As a teenager, he knocked over 20 HRs and slugged over .500 in the tough environment of the Midwest League. Now, there were plenty of red flags there – he struck out too often, for one, and he was a so-so defender in a corner. He got to AAA Tacoma at 21, and put up a good but not great season with 18 HRs and an average just below .260. Given another shot at the league, he laid waste to PCL pitching, putting up a slashline of .300/.430 /.513. Positional flexibility or no, that got the big club’s attention and he earned his first cup of coffee. It, uh, didn’t go well (his OPS+ was, seriously, *-42,* albeit in 19 PAs). The big club couldn’t send him back to AAA, so he bounced to a few different MLB teams – getting a game or so a year, before he got a semi-legitimate shot with the Pads. Unfortunately, he stunk it up again. He had one last go-round, this time with Texas. He was 28, and while the incumbent was no all-star, he wasn’t the only 28-year old back-up. All three stunk, so the Rangers cleaned house. The M’s, however, saw some promise, and traded for one of the 28 year olds. And that’s how Pat Putnam came to Seattle, and how Randy Bass, the guy who failed to unseat either Dave Hostetler, Pat Putnam or Broderick Perkins, decided it might be time to give Japan a try.
The bearded Oklahoman became an instant success, OPSing near 1.000 in his first year, and lifting the Hanshin Tigers – the team that plays in venerable, ivy-covered Koshien Stadium and hadn’t won a title in decades at this point – to playoff contention. Kids in mid-80s Osaka could buy a “Baasu-kit” named after the slugger, including a ball, a bat, and a fake red beard. He led the team to a championship in 1985, the year he hit 54 HRs (and put up a .350/.428/.718 line), and a bit of lore even non-NPB fans know, became associated with the supposed ‘curse‘ that prevented the Tigers from winning again. After they won in ’85, a bystander who looked like each member of the roster was thrown in a river. Not finding anyone who looked like Bass, the resourceful Tigers fans threw in a statue of Colonel Sanders that stood out front of a KFC franchise. Bass was huge, but he couldn’t break the great Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 HRs.
Bass had two games to go in 1985, needing one HR to tie and two to own the record outright. Unfortunately for him, he faced the Yomiuri Giants – managed by Oh – in the last series. He was walked four times in one game, and, presumably out of boredom, reached out and poked a single on a ball several feet outside. Years later, Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002 managed to tie the record with a few games to go, and in one of those “that’s impossible” coincidences, both also faced teams managed by Oh for the final series of the year, and both…did not get pitches to hit.
Now, another ex-Tacoma player, another guy with a similar tale of MiLB success and failed MLB stints, has finally broken through. With his 56th (and 57th!) HR, Wladimir Balentien has set a new single-season HR record for the NPB of Japan, one of the league’s most storied/hallowed records. Oh isn’t managing anymore, so that wasn’t going to be an issue. And he didn’t exactly creep up on the record – there’s still plenty of baseball to play, and Balentien’s Yakult Swallows have a few more series to see if Balentien can crack 60. This a McGwire/Sosa-style run, not Maris’ beating the Babe’s famous mark by 1 (in a longer season). Wlad’s line is positively Bondsian: .341/.464/.814.
Like with Maris, however, this one will come with asterisks attached. Before 2011, the baseball in the NPB wasn’t really standardized, and teams had their own. That changed, as NPB introduced a new, uniform baseball in 2011 (Wlad’s first year in the league). Instantly, league-wide offense collapsed - League ERA went from about 4 in 2010 to 3 in 2011. HRs dropped in 2011 and then again in 2012, so the NPB quietly introduced a new, “livelier” ball this year, and it’s worked: offense is up, and HRs are set to exceed 2011 levels handily. Balentien’s record will forever be associated with a juiced baseball.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The old, pre-standard baseballs varied markedly, and some were clearly more “juiced” than even 2013′s model. In addition, players in Oh’s era were allowed to use compressed bats, which had more pop than traditional bats, and were outlawed by the NPB in 1982 (Oh retired after the 1980 season). It’s true of every record: Babe Ruth set his mark of 60 HRs in a segregated MLB, shrinking the talent pool of pitchers he faced, and ducking some of the best pitchers in the world (eg. Smokey Joe Williams). Maris had an extra 8 games. McGwire had andro/creatine, and the other substances he’s since admitted to using. Bonds had, well, you get the idea.
All of this is to provide a bit of context to a piece of history. Former Mariner/former Rainier Wlad Balentien is the new HR king in the NPB. Wlad Balentien has walked more than he struck out. Wlad Balentien followed in the footsteps of Randy Bass, one of the great foreign ballplayers in NPB history, and is on pace to exceed even Bass’s insane triple crown year of 1986. Wlad Balentien has done this. And this. And also this. Teams are asking themselves now if Balentien could get another MLB shot (though he’s under contract with Yakult for two more seasons).* Fans in the US are sort-of following Balentien’s march to the record (none of this happened to Bass, who never got another shot in the US, and who was a complete unknown here even after his 83-87 peak). That’s interesting and all, but for once, let’s enjoy this for what it is: a completely remarkable season from an ex-M’s prospect.** Let’s enjoy the bizarre coincidence that the first big “foreign” challenge of this long-standing record and the eventual record-breaker BOTH played multiple years for Tacoma. Congratulations, Wlad, and a belated omedetoo gozaimasu to Randy Bass as well.
* I’m just going to point to this post by Tango.
** At the risk of inspiring even more anguished cries of “why do they always get better when they leave,” Jose Lopez is enjoying a fine season of his own – a season that would no doubt attract more attention if it wasn’t for Balentien’s completely insane 2013 campaign.