Finally, an “ace in training” crosses the sea. SoftBank pitcher Kota Senga has announced his intention to exercise his long-sought FA rights and move to the MLB.
The man who rose from a developmental player to become the ace of Japan’s No. 1 team for four consecutive years has seen his salary reach 600 million yen, more than 200 times the 2.7 million yen he was paid in his first year, and is expected to sign a major league contract worth more than 10 billion yen in total.
In this article, baseball critic and pitching designer Niki Omata, who has coached Senga, explains Senga’s MLB challenge.
Senga’s pitching is a power pitch centered on a fastball with a maximum speed of 164 km/h and an average velocity of about 154 km/h, and a big, drop-off, ghost fork that has become synonymous with the game. To this are added cut balls, slabs, curves, and supremes.
Although he does not have fine control of his pitches, he is a dexterous pitcher who can handle a wide variety of pitches in addition to his American-oriented power pitching, which makes full use of his fastball and falling pitches.
I myself have coached Senga, and I remember being very impressed by his dexterity, as he was able to throw a cut ball right after reading my book, even in the middle of the season.
When I accompanied Senga to Miyakojima for his voluntary training, I was impressed by his insistence on pitch speed and his high awareness of the need to improve his form as much as possible, and I felt his determination to become the ace of a powerhouse baseball team.
Thanks to such efforts, he has won double-digit games for the past seven years in a row. Even taking into account the fact that he is a member of the powerful SoftBank baseball team, his consistency at a high level is impressive, and his performance has been spectacular.
On the other hand, for all his specs and potential, his best record is 13 wins, and he has never won the Sawamura Award. Compared to Kazumi Saito, the team’s legendary ace, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the ace of the Japanese baseball world, he may have been seen by fans as insufficient and lacking in matchups. Many of our alumni have always said, “He can win more games with the power he has. That is what many OBs say, and it is also my true feeling.
Although he still lacks in some areas, Senga has finally reached the major leagues by using his obsession with pitch speed and inquisitiveness about form as his identity.
I think the secret to Senga becoming a first-rate pitcher is his eagerness to adopt new theories and forms as soon as they emerge, and his high level of ambition.
However, as is often the case with pitchers who throw great pitches, he often prioritizes what he wants to do and does not always pitch in pursuit of victory in order to watch his opponents and suppress them. Furthermore, although he has won the Golden Glove Award, his actual defense is still a bit messy for an ace-class pitcher, which is still an issue.
The evaluation in the United States, which has not followed his every move, is that he is a “complete right fielder,” but in reality he is still a work in progress and rough around the edges. That said, his growth and potential are as outstanding as his mentor, Yu Darvish, was in his younger days.
Reports have mentioned that Senga may become a reliever, but he can still pitch like Joe Musgrove (Padres), who won 10 games this season, and Tywan Walker (Mets), who won 12 games this season, with a variety of pitches and a falling pitch. He could be a starter and be as good as the third pitcher in the rotation at this point.
Senga has a similar pitch quality and style to Montas (Yankees) and Gorsman (Blue Jays), and while his pitches are not as repeatable, Senga has a better velocity and variety of pitches. Since he is a starting pitcher with faster pitches and a greater variety of pitches than Ector Neris (Astros), who has similar command of a fork and the quality of each type of pitch, he is still quite a capable pitcher.
Commonalities and Challenges with Japanese Pitchers Who Have Achieved Success in the Majors
Japanese pitchers who have been successful in the Majors, such as Darvish and Shohei Ohtani, often have a fork and slider and are able to strike out.
Another characteristic is that he has a variety of pitches, including a curve and 2-seam, and that although he has good velocity, the quality of his 4-seam and the accuracy of his fine control of each type of pitch are low at the time of his arrival in the United States.
Like Otani and Darvish, Senga may struggle immediately after arriving in the United States with his fastball, but it does not have much velocity.
For a SoftBank pitcher with a maximum speed of 164 km/h, he throws a modest 40% of his pitches as straight pitches, but like Darvish and Otani, he needs to further reduce the percentage while working to improve the quality and control of his pitches.
The fork is almost an essential pitch for success in the United States. While it is not as good as Ohtani’s split, which is the best in the world, the haunted fork will certainly work. Kenta Maeda (Twins) has also awakened by learning a split change that falls like a fork in addition to his signature slider, and Hisashi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda, and Koji Uehara also had good forks and control.
Senga’s haunted fork has a weakness in that it has a large drop-off but a slightly slower velocity. He started throwing a cut ball to fill this weakness, but it is a little too fast and the more he pinches the pitch, the more it becomes a small change with too much power.
Although he is not yet a “slatter” with a sharp change at a moderate velocity, he can improve by modifying his grip and throwing style, as evidenced by the high responsiveness he showed when training with Senga. Since the “Supreme” is not very effective in terms of the amount and quality of change, I think one way to improve it is to throw the pitch with a fork by pulling it closer to the split.
The pitch that was most highly regarded by Senga after he became a pro until he developed a ghost fork was the slurve, which reached about 135 km/h, acted like a power curve, and was effective as a counting pitch.
The slurve could be used as a power curve or as a sweeper (horizontal slider) by changing the way he gripped it. The curve itself is not my strong point, so it would be nice if I could make use of this slurve.
Furthermore, Senga can also throw a 2-seam, something he has not been able to do recently. Like Ohtani, there is a high possibility that he can make his 2-seam an effective pitch, complementing his 4-seam and doubling the effectiveness of his fork, slurve, and cutter.
Senga would be able to make these fine adjustments while utilizing data, and the front offices of advanced baseball teams would be interested in this.
Can Senga adapt to the ball and culture of the Majors?
When Japanese pitchers move to the United States, adapting to the change in environment, style of play, ball, mound, and strike zone is a major challenge.
He has already experienced and adapted to the ball in the 2017 WBC and won the Outstanding Player Award. In recent years, NPB has been using higher and harder mounds that are more suitable for the majors, and Senga has pitched well in the Sapporo Dome, where his form matches the high and hard mounds of the majors. Airplane travel will not be that much of a problem since he has already experienced it with SoftBank.
The problem will be outdoor stadiums and pitch count limits. In Japan, most ballparks are domed, but in the majors, most of them are outdoors. Differences in wind, cold, and humidity will need to be addressed.
In addition, the pitching intervals are short, and even if the pitch count increases, pitchers are not pulled as they have been in the past and are unconditionally replaced after about 100 pitches, so pitchers must reduce the number of useless pitches and work on their pitching. This does not mean that we need to pitch to hitters, but rather that we need to make our pitching more efficient and optimized.
Kuroda said that he learned a lot from pitching under the pitch count limit after Corona, but he had been simulating this before he arrived in the Majors, which is why he was able to adapt to the U.S. so quickly.
I would like to see Senga make more such efforts. There are many other things he has to adapt to, such as pitch coms, pitch clocks, and the hitters themselves, but it is everyone’s first experience. You just have to get used to it.
Senga’s pitching style, power, and adaptation to the mound and the ball are suited to the Majors, and no matter how bad he is, he can relieve the experienced reliever, and as a starter, he should be able to get around 12 wins with a 3 point average, not much different from Japan.
If he can focus more on pitch distribution and pitch quality and pitch without injury, he should be able to become a first or second starter, rather than the third starter in the rotation, which is his current evaluation.
He still has bottomless potential, and I look forward to watching him perfect his pitching in the pinnacle environment of the major leagues.
I am looking forward to seeing his Cinderella story of winning the Cy Young Award, which is given to the best pitcher in the world, from his development.
Wen： Niki's crotch