For a player on the fringe of the majors, overseas leagues like Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball provide an alluring alternative. While the player might have to settle for a minor league deal and a slim guaranteed salary stateside, NPB can offer a better pay day, more playing time and, as Colby Lewis showed, a chance to re-establish value to MLB teams.
Case in point: Brad Penny. With the Tigers in 2011, the 33-year-old righty avoided the back and shoulder maladies that had threatened his career in recent years. But he was arguably the worst pitcher in the big leagues making 30+ starts, posting a 77 ERA+ in 181.2 innings pitched. In the U.S., Penny faced the prospect of a non-roster invite to spring training. Instead, he'll earn $4 million from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2012, with another $3.5 million in incentives. Per Buster Olney, the deal also has a $4.5 mutual option for 2013 that becomes a player option if Penny pitches 150 frames or wins 12 games.
Penny's poor 2011 was mostly the product of his utter inability to make hitters swing and miss. He struck out just 9.2% of batters faced, the lowest rate among qualified MLB starters and a big decrease from his injury-shortened 2010 (15.1%). Penny's K rate figured to decline as he shifted from the DH-less National League to the American League, but it wasn't just that he could no longer beat up on his pitching brethren: he punched out 13.1% of non-pitchers in 2010.
So, what changed? Penny's miss rate with his fastball/sinker against non-pitchers was more than cut in half, from 16.9% in 2010 to 8.1% in 2011. He managed to miss some bats with his heater to the glove side in 2010...
But hitters connected with those pitches in 2011...
One possible reason for the spike in contact is that Penny's fastball velocity fell from 93.9 mph with the Cardinals to 92.6 mph in Detroit. That may have hurt his secondary stuff, too. The decline in fastball velocity gave Penny even less separation between that pitch and his upper-80s changeup/splitter (his miss rate with the changeup/split fell from 21% to 16.6%).
Rather than fighting for a job in Arizona or Florida this March, Penny will get a nice paycheck and a platform to show he still has major league stuff with the Hawks. Watch his velocity readings on NPB Tracker -- they could determine whether we've seen the last of Penny in America.