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

October 13, 2018

This is the post-2018 season update on a topic I’ve been writing about and updating for the last few years, when the all-time 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. 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

4. Joe Stanka 100-72

6. Randy Messenger 95-77

7. Jason Standridge 75-68

8. Nate Minchey 74-70

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 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 Starrfin, 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.  And what about NPB’s all-time wins leader, Masaichi Kaneda (born Kim Kyung-hong), a Korean citizen born and raised in Japan who was not allowed to become a citizen?

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 have decided this year to continue treating Wakabayashi as a “foreign” player, because he was born and raised in the United States.  But I have left Starffin and Kaneda off my lists because, they were products of Japan’s baseball system, even if they were denied equal treatment due to their ethnicities.  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, the most successful foreign starter of his generation in career terms, managed to earn his NPB domestic free agent option with eight full seasons of NPB service earlier this year.  This means he will no longer be considered a “foreign” player in terms of NPB roster limits, thus increasing his value, since he will no longer be taking up one of the valuable four foreign player roster slots.  It is expected that he’ll return to the Hanshin Tigers for his age 37 season in 2019.

Jason Standridge’s very successful NPB career ended in 2017.

ERA (800+ IP)

1. Tadashi Wakabayashi 1.99

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 3.31

Offense was up in NPB in 2018, and Randy Messenger’s career NPB ERA dropped below Joe Stanka in spite of a successful 11-7 season.  However, Messenger moved up to the number one slot as foreign strikeout king, at least so long as I don’t consider Masaichi Kaneda (4,490) and Victor Starffin (1,960) as “foreign” pitchers.

STRIKE OUTS

2.  Randy Messenger 1,420

3.  Genji Kaku 1,415

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  234

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.  Unfortunately, Sarfate hurt himself badly a month into the 2018 season, tearing something in his right hip requiring surgery, and he didn’t pitch again in 2018.  He has two years left of his deal with SoftBank, so hopefully he’ll be pitching again in 2019.

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.

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Arizona Diamondbacks Sign Japanese Amateur Pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa

August 28, 2018

The Diamondbacks signed 23 year Japanese pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa to a contract out of Japan’s industrial leagues a couple of days ago.  I wouldn’t bother with a post of this signing, except for the fact that it isn’t often I get to scoop mlbtraderumors.com on a signing.

Yoshikawa was expected to be a high draft pick in Japan’s NPB next year, and he’ the first premier amateur Japanese pitcher to sign with an MLB club rather than an NPB team since Junichi Tazawa back in 2008.

By signing with an MLB team first, Yoshikawa will never be allowed to play on the Japanese National team, and as a practical matter may never be allowed to play in the NPB under NPB rules designed to punish Japanese amateurs who sign with MLB organizations.  In that case, I hope Yoshikawa got a big signing bonus or guaranteed contract, since there’s no guarantee he will be as successful as Tazawa, who has earned close to $24 million in his professional career to date.

Lew Ford Is Still Slugging It Out in the Atlantic League

June 28, 2018

I was surprised to notice today that Lew Ford is still playing in the Atlantic League this season.  He turns 42 on August 12.  He’s only batting .249 with an OPS below .700, but he’s currently tied for 6th in the 8-team circuit with 33 RBIs.

This is Ford’s ninth season playing for the Long Island Ducks, and since the Atlantic League salary cap is $3,000 per month, Ford, with his major league background, has probably made exactly that for all of the many, many months he has played for the Ducks.

Ford did play his way back to the Orioles for a two-month spell in 2012, where he even earned a little post-season money, and he’s played five seasons in the Caribbean Winter Leagues along with a couple of brief interludes in the Mexican Summer League, so I guess he’s somehow been able to cobble out a meager living while still playing professionally as long as he possibly can.  It’s hard to imagine having a family and supporting them in the Greater New York area on what he has likely made playing baseball since the start of the 2009 season.

Ford can start collecting his MLB pension as young as age 45, so we’ll see if he can keep playing until then.  More likely, when they finally take the bat out of his hands, he’ll become a professional coach at some level somewhere.

 

Keeping Tabs On Patrick Ruotolo and Ray Black

June 19, 2018

One Giants’ minor leaguer I’ve been keeping tabs on is reliever Patrick Ruotolo.  He was originally drafted in the 27th Round in 2016, and I just couldn’t understand how he could have still been around that late.

He pitched really well as the closer for the University of Connecticut, which plays in a second-tier conference that still has some good baseball programs like Southern Florida (USF) and Central Florida (UCF) that regularly turn out drafted players.  Ruotolo has funny dimensions for a RHP, standing 5’10” and weighing 220 lbs.

I don’t know if it was the prejudice of his short stature or the worry that his motion would cause arm problems, but I had a hard time understanding why he wasn’t selected sooner.

