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Kodai Senga somehow exceeded all expectations in 2023

Hopes were high with the Japanese ace coming over to pitch for the Mets, and yet, he was better than advertised.

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

To say Kodai Senga came to the Mets with high expectations would be an understatement. When New York inked the Japanese ace to a five-year, $85 million during their offseason spending spree, there was palpable excitement, especially considering the fact the team hadn’t made such a high-profile signing of an international superstar in quite some time. And with the Justin Verlander signing and Max Scherzer still around, it felt that the pressure wouldn’t be quite so unbearable on Senga, allowing him to slot into the third spot in the club’s stacked rotation.

That plan went sideways with Scherzer struggling and Verlander missing the first month of the season due to injury, forcing Senga to take on a headlining role in the team’s rotation, perhaps earlier than anyone expected. Senga was up to the task in his first two starts, both against the Marlins, tossing 11 13 innings and allowing two earned runs on six hits, with six walks and 14 strikeouts in nearly-identical wins. He struggled a bit over his next three starts, allowing 10 earned runs on over 14 23 innings as his ERA ballooned to 4.15 and a FIP that sat at 5.37, though he still maintained three wins in those five starts.

He alternated good and subpar starts in May, with the highlights coming during a 12-strikeout performance against the Rays on May 17—that would end up being his season high, a number he matched on two other occasions—and a seven inning, one-hit performance against the Phillies to close out the month. In that last start, he didn’t walk anybody, the only start all season that he would go without issuing a free pass.

He struggled in June, posting his second-worst ERA (3.71) and FIP (4.31) in a single month, while walking 5.06 batters per nine innings. He closed off the first half on a high note, dominating the NLCS-bound Diamondbacks with eight innings of one-run ball. He struck out 12 and walked two en route to his seventh victory against five defeats. He finished off the first half by limiting the 100-win Dodgers to one earned run over six innings, striking out nine and walking one as he settled for a no decision.

The biggest concern at the start of the season was his command, which was the one thing holding him back in the early stages of the season. At the end of May, he owned a 5.06 BB/9, which was the fourth-worst mark among qualified National League starters. By the All Star break, he was second only to Jack Flaherty with a 4.61 BB/9. He showed signs of improvement with three walks over 14 innings in his two July starts prior to the break.

Even with his command issues, he concluded the first half with a 3.20 ERA, a 3.83 FIP, and a 1.7 bWAR in 17 starts. His 11.48 K/9 was third-best among NL starters, and his ghost fork was becoming one of the most lethal (and popular) put-away pitches in the league. For his efforts, he was selected to his first National League All Star game.

From that point forward, he blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the National League and inserted himself into the discussion for both NL Rookie of the Year and NL Cy Young. Post-All Star game, he pitched to a 2.67 ERA—third-best among NL starting pitchers— and a 3.37 FIP—fifth-best among NL starters. He struck out 10.19 batters per nine, the fourth-best mark among NL starters, and improved by walking 3.57 batters per nine—still fifth-worst among NL starters, but a noticeable improvement. He was almost unhittable in July, posting a 1.93 ERA and holding batters to a .165 batting average and .500 OPS in 23 13 innings.

He got noticeably more confident as the season progressed, throwing at least six innings in ten of his final 12 starts. He did this while typically getting an extra day’s rest in between starts, as he did for most of his 29 outings. He registered double-digit strikeouts in three of those appearances, including a ten-strikeout performance in a superstar showdown against Shohei Ohtani and the Angels. He matched a season-high with 12 punchouts against the Mariners on September 1, and struck out 10 more in another dominant outing against Arizona, where he scattered two hits over six shutout frames.

In his final start against Miami, he struck out eight Marlins to finish the year with 202 strikeouts, making him just the second Met rookie to strike out 200+ batters, joining Doc Gooden. He received a standing ovation, though in a fate that was emblematic of the team’s disappointing season, they could not pick up the win to support their star pitcher. He finished the year with twelve victories, a 2.98 ERA, a 3.63 FIP, a 1.22 WHIP, 4.2 BB/9, a 10.9K/9, and a 4.5 bWAR in 166 13 innings pitched.

He ended up second among NL starters in ERA, and fourth in K/9. Most impressive of all, he had a 59.5% whiff% on his ghost fork, which is the highest whiff rate of any single pitch for any pitcher in 2023. His pitch lived up to everything fans dreamed it woul be, and inspired t-shirt designs, clever K signs, and fans showing up to Citi Field dressed as ghosts holding forks—I saw this with my own eyes at his final start of the 2023 season.

Senga’s 2023 season will go down as one of the better rookie season by a Met hurler. Despite that, it’s unlikely he’ll win Rookie of the Year—that honor will pretty handily go to Arizona’s Corbin Carroll—and he doesn’t stand much of a chance at taking home NL Cy Young honors—Padres hurler Blake Snell should be an easy call there. Still, the fact he will finish in the top three in at least one, and potentially both awards, in his rookie campaign is no small feat.

With Scherzer and Verlander being traded away, and with Senga putting together an impressive rookie campaign, he has positioned himself to be the team’s ace going into the 2024 season. It’s hard to predict what will happen during the offseason, but he could find himself joined by fellow countrymen Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. At the very least, the club will make competitive offers for both. But while the team’s chances of landing either (or both) of those superstars is unpredictable, one thing is very predictable: Senga will be the favorite to take the hill for the Mets on MLB Opening Day on March 28.