Senga Kodai observed with admiration. He looked on with envy.
He observed Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka render MLB players defenseless. He observed Japanese stars of lesser stature proving their worth on baseball’s grandest stage. As he remained in Japan, he witnessed dozens of his compatriots living out his ambition.
His contract limited his options.
The ace of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks expressed his desire to join Major League Baseball years ago, but every meeting with ownership and management resulted in rejection. He threw for the sole NPB club that has never made its players available to MLB organizations under the posting system.
Senga’s longtime friend and former pitcher Dennis Sarfate remarked, “He was undoubtedly frustrated, but he would never admit it out of respect for the club” (2014-21). “He may have been established in the major leagues at age 25 like Tanaka or [Shohei] Ohtani. He was prepared to leave.
Kodai Senga had to wait for free agency because the SoftBank Hawks did not make him available to MLB teams under Japan’s posting system.
Senga’s professional debut occurred at age 19. When he arrived in California as a free agent to begin negotiations with different MLB teams, he was on the verge of turning 30. The day prior to meeting with the Mets, Senga made a quick layover in Arizona to dine with Sarfate, his teammate on six championship teams and a native of Brooklyn who grew up attending games at Shea Stadium.
Before making his first trip to New York, Senga inquired with a friend about what performing there would be like.
“I simply told him, ‘You must perform well,'” Sarfate added. “It can be difficult if you don’t live up to your contract, so you’d best make that $15 million a year because they’ll let you know if you don’t.
“I believed he would choose the West Coast, being closer to Japan and with the trip, and he works out with [San Diego’s] Yu Darvish during the offseason. But I believe he desired the bright lights.”
The spotlight is appealing since it was never meant to fall on him.
Senga was a three-digit player before he signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Mets, before he won Japan’s pitching Triple Crown and many Golden Glove awards, before he threw a no-hitter, starred in the World Baseball Classic, and won the Olympic gold medal.
He was not deemed deserving of a position on a squad of 70 players. He wore a uniform with three numbers to identify himself from the relevant guys with a future in baseball, similar to an NFL practice-squad player. In the 2010 Nippon Professional Baseball Draft, the Hawks selected a total of 68 players before selecting Senga, including three developmental players and a corner infielder from Gamagori High School located approximately 290 kilometers southwest of Tokyo whose fastball did not exceed 90 miles per hour.
Training tailored to pitching changed this. In 2012, he was promoted, moving from jersey No. 128 to No. 21 and receiving a raise to 4.4 million yen ($33,117). In his first full season in 2013, he pitched 34.1 consecutive shutout innings to tie the Pacific League record for relievers and was selected to the NPB All-Star Game.
Sarfate stated, “No one knew anything about him, but then he took Japan by storm.” “I saw him before he was refined. I recall when he was promoted, and in his first two games he scored 99 points. And I’m thinking to myself, “Who is this skinny kid?” When I saw Senga last month, I thought, “Man, he’s put together now.” He has exerted significant effort to build muscle and strength.
“He has something to show after coming from a three-digit number. He just labored really diligently. He is an adversary.”
Senga thrived despite many injuries throughout his first few seasons, and in 2016 he became a full-time starter. In 11 seasons, he compiled a record of 87-44 with a 2.50 ERA and led the league in strikeouts twice. In the previous season, he was 11-6 with a 1.50 ERA.
His fastball velocity can exceed 100 miles per hour. His splitter is a mirage. The “ghost fork” shares the same release point as his fastball but abruptly descends from the zone, and Senga gets swings-and-misses on more than 50 percent of swings against it (an comparable whiff rate to Jacob deGrom’s slider). The pitch accounted for fifty percent of Senga’s strikeouts last year.
“He could have been established in the major leagues by age 25 like Tanaka or Ohtani. He was prepared to leave.
former colleague Dennis Sarfate
According to former Saitama Seibu Lions outfielder Brian O’Grady, Japanese opponents refer to him as a “super pitcher.” Senga’s status in Japan is comparable to that of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in the United States.
