Kodai Senga pitching against the Diamondbacks last September.

Kodai Senga pitching against the Diamondbacks last September. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The first time Kodai Senga was the best pitcher on his team, he didn’t even want to be a pitcher.

He was in high school and fancied himself as a hitter — still does, actually — but his coach thought he’d be good on the mound. He had the best arm on the team. Sometimes, that simple reality decides a kid’s positional fate.

As good as he was, though, he was unable to pitch frequently. He’d make a start, then need weeks off, then make another, then require more rest. He dominated when he was able to throw. But he often couldn’t throw.

“My baseball life has consisted of pitching and then my shoulder hurting for the month,” Senga said through an interpreter. “And then coming back and then I pitch and then my shoulder getting hurt again.”

Entering his second season in the United States, Senga, 31, still is living a version of that. He is the top pitcher on the Mets’ staff, but won’t appear in a game until May at the earliest because of a posterior capsule strain in his right shoulder. This is at least the third time in his career that he has had a season-disrupting problem with that part of his body.

There are plenty of differences between now and then, including, Senga cracked, that he was “extremely skinny” as a teenager. His body wasn’t built for it. These days, he lifts weights, albeit less so at the moment.

The Mets view Senga’s unavailability as temporary. His talent is lasting. In the eyes of club decision-makers, the righthander with the wicked forkball not only is the best pitcher on the Mets but — given what he accomplished as a rookie in 2023 — could be the best pitcher on almost any team.

“He’s certainly got the talent and skill to be a front-of-the-rotation starter,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “The ceiling is really high for him. He’s incredibly cerebral in terms of how he goes about constructing his arsenal, thinking about his game plan. He’s now got a full year of major-league competition under his belt to lean on. The key for us is let’s get him healthy and let’s get him on the mound.”

Pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said: “He throws such a unique pitch [that] if the velo stays there, he walks a few less people, there’s less opportunity for those runs to come across, he could be a Cy Young Award winner. The stuff suggests that. Now, he’s gotta be healthy and pitch, right? But the stuff suggests top ace of a staff.”

‘Put on my big-boy pants’

The second time Kodai Senga was the best pitcher on his team, he was proud of what he accomplished but already was looking forward to the next big thing: America’s major leagues.

Kodai Senga for Team Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Credit: Getty Images

Not much of a prospect, Senga beat the odds and reached Japan’s major leagues with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks by 2013, when he was 20 years old. He dominated to the tune of a 2.40 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings . . . as a reliever. That wasn’t enough for him.

“I wanted to be a starter, so they sent me back down [to the minors] to build up as a starter,” Senga said. “I knew I wasn’t close, my abilities weren’t close enough to making it to the highest level at the time. So I had a lot to work on, and I was very focused on getting better.”

By 2016, Senga reestablished himself as a starting pitcher. By 2019, he was Fukuoka’s undisputed best hurler with a 2.79 ERA and 227 strikeouts in 180 1/3 innings, all team-best marks.

Along the way, he noticed an unofficial change in his role: With great pitching came great responsibility.

He became excellent, everyone knew it and his conversations with coaches and the manager changed. How many relievers were available that night? How many innings or pitches did they need from him? What did the upcoming schedule look like, and should they tweak his start day so that he would face a more important opponent?

For so long, Senga had focused only on himself — not in a selfish way, more in a have-to-earn-it, I’m-not-important-yet way. Then his mindset shifted toward what was best for the team.

“I do enjoy the responsibility side,” he said. “Maybe sometimes I needed to put on my big-boy pants, put some grit on and get through some innings that I needed to get through for the team.”

Senga maintained his ace status through 2022, his last season in Asia, but never won the Sawamura Award. That goes to the top pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball each year. The list of honorees through the years is a who’s-who list of the best, most-hyped Japanese pitchers to come stateside: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta Maeda, Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

“There’s no ranking in Japan, so there’s no second, third, fourth place, so I don’t know [how high I finished],” Senga said. “But in Japan, my sole focus was preparing myself to come over to the big leagues. So I had never really thought about, hey, I want to win this award, win that award in Japan. I didn’t really care.

“But now that I’m here, where I’ve always wanted to be, I really do care. I want to win everything.”

‘A guy with a good forkball’

Kodai Senga pitches against the Marlins last September. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The third time Kodai Senga was the best pitcher on his team, he was the last man standing after the Mets’ trade-deadline sell-off last summer.

Max Scherzer went quickly. Justin Verlander followed. Suddenly, Senga, signed just months earlier to be the No. 3 starter behind two of the greatest pitchers of their generation, was at the top of the rotation. His year ended with a 2.98 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings, a relatively low total after the Mets massaged their rotation around managing Senga’s workload all season.

Stearns, watching as a rival executive for most of last season, characterized that as “pretty extraordinary,” a debut that “surprised the industry as a whole” — not because of Senga’s talent but because of how quickly he adapted to the majors. His five-year, $75 million contract could be a steal.

Senga finished seventh in the NL Cy Young Award voting, just behind Zack Wheeler and just ahead of Corbin Burnes.

“I did think that I was a little far from first place personally, but to even be in the rankings is a big deal as far as my future,” he said. “It was a little ray of light for me. If I get better, I could win someday.”

After an offseason in which the Mets tried for only one elite pitcher — Yamamoto, who signed with the Dodgers — Senga remains the No. 1. The Opening Day assignment would have been his if not for the shoulder strain.

Senga is ready to embrace the extra responsibility that comes with such status.

“Although I’m starting the season a little bit later, I want to be the guy that the team can rely on,” he said. “And if we need to save relievers, I hope they can count on me to eat innings. And just putting the team in the best position possible to win. Every time I go out there, that’s my goal.”

Those team-centric, special-attention conversations with the coaching staff that Senga had in Japan? Hefner is ready for them.

“It’s kind of like an unwritten rule. You know that this guy is the linchpin of the whole group,” he said. “His emotional well-being is not more important than everyone else’s emotional well-being, but maybe I’m a little more in tune to that person’s emotional well-being and how it relates to everyone else in the room.”

The range of possible outcomes for the rest of Senga’s career is wide. Maybe last year, with his health and effectiveness, winds up being his best. Maybe it was just the start.

Senga still frames himself as needing to prove it.

“I don’t think I’m good,” he said. “I’m just a guy who has a decent forkball. That’s all I am. I have a lot of things to improve on. Maybe one of these years if I throw out some numbers that you’ve never seen before, then finally maybe I can think, OK, I’m a good pitcher. But until then, I’m just a guy with a good forkball.”

Senga last season


xx-Runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year

xx-7th in NL Cy Young voting

W-L 12-7

ERA 2.98

Starts 29

Innings 166.1

SO 202

SO/9 10.9

H/9 6.8

HR/9 0.9

Opp. BA .208

WHIP 1.220


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