The Japanese Leagues Are Getting Better

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2011

For the last decade, my feeling has been that on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the best, MLB as a ten and AAA as a one, then the Japanese NPB is a four.  I would now rate NPB as a five.

I readily admit that my opinion is highly subjective, based on individual cases I recall rather than a more objective statistical analysis.  Here’s why I think NPB is getting better.

First, the Japanese teams are gradually getting better at selecting the American players most likely to succeed in Japan. The Japanese teams still like Americans with at least a little major league experience, but they seem to be getting better at selecting players who are still reasonably young and near their peak performance, who’ve put up great minor league numbers, but haven’t played well in relatively limited MLB trails.

Even so, it is largely hit or miss whether these 4-A players will succeed in Japan.  This year, I thought the best signing by a Japanese team was the Yakult Swallows’ decision to sign Wladimir Balentien.

For those who follow prospects, Balentien was a guy who was expected to break through for the Reds a couple of years ago.  He’s originally from Curacao, like Andruw Jones, and in two and half seasons at AAA, he posted OPS numbers of .871, .938 and .873.

However, Balentien just couldn’t break through, hitting only .221 with a .655 OPS in 511 major league ABs.  Even so, he only turned 27 on July 2nd, two days ago.  He’s exactly the kind of player Japanese teams should be looking at.

Balentien got off to a tremendous start for the Swallows this year, hitting twice as many HRs as any other player in the Central League during the first two months of the season and leading or near the top of the league in batting average.  The Japanese leagues are not child’s play, though, and Wladimir has gone stone cold in June and so far in July.  His batting average has fallen at least fifty points, down to .273, and other hitters are beginning to close in on his league-leading HR total of 17 (Foreigners Termel Sledge and Alex Ramirez had 13 and 12, respectively).

Even among the players most likely to succeed in Japan, it’s still a crap shoot.  Two years ago, I thought that the signings of Jamie D’Antona and Dan Johnson by Japanese teams were brilliant.  D’Antona was 27 in 2009, Johnson was 29, and in 2008 they had been, respectively, the best full-season hitters in the
AAA International and Pacific Coast Leagues.

D’Antona had a solid rookie season in 2009, hitting .276 with an .813 OPS.  However, he had injury problems, and in 2010, his stats fell to a .245 batting average and a .771 OPS.  The Yakult Swallows weren’t satisfied, particularly with his ability to hit right-handed pitchers, and they didn’t bring him back for 2011.

Dan Johnson hit only .215 in 2009, although his OPS was a not terrible .792 OPS — he hit 24 HRs in 325 ABs.  However, he was a highly paid (by Japanese standards: a reported $950,000) 1Bman, and the Yokahoma BayStars didn’t bring him back for a sophomore season to see if he could improve.

I also think of Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong, who went to Japan after thoroughly washing out despite many major league opportunities (injuries played a roll).  NPB was good enough for both pitchers to hone their game over a couple of seasons and then come back to MLB as top-of-the rotation starters.  Vogelsong may be a fluke, but Lewis had given the Rangers a fine year and a half.

Another factor in NPB’s improvement is the improving game in South Korea and Taiwan.  A larger percentage of foreign players in Japan are coming from these countries, although at this point most of these players seem to be playing in Japan’s minor leagues.

Although I believe NPB has gotten relatively better the last few years, I just don’t see it getting much better until NPB eliminates the tight restrictions of foreign players.  Since 1998, Japanese teams have limited themselves to four foreign players on their major league rosters, with no more than three pitchers or three position players (as of 2002).  A foreign player who plays nine full seasons in Japan is not counted as a foreign players, but Alex Cabrera of the Softbank Hawks and Alex Ramirez of the Yomiuri Giants are the only two foreign players with the playing time to qualify for the exemption.

The limit on foreign players keeps salaries down and keeps the NPB predominantly Japanese.  However, it also almost certainly limits the quality of play on a league-wide basis.