MLB success after stint in Japan / Korea?

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T15D23
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MLB success after stint in Japan / Korea?

Postby T15D23 » Sat Apr 06, 2019 4:31 pm

Why so many pitchers are finding MLB success after returning from stints in Korea and Japan
Peter Gammons

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At​ one point​ in​ spring​ training, beyond​ Yu Darvish and Junichi​ Tazawa,​ the Cubs had​ Tony Barnette,​ Allen Webster​​ and Mike Zagurski, all three of whom had gone to Japan or Korea when their careers flickered in the U.S., and came back renewed. In fact, Barnette went from five seasons in the Diamondbacks organization to six seasons with the Yakult Swallows, then returned for three years with the Texas Rangers and signed a one-year contract with the Cubs, even with unanswered concerns about his shoulder.

Webster had thrown 123 1/3 innings in the majors with a 6.13 ERA, spent one year in Korea (where he had a 5.70 ERA), was being clocked this spring at 98 mph and was throwing strikes, and is headed back to Wrigleyville this week. Really.

There was a time when an American player went to Japan or Korea, it was, as C.J. Nitkowski — who played in both of those professional leagues near the end of his career — put it, “like comedians eventually end up in Las Vegas.” Don Newcombe and Larry Doby each played in Japan when they were essentially finished with their distinguished MLB careers. In the 1960s, Joe Stanka went to Japan and won 26 games in the 1964 season, but never came back to play in the U.S. again. Neither did Gene Bacque, who around the same time signed with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders, was released, went to Japan and won the Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan’s best pitcher, and finished his career there.

In the past decade, minor leaguers Dennis Sarfate and Marc Kroon set save records in Japan, yet never got a U.S. offer that made it worthwhile to come back. Thus far, the same is true of Kris Johnson, a 2006 first-round sandwich pick of the Red Sox who has been a four-year stalwart for Hiroshima, making $3 million a year, and is the second American to win the Sawamura Award (in 2016). Way back in 1936, submarine pitcher James Bonner went from the independent league Berkeley, Cal. team to Dai Tokyo, becoming Japan’s first African-American player in the process, 11 years before Jackie Robinson began his historic career with the Dodgers.

“Look at Miles Mikolas being on the All-Star team last summer, and Ryan Brasier being one of Boston’s bullpen heroes last October, and things have changed,” one MLB executive said. “We’re not only sending our people to check out the best Japanese pitchers who may want to be posted and come to the States, but we’re sending them two or three times during the season to scout the pitchers who got stale in Triple A, went to Japan or Korea to make $750,000 to $1 million compared to what they make here in the minors, and see if they made changes there to make them capable of getting big-league hitters out.

“There’s a guy with (Nippon Professional Baseball’s) Seibu named Kyle Martin,” the executive said, “a big, hard-throwing right-handed reliever who was a pretty good prospect, leveled, went to Japan last year, is still only 28 and has a really good record (2.19 ERA) over there. I’d bet on him being in spring training here next February, maybe with a guaranteed contract, given that each of the last two years MLB has set records for reliever appearances.”

It makes sense. Mikolas came back to the Cardinals last season on a two-year, $15 million contract (which was torn up and changed to four years and $68 million) that turned out to be a bargain. But in an era where baseball’s middle class is being swallowed, check out Merrill Kelly’s return to the Diamondbacks after three seasons in Korea for two years, $5.5 million. It makes sense because in a game that has broken the record for most relievers used three consecutive seasons, every healthy arm has value. It makes sense for a 26- or 27-year-old on the 4A shuttle to forsake the 6 a.m. flights, Big Macs, one-star hotels and low salaries if there is the opportunity to get a guaranteed contract for close to $1 million.

There’s also the chance to play in front of big crowds, compared to what one finds on a cold, windy night in Hartford or a hot, steamy day in New Orleans. “I think the experience of pitching in front of 30,500 every night in the playoffs was great,” Kelly says. “I think it helped my focus on improving my pitches and executing them, as well as working in front of a big crowd that will let you know in no uncertain terms if you’re not pitching well. It forces concentration.”

