There’s a new pitching sensation in Queens. No, not Justin Verlander, nine-time All-Star, two-time World Series champion and future HOFer – he’s there, but he’s on the IL. No, not José Quintana, Colombian ace – he was forced to withdraw from the WBC after just 1.2 innings into Spring Training after suffering a rib stress fracture, and is yet to return.
No, this pitching sensation makes his MLB debut for New York. Kodai Senga, after over seven years of starting pitching in Japan, exercised his international free agent rights last offseason and was dutifully pursued by the Mets, who landed him to a five-year, $75m contract. The 30-year-old had a 2.42 ERA in Japan over his NPB career.
But it’s his trademark pitch which has got fans, broadcasters and teammates so excited. Senga has a version of the forkball so effective that in Japan, it earned the moniker ‘ghost fork’. A forkball is essentially a split-finger pitch thrown with less velocity than a fastball, such that it drops out of the zone after at first appearing to be bang on the money, due to the placement of the ball in the fingers and the snap of the wrist upon release. It was popularised by Elroy Face in Pittsburgh in the 50s and 60s, and mastered by Jack Morris in the 80s, who used it to great effect and won more games than any other pitcher that decade. It has been a staple in the NPB for years (think Kazumi Saito), and Senga has honed the art of it.
His fork has something else to it, though. The drop is more akin to a 12-6 curve than a regular fork or splitter, and his delivery seems to deceive even the wiliest of hitters. Here he is striking out rookie sensation Jordan Walker against the Cardinals in Spring Training, with a fun MLB Field Vision graphic to highlight the effectiveness of the pitch:
And here is the secret to the real efficacy of it. Overlaid with his fastball, which averages 97 and tops out at 99mph, it’s a thing of beauty:
In his debut against the Marlins, with a dozen or so Japanese media in situ, Senga at first looked a little lost, like he wasn’t quite present. He threw a few in the dirt and walked two guys. He seemed shifty on the mound, dazed even. Then it clicked, and he retired 15 of the next 17 hitters over a remarkable four-inning stretch that set the groundwork for a comfortable 5-1 Met victory. After the game, Senga, perhaps more consciously aware of the power of his brand than the bashful front he presents suggests, said there were nerves, for sure, and that his legs felt unsteady, “like a ghost”.
Senga has a wry humour that counterintuitively lends itself to translation in press conferences. The delay between his Japanese answer and his interpreter delivering a response in English seems to build comedic tension – it’s an interesting contrast to the accelerated pace of play on the field. When Senga chooses to reply in English – “this is ghost” – beat reporters and Twitter accounts lap it up.
His second start was equally impressive. He struck out six batters and allowed one run on just three hits, with three walks in six innings as the Mets beat Miami 5-2 at CitiField. Not one of Senga’s 18 forks was put in play. There is, of course, an element of ‘enjoy it while it lasts’ about Senga’s rookie year. No one, Senga included, knows how long he can haunt batters with such effectiveness. Hitters learn and adapt. For now, though, like everyone else, I’ll be enjoying it while it continues, and with a smile on my face, mirroring the infectiousness of Senga’s own.
Kodai Senga (2-0, 1.59 ERA) Starts tonight against the Oakland Athletics (2.40am BST, Apple TV).
Featured image of Kodai Senga by @KeezCam on Twitter
Joshua Edwards is the New York Mets correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Joshwa_1990