One of the ideas often put forth in baseball circles is that going from Major League Baseball to Nippon Professional Baseball will result in instant success. The general context behind this idea is that MLB players are so good that even those MLB players who can no longer cut it in that league will excel in NPB. It doesn’t matter if they are old, have been bad for a few seasons, nursing significant injuries, or any other factor that could be present and impacting their play. Many baseball fans, and even some writers and industry folk, still hold the idea that going to the NPB will revitalize that player’s career, and that this is going to happen automatically.
As the international free agent signing deadline rolled around this year two NPB teams signed former MLBers in last-ditch efforts to get their team to the playoffs. It was highly unlikely that either the Hanshin Tigers or Chiba Lotte Marines were going to make the playoffs this year (and remains that way as I type this). Unlike their MLB counterparts, NPB executives don’t really buy into the rebuild and win later philosophy. If they are even within spitting distance of a playoff berth then players could be signed and an attempt will be made. To that end, the Tigers signed Yangervis Solarte while the Marines signed Leonys Martín.
Both players were signed to address clear needs on each respective team. For the Marines, they needed a bat with some power that could also play quality outfield defense. The Tigers signed Solarte because their offense required a boost, not just in power, but in scoring runs and getting on base. Solarte and Martín represented relatively safe bets from both teams. Neither would qualify as difference-makers in the majors, but they fit the bill for what their teams were looking for and were coming off of at worst average MLB careers.
Right off the bat, Martín went to work for the Marines. He became a difference-maker in his very first game and never looked back. Martín has been a good fielder for Chiba, but more than that he has become a leader on the team and an important cog offensively. He’s slashing .270/.360/.550 over 114 plate appearances. He’s hit 7 home runs and the same number of doubles. The product of Villa Clara, Cuba has become a regular in Marines highlight videos as he always seems to come up with big hits in the most important moments.
The same initially seemed to be true for Solarte. In his first game with the Tigers, he hit a mammoth 2-run sayonara (The Japanese term for a walk-off) homer. Solarte was instantly a hit, and as he hit the ball very well over his next few games he appeared to be what the Tigers needed to help their offense. Then, reality set in and Solarte struggled against the diverse collection of NPB pitchers he was facing on a daily basis. Before he was demoted to the Tigers Western League farm team Solarte was slashing .188/.275/.406 with 4 home runs and 3 doubles in 80 plate appearances. Solarte’s defense was never a real issue, he simply was unable to handle NPB pitching as they adjusted to him and his results worsened until his demotion.
The idea that an MLB player transitioning to the ranks of NPB and automatically succeeding is far removed from the truth. Martín has been worth a very good 0.7 dWAR for the Marines. Conversely Solarte hurt the Tigers with a dWAR of -0.7 and is now on the farm team. These were two very competent former major leaguers and while one has succeeded the other has looked like a below-average player throughout his tenure. Former MLBers can and do often succeed in NPB, but it’s not a guarantee by any measure.
Editor’s Note: Solarte’s sayonara blast was actually in his first home game. He did hit a game-winning home run in his first game, which was away.
Thanks to Jim Allen of jballallen.com for the research assistance.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Pelota Cubana