Colby Lewis, Scott Atchison, Tony Barnette, Casey McGehee, and Carlos Torres…what do these names have in common? After modest beginnings to their professional baseball careers in the United States, they all up-and-took their talents to the Pacific Rim professional leagues. What’s another thing they all have in common? They all came back to the big leagues better players than when they left. Weird concept? It shouldn’t be. The role of the Pacific Rim leagues is rapidly evolving into a very productive and high-paying option for American players to refine their tools for another shot at the big leagues.
Make no mistake, however. Just because a guy has laced ’em up for a few minor league seasons, or got a couple cups of coffee in the show, that experience doesn’t mean instant success awaits him in Asia. Some players are cut out for making the move. Other players…not so much.
A Primer on the Competitive Differences Between the Pac Rim and U.S. Leagues
Before diving too deep, it’s probably a good time to provide a primer of sorts on the differences between the Pac Rim leagues, primarily the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). There are a number of theories as to why MLB-affiliated players make the jump to Asia, but here are the facts: the NPB and KBO, while harboring some of the world’s best individual players, are a step below the level of play we see in the major leagues; there are fewer teams, fewer players, and with the majority of players being native to the respective country, the leagues lack the depth and diversity that we enjoy here in the U.S.
What’s more, the official ball is livelier and tends to travel further, the average fastball velocity is lower, and the ballparks are smaller. It’s not so simple as to say that the leagues are easier, because that is not true; but there are some areas where a player can find a margin for error that does not exist in MLB. For example, a foreign hitter in Asia may see less velocity on a regular basis than he would in the U.S., thus allowing him to get the barrel to more fastballs. A foreign pitcher may see what is a fringe-average fastball in the U.S. play as an above-average offering in Asia, giving a pitcher more of a chance to get out of the trouble inning even if his location isn’t perfect. These are surface-level examples to say the least, and their impact varies player to player; my point is that there is a shift in the strengths and weaknesses of the leagues compared to MLB. What this amounts to is an opportunity for some players to take advantage of the different dynamics at play in the Asian leagues, and use them to their advantage to make the adjustment(s) that may have been holding them back in the U.S.
Players have long been venturing to Asia searching for ways to extend their careers, and as a way to take advantage of higher salaries not available to them in the U.S. Up until about 10 years ago, the Pac Rim pro leagues were seen as the last stop on the way to retirement for players that were no longer fixtures on big league rosters. Players like Matt Franco, Tuffy Rhodes, and Benny Agbayani are relevant examples; players who had had runs of success at the major league level, but then went to Asia later in their careers.
The consensus opinion seemed to be that once you ‘crossed the pond’, your big league career was effectively finished. Another type were players considered to be a fringe big leaguer that elected the contractual security of Asia over spring roster battles with increasingly younger players. Players such as Charlie Manuel, Eric Schullstrom and Nate Minchey recognized the opportunity and ran with it. These are just a few examples of guys that had nothing more to prove in the U.S. minor leagues, but had difficulty seeing their tools translate to consistent performance at the big league level. While these players are a generation (or two) removed from today, the player profile remains, and will continue to, so long as there is professional baseball.
Jump ahead to today, and Randy Messenger is a good case study of a guy who went to Asia, took advantage of the opportunity, and increased his value as a player. Messenger was an 11th-round pick by the Florida Marlins in 1999, and saw spurts of big league time with the Marlins, Giants, and Mariners over the next nine seasons. He has always thrown hard, but fastball command and inconsistent secondary pitches (slider and splitter) plagued him against big league hitters. In Japan, while the same problems still were there, his fastball now really played up at 92-97. That gave him more margin for error when combined with his command and the lesser power in the Japanese lineups. Messenger was afforded more chances to throw his secondaries without getting punished as much for the mistakes. Repetition often coincides with improvement, and he was getting more reps because he was now in games longer, throwing more innings, and making adjustments. In 2011 and 2012 while with the Indians, I pushed to make a run at Messenger, seeing him as a very solid back of the rotation starter with his improved command and secondary pitches. Randy would pass, just as he has on at least a couple major league contract offers with decent guarantees since in order to stay with Hanshin, where he has gone from expendable bullpen piece in the big leagues to a top starter with the Hanshin Tigers.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Transitioning to Pro Ball in Asia
Whether U.S. players admit it or not, many see the move to Asia as a downgrade in the quality of play. For some, the paycheck made it worthwhile. For others, it was merely the chance to keep playing. But for most, it was a combination of both. From the time I arrived in Japan in 2007, it was obvious that the personality type of the American player played a key role in their performance in an Asian league as much as his physical tools contributed to on-field success. Baseball is a game that is hard enough when you are comfortable in your surroundings. It can become nearly impossible when a player is faced with a new culture, language barriers, dietary issues and homesickness. Not everyone is quick to adjust to such massive changes, and like most new scenarios, if you get off to a rocky start it can be hard to recover.
