What’s great about baseball is it’s a sport that stretches continents. The MLB is filled with talent from all over the world. While its Hispanic countries like The Dominican Republic that have a baseball presence which stand out to us, there’s a country far West that holds an intrinsic value for baseball. One baseball cultured country that separates itself from the others is Japan. Over the years Japan has produced many MLB greats, including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, and many more. But what’s fascinating about the country of Japan isn’t only the talent they produce for the MLB. It’s also the talent they bring in from the MLB.
The NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) is the highest level of baseball in Japan. The league consists of two six team circuits, the Central league and the Pacific league. Each season the winning clubs from the two leagues complete in the Japan Series which is the NPB’s version of the World Series. Even though this isn’t the only place in Japan we see MLB players come from and go to, it definitely has the most. Over the years, the NPB has sort of become for the MLB what the CFL is to the NFL. It has become an opportunity for former MLB players to still compete at a high level and make a living, playing the game they love. Many MLB players have made the move overseas and some have done it under the radar. As soon as their careers are done in the MLB, they often become irrelevant to us and as a result, we may not even realize that they did play in Japan or for some, still are.
20 Warren Cromartie
Cromartie played ten years in the MLB, playing 9 of the 10 years with the Montreal Expos. He closed out his MLB career with the Kansas City Royals. Overall he had a pretty good career, totaling 1,104 hits on a .281 career batting average. Ironically, he played in Japan before coming back to the MLB for his last season.
He was with the Expos until 1983, and then the following offseason he signed with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.
This move was monumental for Japan professional baseball as Cromartie was only thirty-years old. Therefore, he was the first, and arguably the most prominent American player in his prime to sign with a Japanese team.
19 Kevin Youkilis
Kevin Youkilis had a fantastic career. His accolades include being a 3 x All-Star, 2 x World Series Champion, Gold Glove Award winner, and Hank Aaron Award winner. He was also inducted into the Boston Red Sox hall of fame. However, his pro career in the states ended rather unceremoniously after stints with the White Sox and the Yankees. In his final MLB season, he only played in 28 games, batting .219 with the Yankees.
Youkilis decided to test the waters out west and played one season in Japan with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles before calling it a career in 2015.
18 Cecil Fielder
Cecil Fielder played 13 seasons in the MLB, and it was evident where his son Prince got his power from. Cecil finished his MLB career with 319 home runs. The power hitter was a 3 x All-Star, 2 x Silver Slugger Award winner, 2 x AL Home Run leader, 3 x AL RBI Leader, and a World Series champion. Fielder actually played in Japan earlier in his career. He played four seasons with the Blue Jays and then at only 25 years old, he joined the Hanshin Tigers. He signed for $1.05 million, and had a chauffeur and a full-time interpreter with him. Fielder made the move to Japan because he said he wanted the opportunity to play every day.
He became a hero to the local baseball fans as they nicknamed him “Wild Bear”. In his only season in Japan, Fielder batted .302 and hit 38 home runs before coming back to the MLB and joining the Detroit Tigers.
17 Julio Franco
Julio Franco played in the MLB for 23 years, playing until he was 48 years old which is just absurd. He was a 3x All-Star, 5x Silver Slugger Award, and an AL batting champion. He totaled 2,586 hits and a .298 batting average over his MLB career.
What’s interesting about Franco, is he left the MLB to play in Japan on two different occasions.
He was in the bigs from 1982-1994 before joining the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995. After one season he went back to the MLB and then in 1998, he returned to Japan to play for the Marines. The 2nd go around in Japan also only lasted one season, as he then went back to the MLB. He also played one season in South Korea, playing for the Samsung Lions in 2000.
16 Alfonso Soriano
Soriano played 16 seasons in the MLB with the Yankees, Rangers, and Cubs. He was a 7x All-Star, 4x Silver Slugger Award Winner, and AL stolen base leader. The power hitting second basemen finished his MLB career with 412 RBIs and a .270 batting average.
