When Kodai Senga delivered a 99-mph fastball to Luis Arraez of the Miami Marlins on April 2, he became the 14th Japanese player to appear in a game for the Mets, the most of any team in the major leagues. The Seattle Mariners follow with 11.
It’s a bond that has been nurtured over the years, with enthusiastic support from Bobby Valentine, the former Mets manager, who has managed teams in both the United States and Japan. And the pipeline, it seems, goes both ways: This season, five of the 12 managers in Nippon Professional Baseball spent at least part of their playing careers with the Mets.
Rookie managers Masato Yoshii of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Kazuo Matsui of the Seibu Lions, along with Nippon-Ham Fighters second-year manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo, all made their major league debuts with the Mets. Shingo Takatsu of the Yakult Swallows and Kazuhisa Ishii of the Rakuten Golden Eagles played in Queens after starting elsewhere.
The uniqueness of the Mets connection is not lost on Yoshii.
“All of us played for the Mets,” he recently said in Japanese when asked about the names of NPB executives with major league experience. “That’s really interesting. I wonder if it’s a coincidence or more?”
Yoshii’s tenure with the Mets came first, jumping straight to the majors in 1998 after a strong season pitching for the Swallows. Some of the Mets’ Japanese players had short stints, such as Takatsu, a right-handed reliever who made only nine appearances for the team in 2005. Others had more substantial runs, such as Matsui, who had 949 at bats for the team from 2004. 2006.
The five men played for three different managers – Valentine, Art Howe and Willie Randolph – and were overseen by three general managers – Steve Phillips, Jim Duquette and Omar Minaya.
The lack of organizational continuity makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the connection, but Yoshii has a theory as to why NPB would look to managers who have experience in the major US leagues.
“Japan tends to follow the trends that started in America,” he said. “Data has become an important part of strategy in Japan and training has evolved. Teams that believe in endless, boot camp-style drills are much fewer, and spring workouts have become shorter and more efficient. As our approach becomes more American, front offices value experience in the major American leagues.”
The leadership style Yoshii craves was evident from the first day of spring training as he roamed Lotte’s compound, going from station to station observing his players. While making his rounds through the bullpen, the Marine phenomenon of a starting pitcher, Roki Sasaki, threw. Yoshii quietly asked a few questions and continued. During his daily media briefing, Yoshii was peppered with questions about what advice he gave to Sasaki, a sensational right-hander who threw a perfect game last season and was almost perfect again on his next start.
“I didn’t give him any advice,” said Yoshii, who racked up 121 victories between Japan and the United States. “He doesn’t need me to mess with his mechanics because he understands them much better than I do. I just wanted to make sure he was comfortable and had everything he needed to do the work he felt is necessary to be ready for the season. That’s all I can ask for.”
Japanese managers have traditionally been known to be much more demanding. Rarely content to leave things to their players, they tend to nitpick their pitchers’ form and demand things be done by a time-honored book.
When asked if he emulated a communication style he observed in the United States, Yoshii was quick to attribute his approach to something he learned from his Mets experience with Valentine.
“I’ll never forget Bobby came up to me once to say that a rehabilitating pitcher was about to rejoin the rotation, so how would I like to pitch out of the bullpen,” Yoshii said. “I said, ‘I’m not comfortable there and I prefer the rotation.’ Then he went on a six-man rotation. I was forever grateful. That’s the kind of openness I strive for here.”
Yoshii was 32 at the time and said he had not yet thought about a future as a coach or manager. However, the openness he experienced from Valentine has stayed with him for 25 years.
In 2000, the Mets signed Shinjo, an outfielder, making him Major League Baseball’s second position player from Japan – the deal was finalized less than two weeks after Seattle signed Ichiro Suzuki. Shinjo credits an unlikely portion of his Mets experience with influencing him in his second season as the Fighters’ manager.
He spent part of 2003 slaving in Norfolk when the Mets’ Class AAA affiliate. He found the conditions much harsher than Japan’s minor leagues, where teams are more like a junior varsity team based in the same city as the top club.
“For lunch, we spread peanut butter and jelly on two pieces of bread and called it a meal,” he said in Japanese. “Before showering we were given those torn towels that barely dried us off. It made me realize that the guys who actually make it to the big leagues have to have such a will to fight through that environment to get out after so long.
Finding out that Gosuke Katoh, a player who had spent nine seasons fighting in such circumstances, was available, Shinjo urged the Fighters to sign him. He thought Katoh’s hunger could be a great motivator for his young, developing team.
Born in Japan but raised in the United States, Katoh was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 2013. After signing with Toronto as a minor league free agent in 2022, he eventually made it to the majors and appeared in eight games for the Blue Jays. But he was then waived and signed with, of course, the Mets, spending the rest of the season with Class AAA Syracuse before joining the Fighters during the off-season.
Shinjo’s Fighters finished last in the Japanese Pacific League in its managerial debut season last year and will again languish in 2023. Yoshii’s Marines led the Pacific League ahead of this week’s games, Matsui’s Lions were fifth and Ishii’s Golden Eagles were last.
Takatsu is the only one of the former Mets to lead Japan’s Central League. While his Swallows were in fifth place heading into the week, he’s already accomplished something the Mets haven’t done since 1986: He won the 2021 national championship.