Fu-Te Ni was the first Taiwanese-born player in Detroit Tigers history. He made his major league debut on June 29, 2009. He threw his last major league pitch on June 29, 2010. Still an active pitcher, Ni has resurfaced with the Fubon Guardians of the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
In Major League Baseball’s absence this year, the Taiwan-based CPBL became the first professional baseball league in the world to begin its 2020 regular season. Opening Day was April 11. Fangraphs senior writer Jay Jaffe provided some excellent early season coverage to help the curious become more familiar with the league. On Twitter, CPBL STATS (@GOCPBL) has been an essential follow for those who have filled the baseball void with CPBL action.
Ryan Carpenter, who pitched for the Tigers briefly each of the last two seasons, has been a mainstay in the starting rotation of the CBPL’s first-place team, the Rakuten Monkeys. The last-place team, the Fubon Guardians, have added a former Tiger of their own. Ni was activated from the CPBL Minor League on June 26. In 2016, the left-handed pitcher returned to the CPBL, where he began his professional career in 2007. He led the league in strikeouts in 2008.
After pitching two seasons for the now-defunct Chinatrust Whales, Ni made history in January 2009 when the Detroit Tigers signed him to a minor league contract. He was the first player that a major league organization signed out of the CPBL. While there was little fanfare in Detroit, the signing was announced in Taiwan at a press conference where Ni received a Tigers hat and jersey. It was “really big news” over there, as Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international operations, proclaimed. Ni, a member of the 2008 Chinese Taipei Olympic baseball team, was considered a fan favorite in Taiwan.
Tigers fans got their introduction to the 26-year old Ni from Al Avila, then the team’s assistant general manager. He remarked that Ni’s fastball was 89-91 miles per hour with good control and that Ni also had a sweeping curveball and a change up. Avila reported that Ni pitched with a “three-quarter to low three-quarter delivery”, which others would describe as “deceptive”. Avila added,
“He’s not a left-handed specialist. He can throw more than an inning. People who have seen him feel he can compete for a bullpen job. From what our scouts tell me, the league in Taiwan is like the Double-A level.”
(It’s worth noting that, in 2020, according to a recent Baseball America survey of scouts and front office officials, the CPBL would rank in between High-A and Low-A.)
Ni was one of eight pitchers that the Tigers invited to spring training. He said, through his interpreter, that it was a 20-hour journey from Taiwan to Lakeland. The interpreter joined Ni for the Tigers’ first workout to begin helping the newcomer understand instructions from the Tigers’ coaching staff. Mandarin Chinese was Ni’s native tongue, and he knew only a few English words and phrases.
When Ni pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning and got a win in an exhibition game against the Phillies in late February, manager Jim Leyland said he was “tickled” for the rookie.
Ni was among the players who briefly left the Tigers’ camp to participate in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He returned after pitching in the loss that eliminated his Chinese Taipei team. After a couple of weeks back in Lakeland, the Tigers assigned him to minor league camp. Ni began the season with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. Pitching strictly in relief, he threw 34.2 innings in 24 games, finishing 10 of them. He fared well, going 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA and 1.154 WHIP.
He got the call to big leagues in late June when the Tigers put lefty reliever Nate Robertson on the 15-day disabled list for a mass on the inside of his pitching elbow. Ni joined the Tigers in Oakland, and on June 29, he debuted in the fifth inning in relief of starter Rick Porcello, a fellow rookie. Ni became the sixth Taiwanese player to play in the major leagues. (To date, there have been 16.)
The A’s had rocked Porcello for three runs in the inning to extend a lead to 5-0. With one on and one out, Jason Giambi was the first hitter that Ni faced. Oakland’s lefty-swinging slugger struck out on a 92 mph fastball. Kurt Suzuki to flew out to Curtis Granderson in center to end the inning. Ni got a harsh welcome to the majors when Ryan Sweeney homered on a two-strike pitch to lead off the sixth. The rookie bounced back quickly, and retired the next three hitters, including two on swinging third strikes. The homer he gave up was of little consequence, as Tigers lost 7-1.
