The strange and wonderful journey of Wladimir Balentien

Chung Sung-Jun

Wladimir Balentien has hit 52 home runs in Japan, and is three short of the single-season record. Here's a look at what brought him to the brink of being a legend in another country.

Wladimir Balentien was always the little brother, even though he was older. Signed by the Mariners organization in 2000 at just 16 years old out of Curacao, Balentien made his debut in the Mariners farm system in 2003. He played alongside Adam Jones in rookie ball, then onto Wisconsin, Inland Empire, and Tacoma. Jones was the prized prospect, the one with all the tools. Jones was a better fielder, runner, contact hitter. He was younger. A better athlete. Jones became the centerpiece of the Erik Bedard trade, and his career took off. Adam Jones got paid. Adam Jones made it.  Wladimir Balentien never really made it.

Balentien had contact issues. He wasn't much of a defender. His eventual promotion to Seattle didn't go particularly well. Still, Balentien had power. Raw, untamed power. He managed to hit 11 home runs across two seasons for the Mariners before they dealt him to Cincinnati in exchange for a 25 year-old reliever named Robert Manuel, who threw 15 innings in Tacoma before being waived.

What Balentien had to offer Major League Baseball simply wasn't good enough.

Wladimir Balentien had moderate success with the Reds in 2009. Over 125 PA, he posted a .264/.352/.427 line, but it still wasn't enough. Balentien spent the entire 2010 season in AAA, doing exactly what he did with Tacoma in the Mariners organization. Production, but not quite enough. Power, but not consistent. Balentien finished out the year and was granted free agency. He was 26, no longer a prospect. No longer of much interest to major league teams. His upside seemed to have peaked, and other organizations felt it was in their best interest to give at-bats to players who could be better than Balentien had been. What Balentien had to offer Major League Baseball simply wasn't good enough.

On November 16, 2010, Wladimir Balentien walked away from Major League Baseball and didn't look back. He signed a contract with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Nippon Professional League. Balentien followed the path of numerous former major leaguers who couldn't ever quite put it together. A year later, another flamed out MLB slugger joined him in the NPL, Wily Mo Pena.

Balentien found success in Japan. Last year, Jeff checked in on what he'd been doing, and discovered this clip of Balentien crushing a home run in the rain out of the ballpark. He still had that monster power, and had carved out a solid career as a slugger.

In 2011, Balentien hit 31 homers in 140 games with a .228/.314/.469 line. At age 28, Balentien's 2012 showed significant improvement, and he hit 31 homers in just 106 games, posting a .272/.386/.572 line.

This year, something clicked.

Balentien has played in 101 games for Yakult. He has 52 home runs. His line is .339/.463/.826, and there's 30 games remaining in Yakult's season. The current NPL single-season record is 55 home runs, set in 1964, matched by two others in 2001 and 2002. Balentien is almost certainly going to be Japan's new single-season home run king, and he could destroy it. He's hitting a home run once every 8.4 plate appearances. When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, he hit one out once every 9.1 plate appearances. That's how ridiculous of a season this is.

On October 2nd, 2009, Balentien hit a ball 495 feet. Nobody has hit a ball further since.

There's no specific path to success, happiness, or fulfillment. Adam Jones lived the American dream, and has had the career he surely always dreamed of. Things didn't go exactly how Wladimir Balentien probably wanted them to go, but he's about to be the most prolific single-season home run hitter of all time where he's ended up. Balentien is a superstar in a part of the world we don't often pay attention to when it comes to baseball, and he's still just 29 years old.

When Wladimir Balentien said goodbye to Major League Baseball, he hit a baseball 495 feet. Nobody hit a baseball further than that in 2010. Nobody hit one further in 2011. Or 2012. Or 2013. Balentien has passed up the chance to continue playing baseball in America for a chance at success in another country, but he didn't do it without leaving a permanent mark in the league we obsess over every day.

Wlad-bomb

Maybe Balentien will be back. After this outburst, he's could have some suitors offering him another crack at the game's highest level. He's still under contract with Yakult for two more seasons. Whether he chooses to accept another challenge or remain in a country where he's about to become immortal, one thing is certain. Wladimir Balentien has made it.

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