He’s done nothing but pitch well since he became a pro.  He has a career 1.48 minor league ERA in two seasons and counting.  He’s got a 1.42 ERA after nine appearances and 12.2 innings pitched for AA Richmond, after his promotion from Class A+ San Jose.

Well, that looks like a real prospect, which are hard to come by in the 27th round.  Sure, Ruotolo may get hurt before he amounts to anything, but if he’s pitching well in a AA league (and he is with 14 Ks against seven hits and seven walks) at age 23, he’s definitely a prospect.

Ray Black of the 100+ mph heater (he once hit 104 in an Arizona Fall League game), looks like he’s finally finding his command. A 7th round pick in 2011, Black in his age 28 season is only now pitching in the AAA Pacific Coast League because of his inability to throw strikes.

Black has found his command this year and has allowed only six walks in 13.2 AAA innings pitched with 24 big strikeouts.  His ERA is currently 4.61 because he’s served up two taters among only eight hits allowed, but that’s to be expected from a hard thrower who is still working on his command.

Even if Black doesn’t make it to the majors until 2019, he still appears to have a lot of gas in the tank.

Aaron Judge Strikes Out Eight Times in Double-Header

June 5, 2018

Aaron Judge set a record today that may stand for a very long time, striking out eight times in a double-header.  That is the most since records have been kept (1910 in NL; 1913 in AL); and with as few double-headers as are played today, it could well last just as long.

Judge’s new record is the flip side of Stan Musial/Nate Colbert record of five homeruns in a double header.  Nate Colbert was from St. Louis and claimed to have attended as a kid the double-header in which Stan Musial set the record that Nate Colbert, the man, later equaled.

Don’t know if the claim is true, but it’s a great story.  Colbert would have been eight years old on the day that Musial did it, so it’s at least possible.

Takashi Toritani’s Consecutive Games Streak Ends at 1,939

June 2, 2018

Takashi Toritani, one of the best Japanese players of this generation who did not attempt an MLB career, had his consecutive games streak end a couple of days ago at 1,939.  It was the second longest in NPB history after only Sachio Kinugasa‘s 2,215 game streak.

By comparison, Cal Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games and Lou Gehrig in 2,130.  NPB seasons are shorter, at 143 games a season currently and 130 games a season in Kinugasa’s time, so Kinugasa and Toritani had to stay healthy at least as long as Ripken and Gehrig.

Kinugasa’s and Ripken’s career batting numbers are pretty similar, although Kinugasa played 3B, while Ripken was, of course, a shortstop.

Shohei Ohtani Gives the Angels Options

May 26, 2018

The Anaheim Angels have decided to skip Shohei Ohtani‘s next turn in the rotation in order to “manage his workload.”  Obviously, protecting your young pitcher is a much easier decision to make when it means the team will get his bat in the line-up three more games between now and his next start.

At 23, Ohtani isn’t especially young, and he pitched as many as 160.2 innings in a season in Japan, so one has to think that Ohtani’s .991 OPS entering today’s game has a lot to do with the decision to skip his next start.  Ohtani does not hit the day he pitches, or the next day or the day before, but you can bet he’ll be hitting on those days this week.

Everyone in MLB thought that Ohtani was a better pitching prospect than hitting prospect before the season started, so everyone’s understanding is that Ohtani would be allowed to hit in exchange for the bargain price he would be signed for by joining MLB now, rather than waiting until he turned 25.  Obviously, it turns out he can hit major league pitching, at least so far, so now the Angels have to engage in the difficult but highly enjoyable process of trying to decide how they both protect their investment for the long term and maximize the value of his two-way abilities now.

In days past, teams typically decided that an every-day hitter was worth more than a starting pitcher.  Today’s analytics may not bear the old calculations out.  In any event, it’s more or less irrelevant, since Ohtani wants to both hit and pitch, and at his bargain price, the Angels will go along with Ohtani’s wishes for the immediate future.

Would using Ohtani as a two or three inning starter, rather than skipping a turn, make sense?  The Rays recently started Sergio Romo for three-and four-out starts in consecutive games against the Angels to take advantage of the fact that the top of the Angels’ line-up is top-heavy with right-handed hitters.  The ChinaTrust Brothers of Taiwan’s CPBL have been starting their relief pitchers for a couple of innings before bringing in their foreign starters to pitch the next six or seven innings, with some success this season.

If nothing else, it’s kind of gratifying to see teams in the baseball world trying out some new ideas to get an advantage at the margins.  I can’t give Ohtani credit for teams trying their relievers as short-outing starters, but he has at least shaken up the baseball world enough to suggest that new ideas ought to be given a trial even if they conflict with the inherited wisdom about how today’s game should be played.