Diamondbacks assistant general manager Jared Porter also believes that “it helps us in terms of evaluating players when they’re playing in front of those crowds. It gives us insight on how they may handle major-league crowds,” with third decks and the urgency required by folks who are paying significant money for a ticket. Kelly made his Diamondbacks debut April 1 with a six-inning start and a win in San Diego, throwing all five of his pitches for at least 50 percent strikes and keeping his fastball consistently in the mid-90s.

Mikolas had a 5.32 ERA in short stints with the Padres and the Rangers. He then went to Yomiuri in Japan, added a cutter, honed his command, went 31-13 in three seasons with a 2.18 ERA and an incredible 378-69 strikeout-walk ratio, came back and led the majors with just 1.3 walks per nine innings. “He cleaned up his delivery, improved every one of his pitches, added a cutter and came back an All-Star pitcher, one of the best in the game,” says A.J. Preller, who traded him from the Padres organization to Texas, then says he underbid when he tried to bring him back at two years, $12 million. “I give the Cardinals credit. They made a great decision.”

With that signing and Mikolas’ performance, the last questions about bringing back players from Japan may have ended. Have U.S. teams undervalued the level of Asian baseball in the past? “I think it may be true,” Preller says.

The first World Baseball Classic in 2006 may have begun the recent change, when the Japanese team triumphed, led by Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Some 13 years later, Mikolas has a four-year, $68 million guarantee, not too shabby for a seventh-round draft pick in that 2009 Nova Southeastern University class with J.D. Martinez and Mike Fiers.

Nitkowski recalls that when he went to (NPB’s) Softbank in 2007, at the age of 34, “I had a guaranteed contract, I relaxed and felt better about myself. I think it can work if you accept that you’re in Asia. We loved it. My wife enjoyed it, two of my boys spent time growing up there.”

Several players remember players who went to Asia from the United States and never accepted their new reality, thinking that they should be back in the States. Frank Herrmann, who pitched for the Indians and Phillies and has posted a sub-2.00 earned-run average for Rakuten, says part of the reason he’s blossomed is that “I’m not looking over my shoulder after every outing. When you are that ‘4A guy,’ a bad outing or even an extra-inning game in which you did your job could potentially be a demotion to the minors. That’s a grind mentality.”

A pioneer in this round-trip revolution was Colby Lewis. He was the Rangers’ first-round pick in 1999, big power arm, but it just wasn’t working. In 2002 and 2003 with Texas, he had ERAs of 6.29 and 7.30, respectively. It was 6.45 in 2007 for the Athletics, and although he was 8-3, 1.88 for Triple-A Sacramento in the second half of that season, he was allowed to go to Hiroshima. Joe Fuwakama, the former University of California infielder who played briefly in Japan and moved on as a scout for the Rangers, called Jon Daniels and his then-assistant Preller after Lewis threw his first bullpen session for his new team. “Joe said, ‘I guarantee you that if he threw the way he did in this bullpen in the States, he could win in the major leagues,” Preller said.

After two seasons for Hiroshima in which he had a 2.82 earned run-average and an astounding 369-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio, he was signed back by the Rangers on a two-year deal. “You have to see Lewis to believe him,” is how Daniels greeted me in Surprise, Ariz., in March of 2010. He won 26 games for the Rangers in 2010-11, started eight postseason games, was 4-1, 2.39 ERA.

Preller flew to Japan to see him pitch for Hiroshima. “He had a different confidence and mound presence,” the current Padres general manager says. Was it the guaranteed contract in Japan? Was it not having to try to live up to being a first-round pick? Was he always looking over his shoulder? “We never knew,” Preller says. “But he went to Japan with the attitude that he was going to fix himself, and obviously was in control from that first bullpen session.”

When Nitkowski was in Japan, team management harried him about using his cutter more often, calling him out for any hit not on that pitch.

Kris Johnson, who went to Hiroshima at 30 because he hit Triple A and found it to be “a wall,” had a 6.50 ERA in Rochester after brief stints with the Pirates and the Twins, but in Japan became a $3 million-a-year star. In four seasons, the left-hander has been 46-22, 2.52. He has had seasons in which he was 14-7, 1.85, 15-7, 2.18 and, in 2018, 11-5, 3.11.

