I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
Who Are The Greatest MLB Players From Australia?
In 2009, Major League Baseball joined forces with the Australian Baseball Federation to revitalize the Australian Baseball League in hopes of creating additional international appeal of the game. MLB owned 75 percent of the new six-team league, but they cut ties going into the 2016-17 season, throwing the future of the ABL into question. The ABL, however, found a way to make things work, even expanding by two teams in 2018. Success continued to build, and the ABL is hopeful about its future despite having the cancel the 2021-22 season due to COVID-19 restrictions. An original eight-team version of the ABL was founded in 1987, and it contested games from 1989 to '99.
And while the history of Australians in the majors isn't rich, it will be interesting to see if more and more players get chances to head to MLB if the new ABL can continue growing. The first Australian-born player in MLB was Joe Quinn in 1884, but there wouldn't be another until Craig Shipley debuted over a century later in 1986. Dave Nilsson was the first All Star born in Australia, and since his debut in 1992, there have been about 30 more players to come to MLB from Australia, including several notable pitchers.
In this article, I'll be counting down the top five Australians to appear in MLB. After the top five is a list of honorable-mention selections.
**Stats are through the 2021 season**
5. Peter Moylan
- Birthplace: Attadale
- MLB Years Played: 2006–13, 2015–18
- Position: Relief pitcher
Peter Moylan pitched 12 MLB seasons as a reliable reliever, primarily with the Atlanta Braves. He first signed with the Minnesota Twins as an amateur free agent in 1996, but after he was released two years later, his MLB career seemed over. He went back to Australia to work in pharmaceutical sales, but continued to work on his pitching. After getting to participate in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he was back on notice following a strong showing for Team Australia and was invited to spring training with the Braves. He faced Tommy John surgery early in 2008, but rebounded with 87 appearances in 2009 and 85 more in 2010. Several more injuries hampered Moylan's career after that, but he later had another resurgence with the Kansas City Royals. At age 38, Moylan tied for the major-league lead with 79 appearances in 2017. He pitched a final season with the Braves and retired before the 2019 season with a 24–10 record and 3.10 ERA over 499 appearances.
4. Joe Quinn
- Birthplace: Ipswich
- MLB Years Played: 1884–86, 1888–1901
- Position: Second baseman
Joe Quinn was the first player from Australia to appear in a major-league game, and he remains the only native Australian to serve as an MLB manager. Quinn debuted as a member of the 1884 St. Louis Maroons, who finished with the greatest record in major-league history—an astounding 94-19-1 mark. In 1899, he was a player/manager for most of the season with the Cleveland Spiders, who finished with the worst record in major-league history—a dismal 20–134 mark. An immensly popular player, Quinn played in 1,772 games over 17 seasons and recorded 1,804 hits for a .262 career average.
3. Grant Balfour
- Birthplace: Sydney
- MLB Years Played: 2001, 2003–04, 2007–15
- Position: Relief pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (2013)
Grant Balfour is tied for the most wins among Australian-born pitchers (30), and he ranks second in career saves (84). In 2008, he became the second native Australian to play in the World Series (the first was Graeme Lloyd), and he has pitched more postseason innings (19 2/3 over 20 games) than any other player born in Australia. Balfour's career started slowly (he only pitched parts of four seasons from 2001 to '07), but once he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, he found some footing as a reliever. He later became a closer in Oakland, and from May 5, 2012, to July 22, 2013, he converted 44 straight save chances, which at the time was the sixth-longest streak in MLB history. Overall for his career, Balfour appeared in 534 games, finishing with a 30–23 record, 571 strikeouts and a 3.49 ERA.
2. Dave Nilsson
- Birthplace: Brisbane
- MLB Years Played: 1992–99
- Position: Catcher/Outfielder
- Accolades: All-Star (1999) and Milwaukee Brewers Wall of Honor
Perhaps the greatest ambassador for Australian baseball players is Dave Nilsson. He was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987 and became a regular in their lineup from 1992 to '99. He became the first Australian-born All-Star selection in 1999, but that was his last season in the majors. Instead of signing a big-money free-agent contract for the 2000 season, Nilsson opted to help further grow the game of baseball in Australia. He had already purchased the original ABL (a league in which he was star) and was working to put together a roster for the Intercontinental Cup after he was injured in August 1999. Nilsson was tournament MVP in leading Australia to the gold medal in the November event. He later represented his country in the Olympics in 2000 and '04, as well as the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
In the majors, Nilsson hit .284 with 105 home runs and 470 RBI in 837 games for the Milwaukee Brewers.
1. Liam Hendriks
- Birthplace: Perth
- MLB Years Played: 2011–present
- Position: Relief pitcher
- Accolades: All-Star (2019, '21), and AL Reliever of the Year (2020–21)
In 2021, Liam Hendriks became the first Australian-born pitcher to make two All-Star appearances and surpassed Grant Balfour to become the all-time strikeout leader among Australians (639). As one of the top closers in baseball, he also took over the all-time saves record for pitchers born in Australia with his 85th conversion on May 4, 2022. Additionally, he has pitched more major-league innings than any other Australian and leads all Australian-born pitchers with 22 postseason strikeouts.
Hendriks began his career as a starter for the Minnesota Twins but went 2–15 over his first four seasons, though he is the only pitcher from Australia to pitch a complete game (August 22, 2012 in a losing effort). He was converted to a reliever by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 and became the closer four years into his tenure with the Oakland Athletics in 2019. Since then, he's been among the best in baseball, leading the American League in saves in 2021 and winning Reliever of the Year honors twice.
The top five players born in Australia are listed above, but here are a few other standouts from Down Under who merit mention.
Graeme Lloyd was the first Australian-born player to appear in the World Series, and he won a pair of championships with the New York Yankees (1996 and '99). Born in Geelong, Lloyd was a part of two trades before debuting with the Brewers in 1993, and he spent 10 seasons in the big leagues. He finished his career with a 30–36 record, 4.04 ERA and 304 strikeouts in 568 relief appearances (the most among Australians).
Damian Moss showed promise as a full-time rookie in the Atlanta Braves rotation in 2002, but he was traded after the season and bounced around to several franchises before retiring in 2010. Born in Darlinghurst, Moss last appeared in the big leagues in 2004, and his 61 career starts are the most for an Australian-born pitcher. Overall, he went 22–19 with a 4.50 ERA in four MLB seasons.
Craig Shipley was not a star player, but he provided versatility and dependability as a utility player for 11 seasons. Born in Parramatta, Shipley appeared at every defensive position except catcher and played for five teams between his debut in 1986 and his last game in 1998. He was a career .271 hitter and maintained an overall fielding percentage of .967.
How Many Australians Have Played in the Major Leagues?
There have been 33 players from Australia to play in MLB. Additionally, Chris Snelling, Phil Stockman and Michael Nakamura were born outside of the continent but were raised in Australia. There are three Australian players who have appeared in a game in 2022 (through June): Liam Hendriks, Alexander Wells and Aaron Whitfield.
© 2022 Andrew Harner