Puerto Rico’s Imports in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB): 1968-to-2021

Art López

The six-team Central League (CL) and six-team Pacific League (PL) comprise the 12 NPB teams. Yomiuri Giants, founded in 1934, are best known, with 38 CL titles and 22 Nippon (Japan Series) crowns.  Yomiuri’s franchise dates to 1934. Listing of the 12 clubs, year of founding and number of titles is at https://npb.jp/eng/teams/ This blog focuses on 30 estimated Puerto Rico-born players who reinforced these teams, from pioneer Arturo López, with 1968 Tokyo Orions, to Neftalí Soto, reinforcing 2020 Yokohama DeNA Baystars and Steven Moaywith 2021 Orix Blue Wave.

Outfielder Arturo López Rodríguez from Mayagüez was the first-Puerto Rico-born baseball player who played in Japan, 1968-1973. OF Jaime “Jimmy” Rosario (1977) and 2B Félix Millán (1978-1980) were the next two. Coincidentally, Arturo recalled that Rosario and Millán were his 1964-65 Caguas Criollos teammates in Puerto Rico. Arturo, at times, threw pre-game batting practice. “They were kids,” said Arturo. “I knew Jimmy from New York City (Manhattan).” Arturo was a 1970 PL All-Star; Millán earned a 1979 CL“Best Nine” Award after winning its batting title with a .346 AVG. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/1979_in_Japanese_Baseball#Best_Nine. Carlos Ponce led the CL with 33 HR in 1988. Table I lists 30 Puerto Rican players in chronological order.

Table I: Chronological list of Puerto Rican Players in Japan, 1968-to-2021

PlayerPOSTeams and SeasonsBirthplace
Arturo LópezOFTokyo/Lotte Orions, 1968-71; Yakult Atoms, 1972-73Mayagüez
Jaime “Jimmy” RosarioOFCrown Lighter (1977)Bayamón
Félix “Nacho” Millán2BYokohama Taiyo Whales (1978-80)Yabucoa
Cirilo “Tommy” CruzOFNippon Ham Fighters (1980-85)Arroyo
Héctor “Heity” CruzOFYomiuri Giants (1983)Arroyo
Jesús “Bombo” RiveraOFKintetsu Buffaloes (1985-86)Ponce
Carlos PonceOFYokohama Taiyo Whales (1986-90)Rio Piedras
Sixto LezcanoOFYokohama Taiyo Whales (1987)Arecibo
Tony Bernazard2BNankai Hawks (1988); Fukuoka Daiei Hawks (1989-90)Caguas
Germán Rivera3BKintetsu Buffaloes (1989)Santurce
Luis AquinoRHPKintetsu Buffaloes (1996)Santurce
Carmelo Martínez1B/OFOrix Blue Wave (1992)Dorado
Leo Gómez3BChunichi Dragons (1997-2002)Canóvanas
Rafael OrellanoLHPNippon Ham Fighters (1998-00)Humacao
Melvin NievesOFFukuoka Daiei Hawks (1999-00)San Juan
Orlando Merced1B/OFOrix Blue Wave (2000)Hato Rey
Pedro ValdésOF/1BFukuoka Daiei Hawks (2001-04)Fajardo
Felipe CrespoIF/OFYomiuri Giants (2002)Rio Piedras
Iván Cruz1BChunichi Dragons (2003)Fajardo
Héctor MercadoLHPFukuoka Daiei Hawks (2004)Cataño
Dicky GonzálezRHPYakult Swallows (2004-06), 2008; Yomiuri Giants (2009-12); Chiba Lotte Marines (2013)Bayamón
Pedro FelicianoLHPFukuoka Daiei Hawks (2005)Rio Piedras
Hiram Bocachica2B/SSSaitama Seibu Lions (2008-09)Ponce
Jonathan AlbaladejoRHPYomiuri Giants (2011)San Juan
Giancarlo AlvaradoRHPHiroshima Carp (2010-11); Yokohama Bay Stars (2012)Santurce
Orlando RománRHPYakult Swallows (2012-15)Bayamón
Mario SantiagoRHPHanshin Tigers (2015)Guayama
Neftalí SotoIFYokohama DeNA Bay Stars (2018-20)Manatí
Steven MoyaOF/1BChunichi Dragons (2018-19); Orix Blue Wave (2019-21)Rio Piedras
Kennys Vargas1B/DHFukuoka Daiei Hawks (2019)Canóvanas

Sources: baseballreference.com, NPB web sites, blogs, articles, SABR bios. There might be others from Puerto Rico who played in Japan. This Table appears to be a complete list.

