When Kodai Senga delivered a 99-mile-per-hour fastball to Luis Arraez of the Miami Marlins on April 2, he became the 14th Japanese player to appear in a Mets game, the most by any team in the majors. The Seattle Mariners are 11th.
It’s a connection that has been fostered over the years, with the help of Bobby Valentine, the former Mets manager, who has managed teams in the United States and Japan. And the pipeline, it seems, goes both ways: This season, five of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 managers spent part of their career with the Mets.
Rookie managers Masato Yoshii of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Kazuo Matsui of the Seibu Lions, along with Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the second-year manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters, all played in the Mets’ big games. Shingo Takatsu of the Yakult Swallows and Kazuhisa Ishii of the Rakuten Golden Eagles played in Queens after starting elsewhere.
The unique nature of the Mets’ connection is not lost on Yoshii.
“Every one of us has played for the Mets,” he said recently in Japan when asked to name NPB managers with major league experience. “It’s very exciting. I wonder if it was a coincidence or something else? “
Yoshii’s time with the Mets came first, when he made the jump to the majors in 1998 after a solid season preparing for the Swallows. Some of the Mets’ Japanese players had short stints, such as Takatsu, a right-hander who made just nine appearances for the team in 2005. Others had more games, such as Matsui, who had 949 appearances for the team between 2004 and 2004. 2006.
These five men played for three different managers – Valentine, Art Howe and Willie Randolph – and were overseen by three great managers – Steve Phillips, Jim Duquette and Omar Minaya.
The lack of organizational continuity makes it difficult to determine the exact root of the connection, but Yoshii has an idea why NPB might look to managers with experience in the US major leagues.
“Japan likes to follow what started in America,” he said. “Information has become a big part of the strategy in Japan and the training has changed. The teams that believe in permanent workouts, like boot camps are very few and the spring training has become shorter and more efficient. As our strategy expands in America, the front offices put profit in the US major leagues.”
Yoshii’s leadership skills were evident from the first day of spring training as he roamed Lotte’s grounds, walking through the station to check on his players. As he rounded the bullpen, the Marines’ first pitcher, Roki Sasaki, was throwing. Yoshii no doubt asked a few questions and continued. During his daily press conference, Yoshii had a lot of questions about the advice he gave to Sasaki, the right-hand man who was amazing. He had a great game last season and he was almost perfect again in his other beginning.
“I didn’t give him any advice,” said Yoshii, who won 121 jobs between Japan and the United States. “He doesn’t want me to interfere with his mechanics because he understands them better than I do.” I just wanted to make sure he was comfortable and had everything he needed to do the work he felt was necessary to prepare for the season. That’s all I can ask.”
Managers in Japan have always been notoriously difficult. Not content to leave things up to their players, they prefer to set the tone for their pitchers and force things to be done by a respectable manual.
When asked if he was imitating the style of communication he saw in the United States, Yoshii quickly said his style was based on what he learned from his experience on the Mets with Valentine.
“I’ll never forget Bobby coming up to me one time to tell me that a rehab pitcher was about to rejoin the rotation, so how would I feel coming out of the bullpen,” Yoshii said. “I said, ‘I’m not comfortable there and I like to be flexible.’ He went with a six-man rotation after that. I was eternally grateful. That’s the kind of freedom I’m trying to have.”
Yoshii was 32 at the time and said he had never thought about a future in coaching or management. The openness he got from Valentine, however, stayed with him for 25 years.
In 2000, the Mets signed Shinjo, an outfielder, making him the second Major League Baseball player from Japan – the deal was completed less than two weeks after Seattle signed Ichiro Suzuki. Shinjo credits an unexpected part of his Mets experience with impacting him in his second season as the Fighters manager.
He spent part of 2003 working for Norfolk, then the Mets’ Class AAA team. He found the conditions to be harsher than in Japan’s minor leagues, where teams are like a junior varsity team in the same city as a top club.
“At lunch we spread peanut butter and jelly on two pieces of bread and called it food,” he said in Japanese. “To take a shower, we found these towels that didn’t dry us. It made me realize that guys who go to the big leagues have to have the will to fight to survive to get out of it in the long run. “
When he learned that Gosuke Katoh, a player who fought his way through nine seasons in such conditions, Shinjo encouraged the Fighters to sign him. He thought Katoh’s hunger would be a great motivator for his young, developing team.
Katoh was born in Japan but grew up in the United States, and was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 2013. After signing with Toronto as a minor free agent in 2022, he finally made it to the majors, making eight appearances. Blue Jays game. But he was later waived and signed by the Mets, spending the rest of the season with Class AAA Syracuse before joining the Warriors in the offseason.
Shinjo’s Fighters finished last in Japan’s Pacific League in its inaugural season last year and are struggling again in 2023. Yoshii’s Marines were leading the Pacific League until Sunday, Matsui’s Lions were fifth and Ishii’s Golden Eagles were last.
Takatsu is the only former Mets manager in Japan’s Central League. Although his Swallows were in fifth place until Sunday, they had already accomplished something the Mets hadn’t done since 1986: They won the NPB championship in 2021.