During my time in Asia, I saw a stark contrast in the success levels of players that came to Asia with an open mind as compared those that were reluctant to embrace change. Seth Greisinger was a prime example of how the former paid dividends. Greisinger played nine seasons in Korea and Japan from 2005-13, racking up 1,148.2 high-quality innings for his teams, while making well over $5 million in the process. Greisinger is a relatively soft-spoken guy who led by example, and he made a concerted effort to understand his surroundings. Greisinger also traveled a fair bit; he would spend some of his off-seasons journeying through other countries and experiencing other cultures. So when it came time to live and perform professionally in a new surrounding, the day-to-day adjustments were nothing new for him. I imagine there were a number of things that he didn’t like about playing in the KBO and NPB, but liking everything is not a requirement – understanding those things is.
Greisinger is an example of things working out well, but regardless of a player’s talents on the field, there is no slam dunk for these Asian teams. There is a large amount of risk tied to foreign players in Asia as the teams often pay a hefty dollar figure to draw a player away from the U.S. In general, the gaijin (Japanese for foreigner) players make more than their Japanese or Korean counterparts and are therefore are expected to step in and produce…in some cases right off the plane.
NPB legend and former Atlanta Braves pitcher Nate Minchey and I worked together for the Indians in my early scouting days. He once told me about a pitcher who was signed for significant money at the time. This guy had flown in from the U.S. (his first international flight by the way), and he was taken directly to the ballpark where he was told to get loose and throw a bullpen…in front of the GM, president and owner. No pressure, right? Well when the bullpen did not go well, no surprise there, the player was dropped to the minors to start the season, and on a plane back home shortly thereafter. Another player who made an early exit was Kevin Mench, formerly of the Rangers, Brewers, Blue Jays and Nationals. Mench enjoyed moderate success over a short stretch as a corner outfielder in the big leagues, and he got a hefty guarantee to join the Hanshin Tigers. He basically stepped off the plane hitting and after destroying his first spring training in Japan…well let’s just say that less was expected of LeBron James when he went to Miami. As a result, Mench saw his margin for error shaved down to almost nothing, and when he hit .148 with an OPS of .382 out of the gate, he was summarily buried in the media, and was on a plane home after only 54 AB’s.
The Changing Philosophy of Pac Rim Teams Towards Gaijin Players
Fast forward to more recent seasons, and KBO and NPB teams are now shifting their philosophy of scouting, evaluating, and valuing foreign talent. NPB teams cap the number of foreign players allowed on a game-day roster at four, while the KBO allows three. In an attempt to make better roster decisions, the NPB teams began hiring former gaijin players to scout in the U.S. as well as Latin American winter leagues. The hope was that the gaijin scout would be able to identify not just the tools needed to succeed in Japanese baseball, but also be able to assess the makeup of the player to ‘grade’ their adaptability to the overall culture. (Note: KBO teams have recently begun to follow suit, but currently only two of the 10 teams have past foreign players scouting for them in the US and Latin America).
Another newer NPB strategy has been to identify younger players that could benefit from developing in the Japanese system, acclimate to the cultural differences, and gain a level of comfort with their team’s expectations and mode of operation. This player profile also means lower initial contract guarantees, another plus for clubs.
As the NPB slowly worked into this strategy, a crazy thing started to happen; the players responded. Guys started making the pilgrimage to Japan and Korea at younger ages and were making adjustments, bettering themselves, and returning to the big leagues at valuations exponentially higher than when they left the U.S.
A Growing Number of Players are Making Adjustments and Returning to MLB
Similar to Randy Messenger, Colby Lewis is another great example of a player who thrived in this environment. A first-round pick of the Rangers in 1999, Lewis would spend the next seven-plus years putting up mixed to mediocre results between the minors and big leagues for three different organizations. In 2008, at age 28, he likely had the option of getting an invite to a major league camp with a team, but he instead signed with the Hiroshima Carp of the NPB. While I did not see Colby pitch during his pre-NPB days, the consensus opinion was that he did not miss many bats, partly due to a lack of command in the strike zone. So how did it work out? All he did was throw 354.1 innings across two seasons with 369 strikeouts, and paired that with a minuscule total of 46 walks (translation…that’s really good).
So what changed for Lewis? I had a couple other scouts back then tell me how Lewis used to throw his big curveball a lot and shied away from challenging guys during his initial stint in the U.S. In Japan, the guy I saw pitch for Hiroshima was aggressive, pounding the zone with his fastball, slider and cutter. I saw a pitcher that had taken a step back and adjusted to his surroundings. The NPB is a contact-heavy league that punishes pitchers with poor command. However, the NPB also is not accustomed to pitchers with a fastball consistently in the low-to-mid 90’s. This translated into increased margin for error for Lewis, and no doubt aided his ability to make some adjustments and improve his command.