Soriano actually started his professional career in Japan. In 1996, Soriano played for the Hiroshima Tokyo Carp. He only played one season there before signing with the Yankees. From there, he would go on to win several championships with the late 90s Yankees, before moving on for his other stints with Texas and Chicago.
15 Bryan LaHair
LaHair only played three seasons in the MLB. What’s bizarre is that his final season in the MLB, he was an All-Star. In 2012, LaHair batted .259 with 16 home runs, 40 RBIs, and 88 hits. Anthony Rizzo’s callup to the MLB moved LaHair to the outfield, and after the season he decided to sign with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a two-year, $4.5 million contract. He made his way back to the states in 2014, signing a minor league contract with the Indians. He then bounced around to the Red Sox farm system and then the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League. He’s currently the hitting coach for the Reds Single A affiliate, the Billings Mustangs.
14 Ryan Vogelsong
Vogelsong was an all-star in 2011 and a 2x World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants. He did his Japanese stint during the middle of his career. He was in the MLB from 2000-2006, before joining the Hanshin Tigers where he spent two seasons.
He then signed a one-year deal with a different Japanese ball club, the Orix Buffaloes.
He made it back to the MLB in 2009 where he signed a minor league deal with the Phillies. He didn’t make it back to the MLB until 2011, but he would manage to keep playing in the bigs until 2016.
13 Matt Murton
Matt Murton played in the MLB from 2005-2009, with the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, and the Colorado Rockies. His first three seasons he was very productive where he batted .321, .297, and .281; but after that his performance depleted. In 2009 Murton was released by the Rockies who sold his contract to the Hanshin Tigers. Murton played six seasons for the Tigers, with a .310 batting average. In 2016 he made it back to the MLB where he had two minor league stints with the Cubs and Tigers. He is now a free agent, but has garnered little interest around the league.
12 Willy Mo Pena
Willy Mo Pena played eight years in the MLB with the Reds, Red Sox, and Nationals, Diamondbacks, and Mariners. He made his debut with the Reds at only 20-years old. He had a career batting average of .250 with only 84 home runs. In 2011, Mo Pena signed a two-year contract with the Fukoka SoftBank Hawks.
He also played with the Orix Buffaloes, Rakuten Golden Eagles, and currently plays for the Chiba Lotte Marines. While his MLB careers didn't quite pan out, he's carved a nice career for himself overseas.
11 Goose Gossage
Everyone remembers Goose Gossage in pinstripes, but we're willing to bet not many remember his stint in Japan in the early '90s. Goose Gossage had a remarkable MLB career where he was a 9x all-star, 3x AL saves leader, AL Rolaids Relief Man Award, and World Series champion. He was a key figure in pioneering in the role of the closer. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2008.
In 1990, Gossage pitched for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks before returning to the MLB the following season. His last season in the MLB was in 1994 with the Seattle Mariners.
10 Tuffy Rhodes
Tuffy Rhodes only had a six-year career in the MLB. He played with the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox. Over six seasons he only had 132 hits with a .224 batting average. He then played in Japan from 1996-2009 when he found much more success.
He played with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants, and the Orix Buffaloes.
In the NPB, he was a 10x all-star, 7x Best Nine Award winner, and Pacific League MVP. He finished his career in Japan with 464 home runs, 1,792 hits, and a .286 batting average.
9 Wladimir Balentien
Wladimir Balentien only played three years in the MLB with the Mariners and the Reds. His batting average was only .221, and as a result, he didn't garner much interest from other teams when his MLB contract expired. He signed with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2010. He’s been with the Swallows ever since where he’s played very well. He’s been a 4x NPB all-star, 2x Best Nine Award, 3x Central League Home Run Leader, and Central League MVP. He’s hit 221 home runs with a .272 batting average. It seems like he's going to have a nice long career in Japan.
8 Andruw Jones
Andruw Jones is one of the best defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen. He had a lot of power too as a hitter. He played 17 seasons in the MLB where he was a 5x All-Star, 10x Gold Glove Award Winner, Silver Slugger Award Winner, NL Hank Aaron Award winner, MLB Home Run leader, NL RBI leader. For his career, he batted .254 with 434 home runs. He could've ended his career there, but Jones felt he wasn't done yet.
