Entering the 2023 season, the New York Mets viewed Kodai Senga as a wild card worth the gamble. Evaluators were divided on whether Senga, a star pitcher in Japan, would be as successful in Major League Baseball. Some believed he had frontline starter potential. Others thought he would fit best as a backend reliever.
The Mets, led by general manager Billy Eppler and his successful track record of scouting Japanese players, believed in Senga’s ability as a starter. The Japanese hurler made a name for himself thanks to a nasty, unique pitch that he calls the “Ghost Fork,” which he pairs with a high ninety’s fastball.
Kodai Senga, 97mph Fastball and 84mph Ghost Fork, Overlay.
HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO HIT THIS??? pic.twitter.com/qX9rT4MgyT
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 28, 2023
At the time of the signing, New York’s rotation was led by two still-effective future Hall of Famers. By not needing Senga to be an ace right away, the Mets planned to let Senga adjust to a whole new environment as gradually as possible.
Questions regarding the quality of a third pitch and issues with command and control threatened to destine Senga to the bullpen. However, the 30-year-old quieted any doubts about his future with great rookie campaign. The Mets trusted that Senga, an unknown, would be a viable replacement for Chris Bassitt, a solid, dependable veteran from the 2022 rotation. Perhaps it’s indicative of the disastrous 2023 season that New York’s biggest wild card ended up being its most reliable pitcher.
How a Wild Card Became the Most Dependable Met
Senga threw his 29th and final start of the year on Wednesday against the Marlins. He finished his debut season 13-7 with a 2.98 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 166.1 innings. He is only the second Met, joining Dwight Gooden, to strikeout at least 200 batters as a rookie. Additionally, Senga also becomes the third Japanese rookie to reach the 200 punch out mark.
Kodai Senga became the fourth pitcher from Japan to record at least 200 strikeouts as a rookie.
Hideo Nomo, 236 (1995)
Yu Darvish, 221 (2012)
Daisuke Matsuzaka, 201 (2007)
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) September 28, 2023
Elite Strikeout Ability
While strikeouts are up league wide, Senga proved that possesses an elite ability to miss bats and get strikeouts. Senga’s 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine, 28.8 percent strikeout percentage, and 29.4 Whiff percentage shows how he fools hitters.
Senga showed he knows how to control the game and fool batters not only with his great stuff, but with his smarts as well. There were games where he barely threw his Ghost Fork and relied on his fastball to bully hitters. He never became predictable. When that gets paired with elite stuff, hitters don’t stand a chance.
Some viewed Kodai Senga as a wild card because many scouts questioned his ability to limit walks. Senga walked too many batters and didn’t pitch deep enough in games early in the year. However, he continued making adjustments to limit free passes and improved as the season went on. His evolution opened many eyes around the league as Senga was named to the All-Star team in July.
Senga walked 40 batters in his first 64.2 innings (12 starts with a 3.34 ERA). In his following 17 starts, Senga issued 37 free passes in 96.2 innings and pitched to a 2.70 ERA. While his overall walk numbers aren’t ideal (4.1 walks-per-nine), teams will live with it since he strikes so many batters out and limits home runs.
His control issues were no secret to the Mets before they signed him. The walk issues periodically popped up in the second half. However, Senga showed grittiness that allowed him to fight when he didn’t have the best control and try to go deep into games.
Even if the Mets acquire an ace or two this winter, Senga likely has earned the 2024 Opening Day assignment. Expectations will be high in his sophomore campaign. Senga will have to show that 2023 is not a fluke. The league will certainly adjust to him, especially now that they’ve seen his Ghost Fork. It will be imperative that Senga makes counter adjustments and not let the league figure him out. Another great year will forever prevent Senga from seeing wild card status.
Buck Showalter praises Kodai Senga after the final start of his rookie season:
"You think about all the challenges he faced coming over here, we're so proud of him. He's worked so hard to make everybody proud of his efforts" pic.twitter.com/hzXfbmbgaM
— SNY (@SNYtv) September 28, 2023
Additionally, questions surround Senga’s workload and schedule. MLB teams typically operate with a five-man rotation where each starter pitches every five days (four days rest). In Japan, starters usually work every sixth day (five days rest). The Mets made it a point to give Senga extra days of rest in-between starts to help him acclimate to a new schedule.
Whether the Mets do this next year, or at least to the same degree, remains an unknown. It’s difficult to adjust an entire rotation just to give one guy more rest. Additionally, a team might not want its ace relying on so much extra rest.
This could result in two things. One, the Mets trust Senga with a heavier, more American-style workload in 2024. Or two, protect him in similar fashion and acquiring an ace that’s more of an innings eater/bulldog type.
The Mets reportedly saw red flags in Senga’s physical when they signed him. His signature Ghost Fork puts a lot of stress on his arm and it’s possible the Mets were protecting him due to that more than the acclimation process. It’s fair to wonder if Senga’s arm might break at some point. This could lead the Mets to continue giving him extra rest and bringing in more innings eaters this offseason.
Will Senga Win Any Awards?
Senga made a late push at both National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young races. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll had too much of a lead in the ROY race and will likely win the award with ease. Senga will definitely get votes and it’s reasonable to see him finishing as high as second.
To really put the domination of the ghost fork into perspective, out of the 648 batters Kodai Senga has faced this year, not one has homered off that pitch.
On Senga’s strong case for NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young: https://t.co/jiScI8BhFJ
— Deesha (@DeeshaThosar) September 20, 2023
Unlike the ROY race, there was not an obvious NL Cy Young choice when September began. Senga has had a good final month, but San Diego Padres lefty Blake Snell might have run away with award with a great month. Senga will finish second in the National League in ERA and should finish in the top-10 in this race.
The 2023 season was no doubt a disappointment for the Mets. But in the disaster, a Ghost Fork and 202 strikeouts let Kodai Senga go from wild card to the team’s best, most reliable pitcher.
Main Photo Credits: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports