Casey McGehee just signed a contract to play for the Marlins in 2014, after spending the season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he was teammates with Andruw Jones, Kaz Matsui, Brandon Duckworth, and Takashi Saito. McGehee had a good year: .292/.376/.515 slash line, with 28 homers and 93 RBIs. (He and Jones were easily the team’s two best hitters; he was two homers ahead of Jones and one RBI behind him.) Now 31, he will try to reestablish himself in the majors.
McGehee is far from the only player to cross the Pacific in the other direction. I spent several hours making an unscientific study of baseball-reference, Lexis-Nexis, and Wikipedia, and came up with a list of 167 players from the Americas who spent time in Japan and then returned to play in the major leagues. (There may be errors both of omission and commission in the list; I do not claim to have found everybody, and it is possible that some people wound up in the list who should not have. Please make corrections in the comments and I will update the doc.)
Here it is:
The vast majority of these players went to Japan because that was their best chance to earn a good salary playing professional baseball. Either they are former stars who are too over the hill to hack it in the major leagues, or they simply were never good enough to stick. Either way, they are essentially fringe, Quad-A guys. That’s how Japanese teams see them too. That’s the actual term that a Yomiuri Giants international scouting director used in a newspaper interview to refer to Carlos Torres, a former White Sox farmhand who pitched in Japan in 2011:
“We classify him as a 4A type player, between Triple-A and the majors,” Miyamura said. “[A well-known] name is not important. We’ve spent big money for players before, and it hasn’t always worked out. [Torres is] on his prime time and is building a career. In that sense, Carlos is a great fit.
Torres came back to the majors in 2012 and has pitched 139 innings the last two years with an ERA+ of 96. He is currently listed at sixth on the New York Mets’ starting pitchers’ depth chart on MLB.com, but has not yet been tendered a contract. He’s only 31, so if he doesn’t get a contract he could certainly consider going back to Japan.
Among players returning from Japan, there are a few success stories that come to mind, players who weren’t much before they left but were stars once they returned. First and foremost is Cecil Fielder. Fielder was a platoon first baseman when he left, managing just 558 plate appearances (and 31 home runs) over his first four seasons in the majors. After a terrific year with the Hanshin Tigers, he came to the Detroit Tigers, hit 51 homers in 1990, and was one of the top home run hitters in the American League for another half-decade.
Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong didn’t come back with that much of a bang, but their resurgences were not much less remarkable. Lewis was a former first round pick who managed a total of 217 1/3 major league innings in his first decade in professional baseball, beset by a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. Vogelsong was a fifth-rounder who had 315 major league innings in his first decade after being drafted. Then they went to Japan.
Lewis then had two fine seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, came back to the Texas Rangers, and spent two and a half years as one of the better right-handers in the American League before another injury setback put him back on the shelf. Vogelsong spent two years with the Hanshin Tigers and another with the Orix Buffaloes — he was good, not great — and came to the San Francisco Giants, where he was a surprise All-Star in 2011, remaining effective in 2012 before collapsing in 2013.
They are the outliers, though. Few of the foreign players who have achieved unthought-of success in Japan have been able to bring that success back home — most have not even gotten the chance to try, and most of the rest have fallen short. Roberto Petagine is a famous case of the latter. A journeyman who had bounced around the majors and minors in his 20s, raking in the minors but failing to stick in the majors, Petagine went to Japan and became one of the premier sluggers in NPB from 1999-2004, playing for the Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants.
The sabermetrically inclined Boston Red Sox decided to target him as a possible undervalued asset, and brought him back to the majors. At the time, Marc Normandin noted that his numbers in Japan were similar to those of Hideki Matsui. But Petagine was no more successful this time around: as usual, he raked in Triple-A and struggled to hold a roster spot in the majors, producing a .745 OPS over 68 plate appearances in 2005-2006 before leaving the majors again, heading this time to Korea.
A few other players managed a different sort of transition. Timo Perez and Alfonso Soriano played in Japan before they ever reached the majors. (Soriano is a very important player in Japanese baseball history because his case helped lay the groundwork for the modern posting system, but his situation was pretty unique.)
Matt Stairs went to Japan in 1993 as a 25-year old and struggled to a .721 OPS, then came back to the States. He didn’t break out until 1997 in Oakland, when he was 29, but he remained an effective hitter and platoon outfielder for well over a decade after that.
Julio Franco, on the other hand, used his time outside the country to reinvent himself as a pinch hitter extraordinaire. Released after turning 38, Franco spent most of the next four years in Japan, Mexico, and Korea, with a brief stopover in Tampa Bay. The Atlanta Braves purchased his contract when he was leading the Mexican League in hitting as a 43-year old, and he hung around the majors for another half-decade after that.
Flawed hitters like McGehee and Wladimir Balentien and Wily Mo Pena are able to succeed in Japan despite struggling in America because Japanese pitchers are taught to pitch to contact, which means that players with holes in their swings have less trouble over there. But playing in Japan is rarely enough, in and of itself, to fundamentally cure what ails a struggling hitter.
There was one player who actually made the Hall of Fame after returning from Japan: Goose Gossage. Of all of the players who have gone to Japan in recent years, I think that Andruw Jones has an equally deserving case for the Hall. But their examples don’t much apply to McGehee.
Over 2000 Major League plate appearances, McGehee has demonstrated what he is capable of doing to Major League pitching, and his .317 wOBA testifies to that fact. He’s very likely one of the best 750 baseball players in the world, and deserves his spot on a major league roster. But don’t expect him to hit in America like he hit in Japan. Almost no one does.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.