Unless you're a Mariners or Reds fan, there was a strong chance you had never heard of Wladimir Balentien before this season. He was a low-contact, high-power prospect for the Mariners before he was traded to the Reds, and after an okay season in Triple-A and a handful of at-bats in the majors, he vanished. It happens to ex-prospects all the time, and …
Except now he's doing this:
(Not sure who to credit for this. If you know, please tell me ...)
That would be his 54th homer of the season, tying him with Alex Cabrera, Randy Bass, and Tuffy Rhodes for the second-best mark in Nippon Professional Baseball history, just one behind Sadaharu Oh for the record.
With 22 games left.
While there's some history of players getting stuck on 54 homers for reasons out of their control, there's every chance that Balentien will soon be Japan's new single-season record holder.
He's not the only former major leaguer in Japan, of course. So in the interest of public service -- and in the interest of mentioning Fred Lewis and John Bowker as much as possible -- here is a team-by-team roundup of every former major leaguer playing in NPB this season.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Some of you are saying, "Whoa, Andruw Jones?" But if you're really cool, you're saying, "Brandon Duckworth???"
Also, I'm pretty sure that I would have thought Casey McGehee was closer to Takashi Saito's age than Mike Trout's. This is also a good time to remind everyone that Saito was one of the most effective relievers of the last couple decades. If only he could stay healthy ...
Chiba Lotte Marines
That would be Tad Iguchi, lumbering first baseman now. His second-base days are mostly over, but he's still having one of the best seasons of his career at 38.
Dicky Gonzalez has been in Japan for years, and he was 15-2 with a 2.11 ERA for the Yomiuri Giants in 2009.
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
|Wily Mo Pena||31||135||0||8||13||40||.222||.319||.274||.592|
And there go the two hitters I would have expected to destroy NPB, just piddling along. There's an adjustment period to the league, I'm sure, so maybe next year is the breakout season for 2012 All-Star Bryan LaHair. Also, Bryan LaHair played in the All-Star Game. In 2012. Fourteen months ago. For the National League.
Igarashi pitched 83 games in the majors, and his ERA was 6.41 -- that's the eighth-highest mark for any reliever with more than 80 games. But he completely dominated Triple-A, with 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, a 1.89 ERA, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.7. Weird.
Saitama Seibu Lions
That's the other Chris Carter, the one who was traded for Wily Mo Pena in 2007. That's also the second baseman of the future for the early-'00s A's paired up with the other second baseman of the future for the early-'00s A's. That's like Blondie and Tuco putting aside their differences to seek their fortune.
Also, Kaz Ishii is still pitching. Ishii was the Jonathan Sanchez of pitching a decade ago, but he's had a long, somewhat useful career since returning to Japan. This is a good place to drop a link to the hilarious 2002 Rookie of the Year voting in the National League. That was the peak season for almost everyone on that list.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Hoffpauir was the original Bryan LaHair, and he was pretty good in Japan last season. Not so much this year, obviously.
Tadano used to be a hotshot prospect with the Indians, but he never regained his form after 2003. He'll probably be remembered for the backwards reason he was shunned by teams in the NPB amateur draft. It's much better, though, to remember him for this:
Igawa is almost certainly the funniest Yankees contract of the last decade, beating out even Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano. He was a symbol of the excess of the times, the $100,000 ice sculpture at the dot-com party. It's all over now. And he's having a pretty okay season for the Buffaloes.
I wish there were an American pro team known as the Buffaloes.
Bowker is on the short list of players whose number I'd get tattooed on my back like a skin shirsey, so this is relevant to my interests. He's doing pretty well, too, considering.
The decline and fall of Jose Lopez sure happened quickly. Perhaps he wasn't done after all.
Oh, man, too much good stuff. Too much ...
Brooks Conrad will forever be known in the States for a crucial error in the 2010 NLDS for the Braves. He's not done much in Japan to rewrite that legacy.
Kosuke Fukudome was perennially underrated when he was with the Cubs, but now he's winding down after his return to Japan.
Matt Murton had a miserable season last year after a couple of impressive seasons for Hanshin. He's back this season.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka was awful, just awful, with the Twins. You can read about his ignominious career here.
Randy Messenger was a fastball/slider reliever in the majors, and he had trouble throwing strikes. So of course he turned into a reliable starter in Japan.
Now I want a Hanshin Tigers hat.
Another solid collection of names you remember. Ka'aihue was a cause if you were a Royals fan sick of watching Mike Jacobs, but he never did anything in the majors. Fred Lewis is hitting like Fred Lewis, but in a totally different country.
And Bryan Bullington finding success in Japan probably has something to do with the Pirates breaking their under-.500 streak. It was written in the runes or scrawled inside a cave somewhere.
After an impressive debut season with the Braves, Kawakami hasn't been healthy for more than a few innings at a time.
And raise your hands, Orioles fans, if you thought Daniel Cabrera would ever have a season anywhere with above-average command and a low ERA.
Yokohama Bay Stars
Remember the last time you thought of Tony Plush. Huh, me neither. But he's adjusting to life in Japan, and he's having a nice season.
Ramirez is winding down, but he has 380 career home runs in Japan -- just a couple dozen behind Tuffy Rhodes's career total.
Oh, man, that season. The offensive environment in Japan isn't as extreme as in the prior two seasons, but it's still something of a pitcher's league. The last player to finish with an OPS over 1.200 in Japan was Alex Cabrera in 2002.
Ben Lindbergh took a look at whether teams might want Balentin back, but it was a hypothetical look, as Balentien is under contract for the next three seasons. Alas, we'll never know what he'd do if he were back in the States.
(Probably 52 dingers or so. You have to adjust the numbers down a bit.)