In 2012, Jones agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He played two seasons in Japan where he batted .232 with 50 home runs.
7 Manny Ramirez
Throughout Manny Ramirez's MLB career, fans and teammates would always equate his enigmatic like behavior to just 'Manny being Manny'. That's why we won't try and decipher why Ramirez chose to continue his baseball career into his mid-40s by signing with Japan's Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League Plus in 2017.
Ramirez was 44 when he signed and played most of the 2017 season before returning home to rehab a knee injury.
Ramirez's contract included optional practices and held a batting average over .400 in his lone season in Japan. It's a mystery what Manny will do next.
6 Jonny Gomes
Jonny Gomes played in the MLB from 2003-2015. He was some what of a journeyman, as he jumped from team to team playing with the Rays, Reds, Nationals, Athletics, Red Sox, Braves, and Royals. He batted .242 with 162 home runs. He was also a key contributor on the 2013 Boston Red Sox World Series championship team. Eventually his MLB career fizzled out but Gomes was determined to continue. In 2015, Gomes signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He only batted .169, and three months later was released, bringing an end to his pro baseball career.
5 Glenn Davis
Glenn Davis played in the MLB from 1984 to 1993 with the Astros and Orioles. He was a 2x all-star and also won the Silver Slugger Award. He batted .259 with 190 home runs. Once Davis's skills began to decline, interest in him around the bigs was fairly low, so he found himself a job across the Pacific Ocean.
From 1995-1996, Davis played for the Hanshin Tigers, but he did end up coming back to play in the states. However, it wasn’t in the MLB. Before retiring, he played for the St. Paul Saints in the Northern League.
4 Joe Pepitone
Joe Pepitone played in the MLB from 1962-1973. He played with the Yankees, Astros, Cubs, and Braves. He was a 3x All-Star and 3x Gold Glove Award Winner. He batted .258 with 219 home runs in his MLB career.
In 1973, Pepitone accepted an offer of $70K a year to play for the Yakult Atoms.
While in Japan, he only played in 14 games, batting .169 with 1 home run. Pepitone actually skipped games claiming he was injured, only to be out at night in discos. These antics led the fans to give him the nickname “Goof Off”.
3 Johnny Ray
Johnny Ray played in the MLB from 1981-1990 for the Pirates and Angels. He batted .290 with 1,502 hits. For a nine-year span, that proves Ray was a very productive hitter. He led the league in doubles in 1983 and 1984. He was also one of the most difficult batters to strike out. He won a Silver Slugger Award in 1983 and was an all-star in 1988. It's a bit of a mystery as to why his career in the bigs didn't last longer, considering those numbers.
After the MLB, Johnny Ray played a couple seasons with the Yakult Swallows.
2 Jose Lopez
Jose Lopez played in the MLB from 2004-2012, with the Mariners, Rockies, Marlins, Indians, and White Sox. He batted .262 with 1,005 hits and was an all-star in 2006.
In 2013, Lopez signed with the Yomiuri Giants where he finished with a .303 average, 18 home runs, and 55 RBIs.
The following season he signed with the Yokohama DeNa BayStars where he has played the last couple of seasons and has continued to be successful. While it's the goal of any baseball player to stay in the show as long as possible, playing the game you love is still pretty amazing, even if it's halfway across the world.
1 Hector Luna
A lot of fans likely won't remember Hector Luna's career in the MLB, largely because he struggled to stay on the big league club for most of his time there. Luna played in the MLB from 2004-2012 where he batted .262 and only had 15 home runs. He wasn’t a power hitter or a productive hitter and just couldn’t get it right in the MLB. In 2012. Luna signed with the Chunichi Dragons for a deal worth $450k with up to $200k worth of incentives. He played there for three seasons before signing with the Hiroshima Carp. For his career in Japan, he’s batted .309 with 218 RBI.