When Bobby Valentine, the former manager of the Chiba Lotte in Japan, would see Marty Brown, the manager of the Hiroshima Carp, he would casually ask him before a game, "How are you doing?" Brown would reflexively answer, "I'd be better if Colby Lewis was pitching."
That's how good Lewis was for two years in Japan. And that's why, when he became a free agent in the Japanese League on Dec. 31, 12 or 13 major league teams wanted to talk to him, and it's why the Texas Rangers signed him to a two-year contract, beating out the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins, who also offered two years. Now Lewis, 30, is back with the Rangers, who drafted him in 1999, and back where he didn't mind leaving a few years ago but where says he belongs: pitching in a major league starting rotation.
"I'm so excited for this opportunity," Lewis said after finishing a workout. "Most guys go over there to finish up, but as my agent, Alan Nero, said, it's like hitting a grand slam, getting to come back here with a multiyear deal. Things like that don't happen very often."
Indeed. Very few players beyond Cecil Fielder have gone to Japan, come back and thrived in the big leagues. Since 1950, 48 pitchers have left America to pitch in Japan, and then came back to pitch in the major leagues. There have been few success stories. Bill Gullickson came back and won 61 games, including 20 for the Tigers in 1991. Elmer Dessens returned to win 46 games. Pedro Feliciano has had four decent years as a reliever for the Mets since coming back from Japan. Pat Mahomes went 9-0 for the Mets in his first year back in 1999.
But, for the most part, pitchers don't come back better than when they left.
"For a lot of guys, it's their last payday, so they're not motivated to get better and improve," Valentine said. "Most guys stay there because, in the past, they make more money if they're any good. But that's taken a little reverse. Now there's more money [in the U.S.]."
Lewis went for the money after the 2007 season with the A's. He had spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues for Texas, Detroit and Oakland, going 12-15 with a 6.71, 124 walks and 155 strikeouts -- a terrible ratio -- in 217 1/3 innings. He was looking at 2008 as perhaps another year of shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues. His wife, Jenny, was pregnant with their first child, so Lewis decided, "I've got to go. I've got to make some money."
In Japan, he revived his career. In two seasons with the Carp, Lewis went 26-17 with a 2.82 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts in each of his two seasons. More important, in 54 starts, he walked 46 and struck out 369, a sensational walk-to-strikeout ratio. It was that number, and his velocity, that got the attention of major league teams, including the Rangers.
"There is a significant difference in his delivery and arm angle -- he's more compact, he has more of a classic motion, his arm is pointed toward the plate more consistently," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "The quality of competition in Japan is not the same as it is in the big leagues, but strike-throwing is something that translates no matter what level. That walk/strikeout ratio wouldn't have meant as much if he was only throwing 86 [mph]. But he was throwing 90-to-95 with a hard cutter. Other teams saw the same thing."
Lewis says he had changed his motion before he got to Japan; then, he refined it there. He said the adjustment he made was more mental.
"I just went there with the mindset that on a 3-2 count, it was like, 'Let's see how far you can hit it, here it comes,'" he said. "I decided that I'm not going to put you on base. There are so many one-run games over there, you'll have to earn your way on. Over here, I was so sporadic. I was trying to throw the ball by guys all the time. I decided that I'm not going to let you beat me by beating myself. If you're timid, and you don't want them to hit the ball, you start nibbling, you get behind in the count, and that's when you get in trouble. My strikeout totals were higher than I thought they'd be over there, but when you get ahead, you can make them chase."
Lewis threw a looping curveball as a second or third pitch in the big leagues. In Japan, he added a cutter.
"It's the same grip as my slider, but instead of putting my hand over top of the ball, it's more on the side, which gives it right-to-left action," he said. "I just don't rip it as much."
The new delivery ("I straightened everything up; instead of being so big, I can stay compact," he said), the new cutter and the mindset to throw more strikes made Lewis one of the best pitchers in Japan. After the 2009 season, the Carp offered him a two-year, $5 million deal. "That was not a lot, compared to what everyone else was getting," Lewis said.
I won't miss the language barrier [of playing in Japan]. I never took any classes. I could order food or call a taxi, but it was lonely talking to the same three [American] guys on the team every day.
"-- Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis
So when almost half the major league teams called, Lewis listened. Plus, Colby and Jenny Lewis say they want to have another baby. And Jenny has Graves' disease, a thyroid condition. So getting insurance from a major league team was a major factor in returning to America. The Rangers will pay him $1.75 million in 2010 and $3 million in 2011, and they have a club option in 2012 for $3.25 million (with a $250,000 buyout). Few players have gotten that kind of money coming back from Japan.
"There's a risk, but there's a risk even with someone with a 10-year track record," Daniels said. "We think he's entering his prime, and it's not like he was a journeyman pitcher here. He was a first-round pick [of the Rangers in 1999]. He was a top prospect. He was in the big leagues at age 20 or 21. We know the history is not great [of pitchers coming back from Japan]. But the big difference is, this really will be the first time he has been healthy."
Valentine said he thought Lewis could succeed this time around in the major leagues in part because of the regimen he went through in Japan.
"The pitchers who have come over, and bought into the philosophy, come back in better shape because they have better cardio. They do a lot more running over there," Valentine said.
"They have better balance because of all the tedious repetition they do to control your balance. They have more off days over there, so he essentially was in a six-man rotation [and therefore wasn't overworked]. The strike zone is tighter over there because of the stature of the guys, and because no umpire over there is giving Colby Lewis a pitch. You can't throw it down the middle of the plate and get away with it over there. There is more contact over there, but less hard contact. He moved it all over the strike zone. You can throw strikes anywhere, right?"
Lewis said he would miss playing in Japan.
"I liked the fans, I really like the travel -- get on the bullet train, and you're in Tokyo in four hours. That was our longest trip," he said. "Over there, if you're a starting pitcher, you don't go on the road if you're not pitching. It was a Roger Clemens-like schedule there. I won't miss the language barrier. I never took any classes. I could order food or call a taxi, but it was lonely talking to the same three [American] guys on the team every day."
Now he's back with the organization that signed him 11 years ago. By any measure, it's a great story.
"It will be a great story," Daniels said, smiling, "if he wins 15 games."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.