Some hitters, pitchers have found success following stint overseas
By Paul Casella
Former first-round pick Matt Murton will attempt to once again make his mark on Major League Baseball after spending the past six seasons playing in Japan.
Murton, whom the Cubs signed to a Minor League deal that includes an invite to big league camp, spent five seasons in the Majors from 2005-09, including parts of four seasons with those same Cubs. Averaging just under 310 plate appearances over his first three seasons, Murton hit .296/.365/.455 in that span, which included a 13-homer season in '06, but he struggled in a limited role over the next two seasons before joining Japan's Hanshin Tigers.
Murton wasted no time making a name for himself overseas, promptly racking up a then-record 214 hits in his first year with Hanshin, surpassing the previous mark of 210 held by Ichiro Suzuki. It didn't stop there, as Murton went on to hit .310/.352/.437 during his time with the Tigers, which included another batting title in 2014 (.338).
Now, however, Murton will set his sights on becoming the latest big leaguer to go to Japan and then attempt a Major League comeback later in his career. It's by no means an uncommon occurrence, though few players have found an abundance of big league success after returning from Japan.
The following is a look at the 10 players who accumulated the highest WAR following a stint in Japan. Note that the list includes only players who had Major League experience prior to appearing in one of Japan's professional leagues.
Noticeably absent from the list is Hall of Fame closer Rich "Goose" Gossage, who took a break from his 22-year big league career to spend the 1990 season pitching for Japan's Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. Though he returned to the Majors for another four years afterward, he accumulated a 3.84 ERA and only three saves -- and 2.5 WAR -- during that span.
Also worth noting is that Pirates newcomer Ryan Vogelsong could join this list with a bounceback 2016 season. He currently has 3.9 WAR since returning from pitching three seasons in Japan from 2007-09.
10. Rex Hudler Total WAR after return: 4.5
A first-round pick by the Yankees in 1978, Hudler paid his dues in the Minors before finally reaching Triple-A in '83 and making his Major League debut one year later. Unfortunately, he would play only 29 games for the Yankees between '84 and '85, hitting .155/.197/.207 over 66 plate appearances. Hudler was then traded to the Orioles after the '85 season and also went on to spend time with the Expos and Cardinals before electing to join the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Pacific League in 1993. He returned stateside the following year and went on to hit a respectable .273/.309/.470 over five seasons with the Angels and Phillies, including hitting a career-best 16 home runs and 20 doubles in '96.
9. Pedro Feliciano Total WAR after return: 5.1
Feliciano's professional baseball career began when the Dodgers selected the southpaw in the 31st round of the 1995 Draft. Thus, it wasn't a major surprise when it took him five years just to reach Double-A. Feliciano ultimately maxed out at Triple-A during his time with the Dodgers before later signing with the Reds and later being traded to the Mets, for whom he would finally make his big league debut on Sept. 4, 2002. He racked up a 4.21 ERA in 51 outings over the next three years before relocating to Japan for the '05 season. Feliciano came back a new man, posting an eye-popping 2.09 ERA over 64 outings for the Mets the following year. All told, he put up a 3.13 ERA in 433 relief appearances over parts of six seasons with New York after his return from Japan.
8. Leo Kiely Total WAR after return: 5.4
It's only fitting that Kiely finds his way onto this list, given the fact that he is widely believed to be the first player with Major League experience to play in Japan. He made his Major League debut in 1951, before spending the next two years serving in the military. Toward the end of his time overseas, Kiely took advantage of an opportunity to play professionally in the Japan Pacific League. Following his brief stint in Japan, Kiely returned to pitch another six seasons in the Majors, going 19-20 with a 3.38 ERA over 192 outings (23 starts) between the Red Sox and Athletics.
7. Bill Gullickson Total WAR after return: 5.6
The second overall pick in 1977, Gullickson struggled to take the next step after finishing as the runner-up for the '80 National League Rookie of the Year Award. He notched a respectable 3.44 ERA over his first seven seasons with the Expos before being traded to the Reds in December 1985 then shipped to the Yankees in August 1987. Gullickson then chose to spend the next two seasons in Japan before joining the Astros for the '90 season. After being released following a campaign in which he posted a 3.82 ERA, Gullickson joined the Tigers and promptly won 20 games, even receiving a handful of Cy Young Award votes in what proved to be a career year.
6. Darrell May Total WAR after return: 6.4
May qualifies for this list strictly for his performance during the 2003 season. After all, his Major League career was mostly forgettable outside of that year. For starters, May was selected in the 46th round in 1992 and went on to post a 6.31 ERA over 67 big league innings from 1995-97 before taking his game to Japan from 1998-2001. In his second year back, however, May went 10-8 with a 3.77 ERA -- his only sub-5.00 ERA in his seven big league seasons.
5. Julio Franco Total WAR after return: 6.7
After making three All-Star appearances and winning four Silver Slugger Awards over his first 13 seasons, Franco chose to try his luck in Japan for the first time in 1995. He hit .306 with 10 homers for Chiba Lotte then returned to the Majors for two years before rejoining the same Japanese team for the '98 campaign. All told, Franco hit .289/.369/.413 with 53 homers and 333 RBIs over parts of 10 seasons with the Indians, Brewers, Rays, Braves and Mets following his first stint in Japan.
Lewis, a first-round pick in 1999, had trouble finding much success during his first go-round in the Major Leagues. The right-hander not only struggled to a 7.08 ERA over his first 41 big league outings (30 starts) from 2002-03, but he was then limited to only five appearances over the next three years after undergoing rotator cuff surgery. Things didn't get any better when Lewis joined the A's in '06, as he posted a 6.45 ERA in 26 games. He was given another opportunity in Japan, where he spent the next two years, before returning to the Majors in '10 with the same team that drafted him. Lewis went 32-29 with a 3.93 ERA in 80 starts for the Rangers over the next three years before injuries cost him the entire '13 season. He put up a 4.90 ERA over 62 starts the past two years.
3. Elmer Dessens Total WAR after return: 12.3
Dessens' big league career appeared to be in jeopardy when he was released by the Pirates just days before the 1999 season. The right-hander had a 6.12 ERA and a 1.563 WHIP over 61 career appearances at the time. He accepted an offer to play for the Yomiuri Giants during that '99 season before returning to forge out a 14-year Major League career. Dessens posted a 4.28 ERA in 380 games (132 starts) over 11 seasons following his return, all while spending time with the Reds, D-backs, Dodgers, Royals, Brewers, Rockies, Braves and Mets.
2. Matt Stairs Total WAR after return: 14.5
Stairs' career got off to an inauspicious start, as he had his contract purchased by the Chunichi Dragons in 1993, after hitting .211 over just 46 homerless plate appearances with the Expos. He re-signed with the Expos during the ensuing offseason, but was then purchased by the Red Sox before Opening Day arrived. Stairs went on to hit 265 homers with 892 RBIs over the next 17 seasons, while logging time with 11 teams.
1. Cecil Fielder Total WAR after return: 16.8
After spending his first four seasons with the Blue Jays in a part-time role, Fielder opted to accept an offer from Japan's Hanshin Tigers to become not only an everyday player, but the club's cleanup hitter for the 1989 season. He turned plenty of heads by smashing 38 homers in his lone season with Hanshin, leading to an offer to join the Detroit Tigers the following year. The rest is history, as Fielder led the Majors in home runs in each of his first two years back on American soil en route to hitting 319 career dingers, 288 of which came after his stint in Japan.
Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.