surely high paid by CPBL standards (he probably makes $25,000 a month for a seven month season), and his second half of 2017 wasn’t great — he had a first half ERA of 3.95 and a second half ERA of 4.96.  Given that the CPBL plays a split season and Roman’s age, the China Trust Brothers may decide he isn’t a good risk for the money next year.

STRIKEOUTS

1.     Ozzie Martinez      1,286

2.     Jonathan Hurst     779

3.     Enrique Burgos     736

4.     Michael “Mike” Garcia      651     MLB, MiLB, KBO etc Stats

5.     Mike Loree             640

6.     John Burgos          541

7.     Mark Kiefer           532

8.     Orlando Roman   564

9.     Jose Nunez           511

10.    Gab Ozuna           508

Enrique Burgos had some of the best strikeout stuff CPBL had ever seen, but it didn’t translate into his W-L record.  He finished his CPBL career an even 36-36.

SAVES

1.     Mike Garcia             124

2.     Ryan Cullen           70     MiLB, Indy-A, WiL Stats

3.     Brad Thomas        59     MLB, NPB, KBO etc Stats

4.     Alfornio (“Al”) Jones     50     MLB, MiLB Stats

5T.   Dario Veras           49     MLB, MiLB, KBO etc Stats 

5T.   Tony Metoyer       49     MiLB, Indy-A Stats

Mike Garcia is far and away the best foreign closer in CPBL history, and certainly one of the best in league history overall, second only in career saves to Yueh-Ping Lin.  He pitched five seasons in Taiwan (1996-1998, 2004-2005) in between which he was a 31 year old MLB rookie for the 1999 Pittsburgh Pirates.  His career CPBL ERA is an even 2.00.  He last pitched professionally at age 39.

Ryan Cullen pitched 3+ seasons in Taiwan, saving a then record-setting 34 games for the Brother Elephants in 2010 and recording a career CPBL ERA of 1.60.  Cullen is best remembered for his final CPBL game, when he threw a pitch, felt pain in his throwing shoulder, and walked off the mound and off the field without motioning to the dugout and waiting for the manager to take him out of the game.  He was released the next day.

Cullen said he didn’t intend to disrespect anyone, but it does not appear that he ever played professional baseball again.  Since he was only 32 and still pitching effectively at the time of his release, I suspect that he may have just decided that he’d had enough of pro ball.

Brad Thomas is an Aussie who pitched professionally in at least seven countries on four continents, concluding his baseball odyssey with 2.5 seasons in Taiwan.  Tony Metoyer pitched parts of seven seasons in the CPBL, where he was used as both a closer and spot starter.

Unfortunately, the CPBL doesn’t hire foreign relievers much any more, with the Uni-President 7-11 Lions the only team that’s still looking for the next great foreign closer.  They haven’t found him yet, although Werner Madrigal saved 16 games for the Lions in 2015.  As recently as 2014, Miguel Mejia saved a record-setting 35 games and posted a 1.24 ERA for the Lamigo Monkeys, although that record was bested in 2017 by Chen Yu-Hsun, who recorded 37 saves for a Lamigo Monkeys team that set a league record for wins in a season.

It’s hard for a foreign player to have a long career in the CPBL.  If the player has a bad year or even a bad half-season (most foreigners initially receive half-season contracts), he’s too expensive to keep around.  If the player has a great full season or two, he typically moves on to NPB, KBO or back to MLB AAA.  However, a lot of departing foreign players come back to the CPBL later for another go ’round when it’s their last best chance to make a substantial wage playing summer baseball.

The CPBL appears to have recruited heavily among Latin American players who put up successful seasons in the winter leagues, which makes a lot of sense, since the Latin American winter leagues are pretty good and pay accordingly.  In recent years, the independent-A Atlantic League has been a major source for CPBL teams looking for in-season pitching help.

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

October 10, 2017

This is the post-2017 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 (see discussion below) to have pitched in Japan’s NPB in terms of career NPB wins, ERA (800 innings pitched minimum), Strike Outs and Saves.

WINS

1. Victor Starrfin* 303-176

2. Tadashi Wakabayaski 237-144

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

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

5.  Gene Bacque 100-80

5. Joe Stanka 100-72

7. Randy Messenger 84-70

8. Jason Standridge 75-68

9. Nate Minchey 74-70

10. Jeremy Powell 69-65

11. Seth Greisinger 64-42

12. D. J. Houlton 63-39

One of the things you learn when blogging is that the answers to seemingly simple questions often aren’t that simple at all.  Who exactly qualifies as a “foreign” player for NPB purposes?  For some players, that is an extremely complicated question.

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, Victor Starfin, who went 303-176 as one of NPB’s all-time great aces, while being born in Russia, emigrated to Japan after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when he was a small boy. He grew up in Japan and went through Japan’s education and baseball systems, 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.

Ultimately, I elected to list both Starrfin and Wakabayashi as “foreign” players, mainly for the sake of full inclusion.  I left Starrfin off my list last year, but people have commented that he should be treated as “foreign,” because he was treated that way during his playing days.  I have left it up to you, gentle reader, to make your own determination on this perhaps not very significant question.

Tai-yuan Kuo and Yuen-chih Kuo, known in Japan as Taigen Kaku and Gengi Kaku, respectively, were Taiwanese pitchers both of whom 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 36, was having the best season of his NPB career in 2017 until a line drive of the bat of Yomiuri Giants Shinnosuke Abe broke his shin bone. He made it back for the Hanshin Tigers’ final game of the regular season, and he’ll be back in 2018, he’s not a spring chicken anymore.

Jason Standridge is also still active.  He wants to return for his age 39 season and may well do so according to YakyuDB, but he doesn’t appear to have a whole lot left.

ERA (800+ IP)

1. Tadashi Wakabayashi 1.99

2. Victor Starrfin 2.09  (ERAs were ridiculously low in Wakabayashi’s and Starrfin’s era)

3.  Gene Bacque 2.34

4.  Glenn Mickens 2.55

5.  Randy Messenger 2.98

6. Joe Stanka 3.03

7. Seth Greisigner 3.16

8.  Taigen Kaku 3.16

9.  Genji Kaku  3.22

10.  Jason Standridge 3.31

STRIKE OUTS

1.  Victor Starrfin  1960

2.  Genji Kaku 1,415

3.  Randy Messenger 1,271

4.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

5.  Tadashi Wakabayashi 1,000

6.  Joe Stanka 887

7.  Jeremy Powell 858

8. Jason Standridge 844

9.  Gene Bacque 825

SAVES

1. Dennis Sarfate  229

2.  Marc Kroon 177

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 broke Marc Kroon’s career saves record and NPB’s single-season save record (among everyone) in 2017.  His 54 saves broke the old record by seven.

Dong-yeol Sun and Chang-yong Lim, like Seung-hwan Oh who saved 80 games in NPB 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.