Yankees checking in on elite Japanese star pitcher

Ryan Garcia
kodai senga, mets, yankees
March 21, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Japan pitcher Kodai Senga (41) throws in the eighth inning against USA during the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have touched base with a plethora of pitchers on the market, including the great Jacob deGrom. While the Yankees are a team in need of position players, they certainly could bolster their rotation in free agency.

The market is chock-full of starting pitchers at a myriad of price points, and per Jon Morosi of MLB Network, the Yankees have checked in on Nippon Baseball League star Kodai Senga. With a 1.94 ERA in 2022 across 144 innings and 22 starts, Senga was dominant, and the Yankees could greatly benefit from signing him if he’s developed correctly.

Evaluating Kodai Senga’s Arsenal:

Kodai Senga boasts an extremely impressive arsenal that should translate extremely well at the MLB level. Let’s start with the standard four-seam fastball, a pitch he’s used 44.3% of the time and sits at 96.0 MPH. Senga’s reached 100 MPH with this heater, and it’s got the riding action with 17″ of Vertical Break on his heater, with 12″ of Horizontal Run. On paper, this pitch should be one that generates a lot of whiffs, however, it’s only at a 17% Swing and Miss%. This may present issues for the pitch’s ability to be the high-spinning dominant primary fastball it should be, and thus should be looked at more like a contact-oriented fastball.

He also boasts a slider that he throws 11.0% of the time at 83.2 MPH, and it grades out in Driveline’s Stuff+ model as a 103 Stuff+ pitch. It’s certainly not a slider that should be seen as his best strikeout option, but it’s also certainly an above-average pitch. It’s paired with a cutter that seems to bridge the horizontal movement gap between his FB and SL, and it’s thrown at ~88 MPH.

The pitch we should all be focusing on is Senga’s forkball, known as the Ghost Fork. It’s generated a Swing and Miss% of 60%, which is ridiculous, and it’s got tons of vertical drop separation from his fastball. For offspeed pitches (changeups, splitters, forkballs) vertical drop separation off of the FB is the most critical factor for determining whether it’ll succeed or not. With 16″ of vertical separation, we see that Senga’s Ghost Fork is absolutely remarkable. It’ll be a pitch that he will need to rely on at the MLB level, and for good reason. Getting strikeouts is the goal for modern pitchers, and his forkball is the best swing-and-miss offering in his arsenal.

The arsenal Senga has seems heavily reliant on his forkball, but that isn’t necessarily a negative. If he uses it ~30% of the time, he’ll have a strong strikeout pitch that should allow him to at least get to league-average K% numbers. His fastball is a pitch that is a cause for uncertainty, however, it isn’t a death sentence for Senga. His strong slider and solid cutter provide glove-side movement looks for opposing batters to throw them off, and it seems that how he uses his pitches will matter just as much as the actual “stuff” he possesses.

Will Domination in Japan Translate to MLB?

Kodai Senga has undoubtedly been one of the best pitchers in all of Japan for a while now. He excels at generating swings and misses, striking out 622 batters across 530 innings over the last four seasons. His high strikeout total in a league where strikeouts aren’t as frequent are really impressive, and with his elite stuff, it won’t be hard to see how an analytically-minded team could get Senga to rank near the top of strikeout leaderboards. He also happens to generate a lot of groundballs, registering a GB% of 49.9% in 2022, something that should play extremely well with the Yankees’ infield defense.

The Yankees ranked 8th in infield OAA (15) and also happened to lead all of baseball in team DRS at 129 DRS, marks that should improve as Oswald Peraza takes over at shortstop and they get a full season of Harrison Bader.

harrison bader, yankees
Sep 20, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader (22) reacts after hitting a two-run single against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t stop there either, as the Yankees also have the best framer in the sport in Jose Trevino at catcher, and Kyle Higashioka is also a strong framer as well. High-whiff stuff with great groundball rates should combined to lead to a lot of success with a good organization, but the one concern is Senga’s command. Kodai Senga has a walk rate of 9.3% in his career, and with the trained eyes of MLB hitters, it’ll balloon if he isn’t able to find the strike zone more.

The X-factor here is the strikeout rate, as if his K-BB% sits between 17-18% with a 45-50% GB%, he’ll find plenty of success at the MLB level. The pitchers with at least 100 IP in 2022 who fit in this range all had strong seasons:

  • Tarik Skubal (2.96 FIP)
  • Carlos Carrasco (3.53 FIP)
  • David Peterson (3.64 FIP)

If he’s able to be a mid-3 FIP starter, the Yankees will have a strong rotation that can go up against any rotation in the sport, and that’s what you’re looking for with Kodai Senga.

The Yankees Best Match Financially:

Kodai Senga’s command concerns and age nearing 30 will cause his market value to dip a little bit. There’s a bit of “prospect” risk to him since there are some adjustments teams may want to make to Senga in order to get the best from him. Every free agent is a risk, but one thing that the Yankees will know is that Senga won’t break their bank, and he’s not going to cost them any draft picks or international free agent money. Pitchers like Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodon, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Bassitt come with penalties due to the Qualifying Offer, but Senga doesn’t come with any of these penalties.

Yes, the Yankees are going to be taking a risk if they acquire Kodai Senga, but it’s a risk worth taking. The Yankees have the top 4 of their rotation solidified with few question marks, so why not take a flyer on a pitcher who could dominate if he clicks at the Major League level? The Yankees are going to need to bring back Aaron Judge, acquire an LF, and perhaps even make a second splash acquisition. Senga provides the financial flexibility for the Yankees to do these things since he won’t command top dollar, and he could bring his Ghost Fork and high-90s fastball to the bright lights in the Bronx.