“It felt like facing a Cy Young-type pitcher,” said O’Grady, a former member of the Reds, Rays, and Padres. “The fastball had more movement than it seemed on the footage. The drop he has on the splitter had to really begin above my head for it to constitute a strike. I pursued numerous fastballs in the dirt and just above the strike zone.
“I haven’t seen anything like that here. It’s just a steep decline. It is difficult to distinguish between fastballs.”
Rutgers graduate and former MLB journeyman Brian O’Grady, who faced Senga in Japan, compared him to Cy Young.
Moving over 7,000 miles away from home creates obstacles. A packed house for a major game at Citi Field is not one of them.
Senga pitched the opening game of four successive Japan Series, assisting the Hawks in becoming the first team in over four decades to win four consecutive league championships.
Sarfate explained, “We were the Yankees of Japan.” “He participated in some major games. There, you’re a rock star. You receive 50,000 supporters per game, and they yell the entire time. It is not socially acceptable to attend a Yankees game. It has such a distinct feel. The cheering section never ceases. They sell beer until the ninth-inning third out. It is not a simple environment. The reporters are harsh with them. Everything is analyzed, so if you played poorly, it would be all over Japan. Every game is similar to a World Series contest. It’s absurd. The intensity of noise would cause the ground to tremble.”
Senga was nominated to the all-tournament team at the 2017 World Baseball Classic after surrendering one run in 11 innings while striking out 16. Senga struck out four former and prospective MVPs (Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, and Andrew McCutchen) and a former All-Star (Eric Hosmer) in two innings against the United States. In the game for the 2020 Olympic gold medal in Japan, he pitched a scoreless inning in relief.
“He is confident and will not be bashful about it,” said Sarfate. However, he never displayed arrogance. He treated all individuals equally and with respect. He was always the same Senga with whom one could joke. He was never too self-important. I used to alter the labels on his locker, renaming him “superstar,” and he would simply laugh it off.
“He doesn’t go out. He does not party. He was simply very quiet and performed his duties. If he has a poor initial performance, he will not allow it to affect him. He’ll just work harder. Practicing is what drives [Japanese players]. The game is their reward. He may lack the charisma of Ohtani, but they are fairly comparable in terms of talent. He’s getting a later start, but I believe he’s still able to do the same kind of work he did over there.”
Ohtani starred for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters when Senga was a member of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Senga studied from Darvish, a former Fighters ace who went on to become an MLB All-Star. On the opposite side of the Pacific, the interested and budding star was only permitted to envision what his American teammates would be like.
Dennis Sarfate, a former MLB pitcher who spent eight seasons as Kodai Senga’s teammate in Japan, says of the new Mets right-hander, “He’s confident, but he’s never arrogant.”
“He frequently inquired about the major leagues,” claimed former teammate Colin Rea. “He was very curious about other pitchers’ routines, especially those at the top of the major leagues, always trying to figure out what they were doing and why they were so successful.”
Even though Senga will face the toughest lineups of his career and will be 30 next month, his longtime teammate believes the right-best hander’s work is yet to come.
“I once saw him start a game with seven consecutive sliders, and I asked him in the clubhouse, ‘Senga, did you really throw seven stinking sliders?'” Sarfate said. “He stated that the catcher requested it, and I responded, ‘No, you shake him off.’ Japanese pitchers, meanwhile, do not tremble. In these meetings, the catcher is the one who speaks, and you listen to him. For some men, it’s fantastic. With an American catcher, American pitching coaches, and the staff he’s working with teaching him new skills, though, he has a greater upside for a player of his ability.”
Senga could have selected a city where baseball is overshadowed by other sports (Toronto, Texas). He could have joined a franchise without a multi-decade championship drought (Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants). He could have signed with the Padres or Angels without exposing himself to a fraction of the potential criticism that will accompany an underwhelming debut in the country’s largest market, as part of the sport’s largest payroll, on a team expecting to win the World Series for the first time in 37 years.
Senga told reporters last winter, “As a ballplayer, it’s imperative that I always strive for greater heights.”
He had waited years for this chance. He yearned for such independence.
He was unable to aim much higher.