It was a solid debut, but Ni revealed himself to be perhaps his own toughest critic. Through his translator, he said that he wasn’t happy about the home run and also lamented about not throwing the pitch “to the location the catcher (Gerald Laird) wanted”
Still in Oakland, Leyland went back to Ni two games later. Justin Verlander had given the Tigers six innings, but the A’s led 4-1. Ni took over for the seventh. Travis Buck greeted him with a line drive double to right. Ni got Mark Ellis to ground out to first on a play that Miguel Cabrera handled unassisted, which sent Ellis to third. Ni struck out lefthanded hitting Adam Kennedy. Then Leyland brought in Zack Miner to face the right handed hitting Orlando Cabrera. The Tigers lost 5-1.
Ni had joined a first-place Tigers team, and he soon got his first taste of an AL Central Division rival. The third-place Twins, who were three games out, hosted the Tigers in the always unpleasant Metrodome for a three-game series in early July. In the Friday night opener on July 3, the Tigers led 7-2 in the bottom of the sixth. The Twins rocked Miner for four runs on a home run, walk, and back-to-back triples. With one out and a man on third, Ni was called on to put out the fire.
The first batter he faced was the dangerous Joe Mauer, who went on to win his third AL batting title (and second consecutive) that season. The encounter between Mauer’s lefthanded bat and Ni’s left arm didn’t go well. A sacrifice fly drove in the tying run. After Ni got Justin Morneau, another tough lefty bat, on an inning-ending grounder to second, his work was done. There ended up being a lot more baseball to play, though, as the Tigers needed 16 innings to put the Twins away 11-9.
Ni got a measure of revenge against the Twins two games later. He started the fifth inning after Porcello gave up six runs in the fourth. Mauer would once again be the first batter Ni faced. Ni walked him, but a groundout to short by Morneau and a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play off the bat of lefty hitter Jason Kubel put the Twins away. Back out for the sixth, he struck out Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede. The pesky Twins then scrapped out three straight singles (Delmon Young, switch-hitter Nick Punto, and lefty Denard Span).
At one point in the jam, Leyland visited the mound. The message was simple: throw strikes. Even with his limited English, Ni understood. He struck out Brendan Harris to snuff out the Twins’ hopes of racking up another big inning. The Tigers, however, weren’t able to mount a threat at the plate and lost 6-2. The Twins’ victory allowed them to slip into second place ahead of the White Sox. The Tigers left Minneapolis leading the division by two games.
After four straight appearances on the road, Ni was looking forward to the opportunity to pitch at Comerica Park for the first time. Through his translator, he said,
“It’s an honor to wear the home jersey. I will show my ability to the fans and coaches.”
On July 8, Ni made his home debut against the Royals. Starter Luke French, another Tigers rookie, had pitched into the seventh, but after striking out the leadoff hitter, he gave up a home run and a single. With the Tigers’ lead cut to 3-1, Leyland brought in Ni to face Brayan Pena, a switch-hitting catcher. Ni induced an inning-ending double play on a weak grounder to Brandon Inge at third. He struck out David DeJesus to begin the eighth, and then Brandon Lyon took over from there. The Tigers held on to win 3-1, and Ni was credited with his first big league hold.
Through his first couple of months in Detroit, Ni’s outings ranged from two-thirds of an inning to two full innings. In three straight appearances in July, he stranded a total of seven inherited runners and then stranded five more in his first three August appearances. During those two months, he struck out 15 in 22.1 innings and only walked seven. Of the six earned runs charged to him, two were on solo home runs and three were runners that Ni’s successors on the mound had let score.
In Ni, it looked like the Tigers had found another reliable lefty reliever. Bobby Seay, in his eighth season in the majors, was the Tigers’ top southpaw. Robertson had been pitched miserably in his first season as a member of the bullpen. Ni made the most of the break he got when Robertson went on the DL, and Nate returned to the rotation after being activated in late August.