Arturo López—First of Five Puerto Ricans with 100+ HR in Japan

Arturo finished his six-year NPB career with a .290 AVG, 116 HR and 401 RBI. He thoroughly enjoyed Japan, culture-wise. Orions facilitated private school education for Arturo’s four older children. (Christopher, youngest child, was born in 1970, in Tokyo.) They lived in a nice house. There was no need for Arturo to play winter ball. His key takeaway from Japan was: “Japanese respect your privacy; space is sacred.”After signing post-game autographs, fans let him walk to the train station, staying behind him. He liked Japan’s “group mentality over individual” philosophy; shorter distances of baseball stadium fences; two cut-off throws, not a long throw. Two cut-off throws allowed him to play RF more effectively, with less strain on his left arm. For road games, Arturo stayed in the best Western-style hotels. Arturo did a kind deed for singer José Feliciano, when the latter was in Tokyo, for concerts. Feliciano’s suitcases were lost in transit, but Arturo had his own tailor at the New Japan Hotel in Tokyo, and arranged for suits to be made for the singer, a native of Lares, Puerto Rico. Arturo also hit a HR off Juan Marichal, during a late March 1970 spring training game in Japan, between Lotte and the San Francisco Giants.

Félix Millán—First NPB CL Batting Champ from Puerto Rico

Félix Millán won back-to-back batting titles in Puerto Rico, 1968-69 and 1969-70, prior to his 1979 season with Yokohama Taiyo Whales: .346 AVG, with 407 plate appearances, enough to qualify for the batting crown. Millán mentioned—to the author—he took a “lot of pride in his overall play; two NL Gloves with Atlanta (1969 and 1972); 3x NL All-Star (1969-71); plus, a long career with his beloved Caguas Criollos as a player, player-manager and GM.” During a rain delay, pre-December 1, 1993 exhibition game between the Cuban National Team and San Juan Senators, Millán handed a brand-new baseball to the author, to give to several Cuban players, for their autographs. The author—who had a credential—returned the signed baseball to Millán.

Per Jane Allen Quevedo, Félix’s SABR biographer, here are some Millán insights from Japan:

Millán loved playing in Japan, and was well liked there. His quiet demeanor and dedication to the game helped him fit into the culture of Japanese baseball, where players are expected to put their team’s interests ahead of their own. However, Félix made a little known and highly unusual request of his managers in his last year with the Whales when he asked to be excused from Friday night and Saturday games for religious reasons. He wished to join his wife, a Seventh-day Adventist, in observing the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Initially the Whales said it was impossible but, in true Japanese fashion, agreed to discuss the matter. After a few days, they revealed a plan that avoided loss of face by either party, which is paramount in resolving differences in Japanese culture. Millán’s name quietly disappeared from the Friday night and Saturday lineups, but he was expected to play every Saturday night and Sunday game. When the Whales released him after the 1980 season, Millán had made 1,139 plate appearances with only 52 strikeouts. He had also hit the second grand slam of his professional career.

Tommy Cruz—Six-Year Career with Nippon Ham Fighters

Tommy Cruz

One of three Cruz brothers to play MLB, Tommy drilled 120 HR and drove in 466 for the Ham Fighters, 1980-85. His .310/..351/.504 slash line (and .855 OPS) made him a popular player. Similar in size to Arturo López at 5’9,” and 165 pounds, Tommy’s best season was in 1984: .348

AVG, 29 HR, 96 RBI, .348/.385/.607 slash line, and  .993 OPS. Boomer Wells (.355 AVG) deprived Tommy of a PL batting title. (Wells won the Triple Crown: .355, 37-130.) Tommy hit the most doubles (36), and later experienced success as a coach in Taiwan’s Popcorn League. He helped coach “Chinese Taipei” national team to a title at the 21under Baseball World Cup in Taichung. https://chinapost.nownews.com/20160710-14839

Jesús “Bombo” Rivera—Brief Power Surge

Bombo Rivera hit 31 HR for the 1985 Kintetsu Buffaloes and sported a .516 SLG. He played a portion of 1986 for the Buffaloes. Overall, he hit ,240 with 37 HR and 86 RBI in 158 games. His 37 HR in 541 AB translates to one HR every 14.6 AB.