He turned those two years in Hiroshima into a two-year, $5 million dollar guarantee with the Texas Rangers in 2010. There were some questions within the industry at the time given the dollar amount and lack of precedent for such a deal; but Lewis would make good on that contract, throwing 200+ innings and winning 26 games in his first two years back in the U.S…oh yeah, and the Rangers went to the World Series both of those years.
So Colby Lewis was an anomaly, right? Some may think so, but I don’t. The next six years between 2009-14 would see Ryan Vogelsong (Giants, Pirates), Scott Atchison (Red Sox, Mets, Indians), Casey McGehee (Marlins, Giants) and Carlos Torres (Rockies, Mets) all return from Asia to make meaningful contributions to their big league teams. Tony Barnette had only one season at Triple-A (2009) before spending the next six in the NPB with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, where he dominated after converting from starter to reliever; a role that better suits his repertoire and energy (see my full report on Barnette here). He signed a two-year, $3.5 million dollar contract with the Rangers this past December. Radhames Liz would land in the KBO for two productive seasons in 2012-13 before securing a one-year, $1.2 million guaranteed contract with the Pirates in 2014 (he has since bounced right back to the NPB as a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, signing an $815,000 contract for 2016)
For Some, the Appeal of the Pacific Rim Never Wears Off
This is not to say that success is only measured upon glorious return to the big leagues either. There is a veritable laundry list of players that rediscovered their games in the NPB/KBO, and found a home as international ambassadors for the game by continuing to play there in lieu of a return to the big leagues. Alex Ramirez is arguably the most successful non-Asian player in NPB history, with 2 MVPs, 3 RBI titles, 2017 hits, 380 HR’s, a batting title, eight All-Star teams, and two Japan Series (the NPB’s World Series) championships. He made well over $25 million spanning his 12-year playing career, and is now the manager of the Yokohama Baystars.
Wladimir Balentien, Matt Murton (Note: Murton is actually in big league camp with the Cubs right now), Josh Whitesell and Eric Thames are a few more examples of players who have already, or are currently compiling significant Asian careers after inauspicious starts to their pro careers in the U.S.
Murton broke Ichiro’s single season hit record in Japan (214 hits in 144 games to Ichiro’s 210 hits in 130 games) in his first season with Hanshin. Whitesell swatted 40 HR’s and 51 doubles across four seasons in Japan with the Swallows and Chiba Lotte Marines. Balentien was collecting airline miles between Triple-A and the big leagues from 2007-2010 before joining the Swallows in 2011 and becoming the NPB’s single season HR champ in 2014. He’s accumulated over $10 million in guaranteed salary to date as he enters his sixth season in Japan (Note: See his 2014 HRs #’s 1-55 here; I was behind the plate for #54, which was hit off current Dodger Kenta Maeda and was 95 mph on my gun).
Thames has been putting up video game numbers in the KBO the past two seasons (332 hits, 84 HRs, 261 RBIs, 1.199 OPS, 161 walks, 190 Ks), a trend that if he continues could land him a nice major league guarantee, but will most definitely result in a large raise if he heads to Japan or stays in Korea.
Will the Trend Continue?
All in all, what does this mean for the Asian leagues and American players moving forward? I’m not an agent, but if I were I would be reading everything I could get my hands on about the Japanese and Korean leagues to better understand the opportunities that exist for players that I represented. Every spring, hundreds of players roll into Florida and Arizona vying for a big league roster spot. But the ratio of players to roster spots is about 3:1, so every year there will be guys with plenty of ability stuck without a chair when the music stops playing. And I’m not talking about the young prospects that get a taste of big league spring training that get sent back down for more development. I mean the guy that is 29 or so that has spent the past couple seasons either stuck at Triple-A or shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues. It is a large gap between the $507,500 that is major league minimum and the $2400 or so a month you get at Triple-A. It takes an amazing amount of faith in one’s self, along with a supportive family to continue to grind a career out like that.
But what if there was another route? If approached with the right mindset and understanding, Asian leagues represent a tremendous opportunity for players on the bubble. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a training ground; the Japanese and Korean leagues represent some of the world’s best competition (two WBC championships for Japan in 2006 and 2009) played in front of some of baseball’s best fans. It is a chance for some to learn a different system and perhaps make adjustments they wouldn’t have otherwise – and make some serious money doing it.
So other than Johnny Gomes (one-year, $2 million deal with Rakuten in February), who is the next player to take advantage of playing opportunities in Asia? Who knows? But one thing is certain: there will be a lot of guys on the bus back to Triple-A in a few weeks that should start working on their next language.