Pitching coach Rick Knapp was impressed with what he’d seen from Ni in such a short time. Perhaps keeping in mind that the rookie had been a starter for two years in Taiwan before joining the Tigers organization, Knapp said,
“This sounds foolish, but Ni’s done a great job doing exactly what we need him to do. He’s somebody else to go before Bobby. And it isn’t like he’s had a half-season of baseball. It’s hard to take a chance on that, but he’s earned his stripes here. He’s done a fabulous job in the situational role that we have him in.”
Laird was instrumental in helping Ni get acclimated. With the interpreter present, Laird took the extra time to work slowly through signs during pre-game pitchers meetings, making sure that Ni understood them. Laird also helped Ni home his approach. The veteran catcher known as “G-Money” said,
“There are a few words I use, like ‘stay smooth’, ‘calm’, and ‘don’t rush’, because he can get a little rushed sometimes. From spring training ’til now, though, Ni’s taken huge steps forward – just his command and confidence, getting his secondary pitches going. It seems like every time out, he’s getting better and better.”
Ni was an eager all-around student. He studied English vocabulary every evening before bed. Despite the language barrier, he said, through his translator, that he was having fun every day. In particular, Ni formed a bond with Seay. The two lefties’ lockers were next to each other. An observant Ni had picked up on his teammate’s mannerisms and developed an impersonation of Seay that even cracked Leyland up. Seay said,
“He can joke around with us by making gestures. He’s got a good personality. For being in a foreign country, I think he’s adjusted well.”
The Tigers needed to overcome a rough outing from Ni at home on September 3 in order to nab a win. They held a 3-0 lead after starter Robertson pitched six scoreless innings, and rookie Ryan Perry threw a 1-2-3 seventh. Perry got the first out of the eighth, then gave up a double to Kelly Shoppach.
With leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore, a lefty, due up, Ni took over. He got Sizemore to line out to Miggy. Back-to-back singles by Jamey Carroll and switch-hitter Asdrubal Cabrera scored Shoppach. The Indians’ best left-handed hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, then rocked Ni with a two-run double that tied the game. That was it for Ni. A walk-off sacrifice fly from Placido Polanco gave the Tigers a 4-3 triumph in 10 innings.
Ni, who had spoken about showing off his ability to fans and coaches, may have felt like he let everyone down. As Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press reported, Leyland had to pick up his young pitcher’s spirits after the game. Ellis wrote,
“Leyland joked that Ni was laughing by the time the conversation was over and said he wasn’t sure if the Taiwanese pitcher was laughing at him.”
That win was part of a six-game winning streak to begin September, which upped the first place Tigers’ AL Central lead to 7.5 games. Unfortunately, they followed that with a five-game losing streak. As the Tigers tried to hold the Twins at bay, they relied on Ni to come in and get lefthanded hitters out in tight games that they were trailing and needed to keep close.
On September 8 in Kansas City, the Tigers had a 5-4 lead through six. Porcello gave up a leadoff single to Yuniesky Betancourt in the seventh. Leyland called on Seay, who got the first out on a sacrifice bunt that sent Betancourt to second base. David DeJesus singled to left, and the Tigers caught a break when left fielder Ryan Raburn threw Betancourt out at the plate. After Seay hit the next batter, Mitch Meier, in a two-strike count, Leyland brought in Perry, who gave up back-to-back RBI singles that put the Royals up 6-5. After a walk to load the bases, Leyland pulled Perry.
Ni was thrust into a bases loaded situation facing lefthanded hitter Mark Teahan. Ni got Teahan to fly out to left to end the threat. That was the only batter he faced. The Royals added on a run in the eighth and won 7-6. That began the Tigers’ five-game skid.
The Tigers and Blue Jays were tied 6-6 in Detroit on September 12 when Aaron Hill hit a two-run homer off Fernando Rodney in the top of the ninth with two out. Rodney then walked Vernon Wells, and Leyland went to Ni. With left-handed hitting Lyle Overbay at the plate, Ni got the third out – without throwing a pitch – by picking Wells off first. In the bottom half, the Tigers couldn’t capitalize on two singles. As the potential winning run, Raburn struck out to end the game.