Sixto Lezcano—1987 Cameo Appearance

Lezcano departed Japan after 20 games. A club official said the 33-year-old Lezcano told the Whales, “I couldn’t show power as in the past and I do not want to give trouble to the Whales anymore.” https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-05-18-sp-393-story.html

Carlos Ponce—Five Seasons, Yokohama Bay Stars

Carlos Ponce

Carlos Ponce produced in NPB with .296/.356/.555 slash line, .911 OPS, 119 HR and 389 RBI, with a combined 68 HR and 200 RBI in 1987 and 1988. His 35 HR in 1987 and 102 RBI in 1988 were single-season highs. In 2021, Carlos is managing Taiwan’s Wei Chuan Dragons.  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/tag/carlos-ponce/ His Japan hitting stats are at: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=ponce-002car

Tony Bernazard—Three Solid NPB Seasons

Bernazard, a switch-hitter, performed admirably for Nankai (1988) and Fukuoka (1989-90), with a .289/.381/.516 slash line, and .897 OPS. He hit 67 HR; drove in 193; with 17.3 AB per HR.

Germán Rivera—1989

Rivera told the author his 1989 season with Kintetsu Buffaloes (.260 AVG, 25 HR, 79 RBI) was “like another day at the office.” He gave it his best and “had no regrets.”

Carmelo Martínez and Ichiro were 1992 Teammates in Japan

Carmelo Martínez

Carmelo’s resumé includes a 1984 World Series with San Diego and stellar performances for Puerto Rico, in Caribbean Series events; including 1983, 1987 and 1995 titles. His 1992 campaign for Orix Blue Wave showed 34 hits/150 AB, six HR and 23 RBI. One teammate was 18-year old rookie Ichiro Suzuki, Cousin Edgar Martínez’s future Seattle Mariners teammate, 2001-04. “I was signed by Pedrín Zorrilla, for the Chicago Cubs,” recalled Carmelo. “I hit many HR in Puerto Rico and in the Caribbean Series.” He was Puerto Rico Rookie of the Year (1981-82), MVP (1993-94) and managed Bayamón to a 2001-02 title. Pitchers, in Japan, threw “plenty of curves and off-speed pitches.” On Ichiro, who had a .253 AVG in 1992, 100 points below his .353 AVG in nine NPB seasons: “He was young, focused and disciplined.”

Photo credit: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Carmelo-Martinez-392-1992-BBM-Baseball-Card-Orix-Blue-Wave-/363149385092

Leo Gómez—Most Career HR in Japan by a Puerto Rican Player

The author interviewed him, spring training 1992. Leo was reserved, yet polite, qualities deeply appreciated in the Japanese culture. He played for Baltimore (1990-95), and 1996 Chicago Cubs. With Japan’s Chunichi Dragons, his slash line was .293/.382/.532, with .914 OPS. He cracked 153 HR, most-ever by a Puerto Rican player in Japan, with 449 RBI. His best season—1999—featured 36 HR, 109 RBI, .570 SLG and .959 OPS.

Pedro Valdés—A 2003 Japan Series Title

Fukuoka was fortunate to have Pedro Valdés in its line-up, 2001-04. His .302/.389/.555 slash line and .900 OPS were impressive, as were 86 HR and 335 HR. He hit three HR for Fukuoka in the 2003 Japan Series, won by his Daiei Hawks, four games-to-three. His manager was the legendary Sadaharu Oh. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_Japan_Series

Dicky González—Puerto Rico’s Best Pitcher in NPB

González’s best season was in 2009 for Yomiuri Giants—15-2, 2.11 ERA, 162 IP, 113 K’s and 25 BB. He won Game One, October 31, 2009, Japan Series, allowing two runs in 5.1 innings. The final score was 4-3. Prior to Game Three, George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, wearing a Giants jacket. Yomiuri won the series, four games-to-two. González was 45-41 in nine seasons.

Neftalí Soto—109 HR in Three NPB Seasons

Soto is the fifth Puerto Rican import with 100+ HR in Japan—and accomplished this in three seasons!His 41 HR in 2018 led the CL. (Lotte’s Hotaka Yamakawa’s 47 led the PL.) Soto clouted 43 HR in 2019, tops in the CL;, tied with Yamakawa’s 43 (PL). Soto’s 108 RBI in 2019 topped the CL. He hit 25 HR in 2020. https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/team.cgi?id=85c1efe0

Table II: Puerto Rico’s Top Five HR Hitters in Japan: 1968-to-2020

Leo Gómez2,355153449.293.382.532.91415.4
Tommy Cruz2,780120466.310.351.504.85523.2
Carlos Ponce2,027119389.296.356.555.91117.0
Arturo López2,760116401.290.334.470.80423.8
Neftalí Soto1,360109281.276.345.555.90012.5

Grateful acknowledgment to Arturo López Rodríguez for March-April 2021 phone interviews and e-mails; to Leo Gómez, Carmelo Martínez, Félix Millán and Germán Rivera, for their time, 1992-93 interviews. Mike Garcia helped with the list. Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, encouraged the author to write this blog.

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