“I found I was pretty much on my own there,” Johnson says. “That forced me to work on pitches, think things out and experiment on my own. My curveball had gotten loopy. I guess I was predictable. Because the home run is not a big deal in Japan but the hitters excel at contact, you have to give different looks in different counts. I started throwing 3-1 cutters and 3-1 sliders. I started throwing a slider in Triple A before I left, and it continually improved in Japan.”

Herrmann adds: “They don’t train as much for power, and I think that allowed me the space and confidence with those pitches with the game on the line, rather than reverting to what came natural to me.”

Johnson is now 34 years old, but he has thought about coming back to the States if someone is interested. Home is in Missouri, and one more shot at The Show for someone from Wichita State who was once the 40th pick in the nation has understandable appeal.

“My stuff is as good as it ever was, although polished and utilized better than it was when I was in the States,” Johnson says. “I was 92-94 mph when I was a prospect, it’s a tick up from that now. I have the four pitches. I’ve learned to do things with the ball. I had to learn to survive here. They only have four American players per team (three in Korea), so you have to perform.”

In 2017, one of Johnson’s Hiroshima teammates was Brasier. “He wasn’t treated too well,” Johnson says. Brasier made only 26 appearances good for 30 innings and was sent for periods of time to the minor leagues, where he worked on his slider(s) and began learning a changeup he had used sparingly when he was with the Angels and Athletics. The Red Sox were one of the few teams to respond to the inquiries he sent every club, signed him the first week of March last spring and brought him up in July. He had a 1.60 earned-run average leading into the playoffs, during which he did not allow a run.

The Red Sox had a professional scouting director, Gus Quattlebaum, looking for any pitcher who might be able to get three outs. Now, when Mike Mussina, Lee Smith and Roy Halladay are inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 21, Ryan Brasier will have what none of those HOFers have — a World Series ring.

It was different for Sarfate, who was a big, raw gas-thrower in the Orioles, Astros and Brewers organizations before going to Japan, breaking their single-season save record and running up more than 200 saves. Teams wanted him back, but not at the money he was making as a star in Japan. He credits his catcher, Toru Hosokawa, with the curve in his career. “Toru was the one who pushed me to think outside the box and start guys off with a split or curveball or different things,” Sarfate told The Japanese Times. Sarfate turns 38 on April 9, so he’s unlikely to be going to spring training next season.

Ryan Vogelsong came back, healthy, with success. Wade LeBlanc spent 2015 with Seibu, returned, and has a 3.91 ERA for the Pirates and Mariners. Pedro Feliciano came back to the Mets in 2006 and led the majors in appearances three consecutive seasons, 2008-10. Pat Mahomes came back and from 1999 to 2003 had a 4.98 ERA, worth knowing if you’re a Chiefs fan. Nitkowski says two former high picks — Bryan Bullington, the top pick in the 2002 draft by Pittsburgh, and Seth Greisinger, the sixth pick in the ’96 draft by Detroit, “had success and could have come back, but chose not to do so.”

Pitchers stuck on the 4A treadmill can now see that going to play in Japan isn’t actually like Las Vegas for fading comedians. “If you accept that … there’s a reason you’re not in the major leagues, it’s a good place to go, work on ways to get better against players with high-contact bat skills and make relatively good money,” Johnson says. As well as have MLB scouts following you, like Kyle Martin.

Major-league teams make mistakes; had Matt Murton been allowed to hit the way he could hit, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten caught on the Lou Piniella Shuttle and gone to Japan, where he broke Ichiro’s hit record and became such a star that he couldn’t afford to return to the States. Maybe Mikolas would have figured it out in the Rangers organization, but with feel and intelligence, coupled with an open mind, he made the best of three seasons overseas during which he walked just 23 batters each year, returned and earned his contract.

It’s worth thinking about Kris Johnson for two years. Or someone shuttling between Baltimore in the American League East and Tidewater in the International League trying to go join Rakuten in 2020, earn $750,000 and come back to open for the Rays in 2021.

In the meanwhile, there’s more reason to watch Allen Webster. He’s now pitched for 19 different teams in three countries, has a 6.13 career ERA in the major leagues, 6.09 in Korea, 5.05 in Triple A, 4.93 in Double A. He’s still only 29 years old, was throwing 98 mph in spring training and — who knows? — maybe he’s this year’s Ryan Brasier, and will be flashing a World Series ring at a Fourth of July picnic in 2020.
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