Hey Seattle Mariner fans, do you remember Wladimir Balentien?
Go ahead, take a minute to think back to the time, not too long ago, that spanned the final year when Bill Bavasi was still running / ruining (take your pick) the Mariners and the honeymoon period when Jack Zduriencik arrived in town to help clean up the mess.
Ok, now dig a little deeper and remember one of so many outfield prospects with "tons" of power that didn't quite pan out.
Still not sure?
Perhaps you've simply buried the memory of Balentien's 130 games in a Mariners uniform spanning parts of three seasons (via ESPN) because, quite frankly, his time in Seattle was so unimpressive.
Meanwhile, if we fast forward to this past weekend, Balentien, now more than three seasons removed from playing in the major leagues, has just broken (via Japan Times) legendary Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh's single-season Nippon Professional Baseball home run record.
Now, depending on your point of view, you may either see this as tragic or comical, but to me it's curious.
As usual, there are two sides to every story. Did the Mariners give up on Balentien too soon, or is this simply the case of another failed / washed up slugger making it "Big in Japan?"
It's hard not to be a bit skeptical of Balentien. Even if you look beyond his past MLB performance, three points remain hard to dispute.
For starters, the level of competition in the NPB isn't exactly on par with the MLB.
Second, parks in Japan have a tendency to run a bit small, especially Balentien's home park with the Yakult Swallows, Meiji Jingu Stadium (via wikipedia).
Finally, the ball being used in Japan this season is juiced (via NBC Sports).
Do these points help discount what Balentien has accomplished?
Not really when you consider his full body of work in Japan.
Over three seasons with Yakult, I think it's safe to say that Balentien's perfomance has improved each season (via Nippon Professional Baseball).
Beyond the raw power though, what's interesting to me is how his average and walks have gone up each year since arriving in Japan and how for this season his slugging and OBP figures (via NPB) would give him a cartoonish OPS of 1.278 compared to .783 for his first season in Japan back in 2011.
Still, it's impossible to judge how these figures would translate had Balentien continued playing stateside.
Yet, given the Mariners' current lack of depth in the outfield within the highest levels of the organization, it makes you wonder if Balentien could be on some level contributing right now in Seattle?
It's tempting to believe in a grasping straws sort of way, but one passage of Jeff Passan's write-up for Yahoo!Sports late last week, discussing Balentien's approach to hitting, remains etched upon my mind:
Balentien swings a baseball bat like Happy Gilmore did a driver, an all-or-nothing uppercut full of ferocity and terror. He will not be on any instructional videos for form. Balentien doesn't step into the bucket with his front foot; he practically leaps there. He chases balls everywhere, ravenous to swing. Function, though? In baseball, where it's always function over form, one dare not trifle with results, no matter how hideous the form.
Perhaps that approach is working in Japan, but it makes me think that Balentien would still be struggling against good major league pitching beyond getting a hold of the occasional mistake.
Even in the midst of his prime, given a few years to mature, and with the fences pulled in at Safeco Field: I can't picture Balentien employing the same technique he did five years earlier with any greater success for the Mariners today.
So did Jack Zduriencik make a mistake in trading away Balentien?
I could be wrong, but it would seem unlikely. If nothing else, it's probably safe to assume that trading away Balentien is nowhere near as tragic as Bill Bavasi shipping off Adam Jones to Baltimore the year before.
At any rate, I'm happy for Balentien and wish him well moving forward as he seems poised to obliterate the record with more than three weeks of baseball left to play.
If he plays his cards right, he should be able to take the success from this season and cash in for the next decade whether he stays with Yakult or takes on the role of hired gun in Japan. So long as he can continue to hit for power, he can enjoy rockstar status in a country that truly loves the game.
Sure, the Yakult Swallows aren't faring any better than the Mariners this season, given they're in last place in the Central League. But given the excitement of what Balentien has achieved this season, at least Swallows fans have something—and more importantly someone—to cheer for.
What's so amazing about Balentien's season is that he has managed to chase Sadaharu Oh without the cultural baggage others have faced in prior attempts as Passan explains:
Balentien has not faced lingering resentment for threatening the legend of Oh. Whatever the reason – a willingness to stray from past xenophobia, a genuine admiration of Balentien or perhaps both – it has unfurled moment after great moment, the sort befitting of a chase for a record still with meaning.
Fans of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows love Balentien. The Swallows are like the Mets to the Yomiuri Giants' Yankees. Their games are in Jingu Stadium, an old relic where Babe Ruth once played, and they struggle to fill it because they're not very good. These days, they come for Coco. That's what they call Balentien.
Having lived in Tokyo for several years and enjoyed more than my fair share of games at Jingu rooting for the Swallows, I have to admit that I'm a bit jealous at the moment in having missed out.
Instead I can only applaud "Coco" from afar for having made the most of this opportunity.
Life is funny sometimes.
One minute the Seattle Mariners don't want you, the next you're the biggest thing going in Japan.
In retrospect, it was probably a blessing in disguise, as he was the one that got away...away from the dysfunction and empty promises of a brighter future in Seattle that never seems to come to fruition.
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