PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t have to be. Kodai Senga smiled wryly after throwing one of his signature “ghost forkballs” in the dirt Thursday morning, during his second bullpen session since arriving at Mets camp. Through interpreter Hiro Fujiwara, Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner offered tips and suggestions. Hefner had previously assured Senga that things don’t need to be flawless in the early days of camp, with six weeks to go until Opening Day.
Over the next month and a half, Senga will continue to work, adapt and tinker. His initial challenge is not so much the larger, slicker baseballs used in MLB, which have perplexed other Japanese pitchers in the past, but the steeper slope of a Major League mound. That has affected Senga’s mechanics and particularly his release point, which is critical for creating his ghost fork’s trademark diving action.
Yet despite all his challenges -- the language, the slope, the ball -- Senga’s plane is “taking off,” as Hefner put it. The right-hander hit 96 mph in his bullpen session Thursday. He threw 52 pitches, which is an unusually large number for mid-February. The goal is for Senga to acclimate as quickly as possible to as many things as possible, so that six weeks from now, the wrinkles will all be smoothed.
“He’s going to go through some frustrations and those types of things, just like everyone does this time of year,” Hefner said.
Added Senga, through Fujiwara: “I have a lot of time to get used to it.”
Anticipating these challenges, Senga opted not to pitch for Team Japan in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, preferring to spend those days acclimatizing to America as thoroughly as possible. It’s not merely the MLB mound that Senga is unused to; he’s also worked his way through a hemisphere’s worth of foods -- pizza is his current favorite -- while soaking up what cultural knowledge he can from teammates.
“A lot of English and Spanish words are coming in and out of my ears,” Senga said. “It’s something I need to get used to and hopefully be able to understand even a little bit.”
Before arriving stateside on a $75 million free agent contract, Senga consulted MLB veteran Yu Darvish, a longtime mentor to him and other Japanese pitchers. Like Darvish, Senga thrived in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, winning 104 games with a 2.42 ERA over 11 seasons. But even Darvish knows no transition is completely smooth or linear. To wit: In addition to Senga’s other challenges, his medical report upon signing with the Mets did not come back completely clean, as the New York Post first reported. (Senga acknowledged the report but declined to disclose the reason for it; in any event, the Mets came away satisfied enough to finalize the deal.)
Maybe that will become an issue down the line, maybe not. Senga’s risk may be real, but the Mets took a chance on him because of his obvious frontline upside and potential popularity. Senga’s ghost fork is already the stuff of social media legend, without him ever having thrown it in an MLB game. He recently appeared in the Mets’ Super Bowl commercial. His No. 34 jerseys have been a fashionable spring buy.
The Mets can’t yet know if Senga will reach his ceiling, but they are going to do everything possible to clear his flight path. In addition to Fujiwara, the team has hired Senga’s personal massage therapist from Japan. Hefner, meanwhile, is trying to learn Senga’s body language and facial tics (in lieu of suddenly becoming fluent in Japanese). His hope is that over the course of the next six weeks, with Fujiwara’s help, Hefner will be able to communicate as well with Senga as he does with every other pitcher.
“If he’s not understanding the translation and stuff like that, I think we’ll be able to work through that,” Hefner said. “Just like he’s working through the ball, I’m working through all of those things.”
For Senga, this transition is a challenge, not an impossibility.
“There’s natural ebbs and flows, right?” Hefner said. “He’s been pitching a particular way with a particular ball for a very long time. And that’s why I’ve challenged him to throw more off the mound, so he can start to get that feeling a lot quicker.”