Going overseas can be safe call for players

Bullington, Mikolas extol virtues of security, new experiences in Japan

Bryan Bullington was 61-31 with a 3.68 ERA in parts of seven seasons in the Minor Leagues. (Omaha Royals)

By Robert Emrich / MiLB.com | March 16, 2016 10:15 AM

Players talk all the time about adjustments, to another level or to a new pitcher or even the jump from amateur to pro. There's one adjustment that's not often discussed. What happens to a player when they make the move to play overseas in Japan?

There's a lot of -- no pun intended -- balls in play there. Not the least of which are cultural differences, a language barrier and differences in how the game is played.

Plenty of players have plied their trade in the Far East and some really made a name for themselves in the process. Randy Bass played hero for the Hanshin Tigers in the Eighties. Alex Ramirez was a back-to-back MVP Award winner in 2008-09 and Wladimir Balentien became the single-season home run record holder in 2013.

But what goes into the initial decision to play in Japan's Central or Pacific League?

Bryan Bullington might be the player with the highest pedigree to play overseas. The first overall pick of the 2002 Draft by the Pirates, Bullington spent seven seasons in the Minors and five in the Majors before heading to Japan in 2011 at age 30. It was something, that, nine years prior, would never have crossed his mind.

"I had some interest my last couple of years over here," Bullington said. "You go through Spring Training as a non-roster guy, you get the invite, you have the chance to make the team, but more than likely you're slated for Triple-A. That's what Japanese teams are looking for, guys that are on the outside edge. I knew there was some interest for a couple of years. I had some success in 2010 with Kansas City and the interest upped itself a little bit. There was a little bit more money available in Japan. I had been in Triple-A five or six years and it felt like the right time to make the jump."

The decision proved to be a fruitful one as the Indiana native, who recently returned to the United States after calling it a career, posted a 3.25 ERA in five seasons abroad, going 45-45 during that time.

"I don't think anybody goes over there with the mind-set of I'm going to play five years in Japan," Bullington said. "Most guys are going over there to make a little guaranteed money, have a life experience, and then come back and try to make another [Major League] team. There's an opportunity to continue to make money. My family was doing really good with the adjustment. We liked the culture and we ended up sticking it out."


• More quotes from Bullington and Mikolas on the blog »


Still for a player who twice ranked among Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, the decision to pitch in Japan would seem, on the surface, like a letdown of expectations. However, heading to Japan provided Bullington with something he hadn't had before -- stability.

"Being a high pick, with all the expectations that go along with that, I certainly wouldn't have said, 'Yeah, I'll play my last five years in Japan,' that certainly wasn't on the radar," he said. "You grow up a lot from 21 to 30, you learn a lot about the way the game operates. I feel like I've always been pretty realistic about where I fit in. You see what the situation is; you try to make the best decision possible for yourself and for your family.

"I wanted to give myself every opportunity until age 30 to crack the big leagues and stick around there, and I wasn't able to do that. This opportunity presented itself and I was able to extend my career by quite a few years and enjoy the experience."

Of the five years he spent in Japan, Bullington spent four of them with the Hiroshima Carp and then 2015 with the Orix Buffaloes of the Pacific League. He had an ERA below 3.50 in four of his five seasons overseas and became the fourth foreign player to win Most Valuable Pitcher of the Month in the Central League multiple times.

Miles Mikolas joined the Yomiuri Giants in 2015 after splitting 2014 with the Texas Rangers and Triple-A Round Rock. A seventh-round pick out of Nova Southeastern University in 2009, Mikolas parlayed an impressive 2015 season into a two-year deal that will pay him $5 million over that time. Like Bullington, Mikolas felt playing in Japan gave him a chance to earn some security for himself and his new wife.

"To be honest the first reason that I came to play in Japan was financial," Mikolas said. "I felt like I was in a position in the United States where I could have very easily ended up on an MLB roster to start the season. However I could have just as easily ended up in the Minor Leagues again."

"Coming to Japan was a guaranteed contract that I felt came along at a very good time in my life, I had just gotten married and was getting ready to start planning for a family a few years down the road. It was a time to save money. Baseball is a very uncertain game and you never know when your next good payday may come. Now I am very confident in my abilities as a baseball player and I believe I am a Major League baseball player, but if things did not work out in the MLB, I did not want to look back and see that I missed a chance at some financial stability."

While money was one thing, Mikolas had on-the-field reasons for making the move.

"The other main reason was that I was going to get a chance to start full time, something I had only just began to do again since signing out of college," he said. "I believe that if i can get my innings up over the course of the next couple years here, I can make it back to the MLB as a starter. I had played in Texas with Colby Lewis, who already did what I am trying to do, and that is be successful over here and then transfer that into being successful in the Major Leagues. All very much easier said than done."

As with any move, there was a period of adjustment for Mikolas, though. Being a stranger in a foreign land magnified some things more than others.

"I could go for pages on all the differences in culture, but to summarize it I should say, Japan is not the United States," he said. "The differences can go from food all the way to how they do business. There was a bit of a culture shock at first, but once I got settled in Tokyo, it was easy. Tokyo is a very similar city to New York City, and there is a lot of English spoken in many of the restaurants and shops."

On the field, Mikolas found some major differences as well.

"There is not nearly as much power here as there is in the States, and because of that, it is much more of a finesse game at times," the Florida native said. "Most Japanese pitchers throw a good deal of breaking balls and the hitters are more contact-oriented. This also leads to lower scoring games for the most part and a lot of bunting and small ball. There is a slightly different strike zone here. The difference I feel is mainly vertical, less room at the knees and a little more around and above the belt. The hitters are also mostly contact hitters and can be very pesky up at the plate."

Bullington agreed with Mikolas' assesment of pitching in Japan.

"Guys are a lot smaller, don't have the power. But at the same time, they have unbelievable hands, they put the ball in play," he said. "You really just have to try and force contact, you don't have to try and be as swing-and-miss-oriented because you can kind of frustrate yourself with that. You have to try to change speeds, do some things, work some edges of the strike zone. You're not going to get beat with the long ball, it's going to be more those games where you give up 8 to10 singles. They're gonna bleed you to death."

Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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