Ni became the Tigers’ only lefty option out of the bullpen when Seay strained a chest muscle late in the month, which hindered his availability. Seay only pitched in one of Tigers’ last 11 games, while Ni appeared in five.
Over 40,000 were on hand to see the Tigers host the Twins on October 1. Detroit’s magic number to eliminate Minnesota was two. A win that on that Thursday afternoon would be a division clincher. The Tigers trailed 4-1 in the seventh when starter Robertson gave up a single to Nick Punto and a double to Denard Span. Leyland called for Perry, who sandwiched an intentional walk to Joe Mauer in between a groundout to short and a strikeout.
Lefthanded hitter Jason Kubel loomed, and Leyland needed Ni to get the Tigers out of another bases loaded jam. Ni struck out Kubel to end the inning and keep the game in reach for the Tigers. When rookie Casey Fien struggled in the eighth and Seay imploded in his return, the Twins were able to tack on four more runs to win 8-1 and spoil the day. The division race was still on.
Holding on to a tenuous two-game lead, all that remained on the Tigers’ schedule was a three-game home series against the White Sox. The Twins had three at home with the Royals. Detroit dropped its opener to Chicago 8-0. Rookie Alfredo Figaro started the second game on October 3. He pitched a scoreless first, but Carlos Quentin homered off him to lead off the second. Figaro gave up a walk and a single before getting a strikeout. Following a double steal, he walked Brent Lillibridge, a .146 hitter, to load the bases.
Leyland wasted no time in bringing Ni in. It was the earliest he’d pitched in a game that season. Ni got lefthanded hitter Scott Podsednik to ground to second. The Tigers weren’t able to turn the inning-ending double play, however, and a run scored. It was the first inherited runner that Ni allowed to score since September 3 against Cleveland. For the fifth straight outing, Ni functioned as strictly a LOOGY, his longest such streak of the season. Righty Armando Galaragga took over to finish the inning. The Tigers ended up losing 5-1.
The Tigers won the regular season finale, but the Twins had swept the Royals. The regular season ended with a first-place tie in the American League Central. The Tigers and Twins would be forced to duel in Game 163 at the dreaded Metrodome.
The Tigers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the third. The Twins chipped away with single runs in the third and sixth. Orlando Cabrera’s two-run homer off Miner in the bottom of the seventh gave the Twins a 4-3 lead. After Miner gave up a single to Mauer, Leyland made a pitching change. He wanted Ni to face lefty-swinging Kubel, who had homered his last time up. Ni got the job done when Kubel flew out to center. Leyland went back to the bullpen for Perry to face righty Michael Cuddyer.
The game had become an emotional rollercoaster for Tigers fans and continued to be one. The Tigers tied the game in the eighth and took the lead in the 10th. The Twins re-tied it in the bottom of the tenth and won it in the 12th. It was a disappointing way to end the season for the Tigers, but Ni had emerged as a bright spot.
In 31 innings of work (121 batters faced), opponents hit only .187/.267/.336 against Ni. Across the board, those were the best numbers of any Tigers pitcher. Left-handed hitters went down at a .113/.211/.258 clip. Ni finished with a 1.000 WHIP and 174 ERA+. In the bullpen, only Brandon Lyon (44) and Bobby Seay (39) had inherited more runners than Ni’s 35. He let just three of his inherited runners score, good for a team-best 9%.
2009 was Ni’s peak, however. He made the Opening Day roster in 2010 but struggled. On June 29, exactly one year after his major league debut, the villainous Twins rocked him for four runs on two hits and four walks in two-thirds of an inning. After the next day’s game, he was sent to Toledo, where he remained until the Tigers released him in August 2012. An attempt to convert Ni into a starter in the minors didn’t pan out.
Ni spent 2013 pitching in the Australian Baseball League. He performed well enough to entice the Dodgers to sign him after the season, but they released him in spring training. Ni stayed in the United States and pitched for two teams in the independent Atlantic League in 2014 and 2015 before returning to his CPBL roots for the 2016 season. Now 37-years old, Ni has begun his fourth season with the Fubon Guardians.