On April 2, Kodai Senga became the 14th Japanese player to appear in a Mets game when he threw a 99 mph fastball to Miami Marlins’ Luis Araez, the most of any major league team. became. The Seattle Mariners are second with 11.
This is a relationship cultivated over many years with the enthusiastic support of former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who has led teams in both Japan and the United States. And that pipeline seems to go both ways. Five of Japan’s 12 managers have spent at least part of their playing careers with the Mets this season.
Chiba Lotte Marines manager Masato Yoshii, Seibu Lions manager Kazuo Matsui, and Nippon-Ham Fighters second-year manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo made their major league debuts with the Mets. Shingo Takatsu of the Yakult Swallows and Kazuhisa Ishii of the Rakuten Golden Eagles played for Queens after starting elsewhere.
Yoshii hasn’t lost the unique quality of his Mets ties.
“We all played for the Mets,” he replied in Japanese when recently asked for the name of an NPB manager with experience playing in the major leagues. “That’s really interesting. Is it a coincidence or is it something more?”
Yoshii was first enrolled in the Mets, and after a good season with the Swallows, jumped to the majors in 1998. Some of the Mets’ Japanese players had shorter appearances, such as right-handed reliever Takatsu, who only played nine games for the team in 2005, but by 2004 to 2004, he had the best performance on the team. Some players, like Matsui, who pitched in 949 at-bats, had better results. 2006.
The five played under 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 continuity in the organization makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact root of the connection, but Yoshii has a theory as to why the NPB is focusing on managers with major league experience.
“Japan tends to follow trends that started in America,” he said. “Data is a big part of strategy in Japan, and training is evolving too. Far fewer teams believe in endless training like boot camps, and spring training workouts are shorter and shorter. It’s more efficient, and as our approach has become more American, the front office has become more focused on American major league experience.”
Yoshii’s coveted leadership style was evident from the first day of spring training, when he walked around the Lotte facility and from station to station to observe the players. As he circled the bullpen, Marines prodigy starting pitcher Roki Sasaki was pitching. Mr. Yoshii modestly asked a few questions and proceeded with the conversation. During the daily media briefings, Yoshii was riddled with questions about what advice he gave to Sasaki, the sensational right-hander who pitched a perfect game last season and pitched near-perfectly in his next start.
“I didn’t give him any advice,” said Yoshii, who has 121 wins in Japan and the United States. “He knows the mechanics better than I do, so I don’t have to mess with them. I just need him to be comfortable and do the work he thinks is necessary to prepare for the season. I just wanted to make sure I had everything, and that’s all I can ask.”
Japanese managers have historically been known to be much more demanding. They are rarely satisfied with leaving things up to the players, tending to be picky about pitchers’ form and demanding that things be done according to the old books.
Asked if he was imitating a communication style he observed in the United States, Yoshii quickly replied that his approach was inspired by his experience with Valentine in the Mets.
“I’ll never forget Bobby once coming to me and telling me that the rehab pitcher will be back in the rotation, so what do you think about pitching out of the bullpen,” Yoshii said. “I said, ‘I’m not comfortable there, I’d rather have a rotation.’ It’s the openness we’re aiming for.”
Yoshii, who was 32 at the time, said he had not yet thought about his future as a coach or manager. But the openness he felt from Valentine has stayed with him for 25 years.
In 2000, Mets sign Shinjo, an outfielder, and he will become the second-position player from Japan in Major League Baseball — the deal came less than two weeks after Seattle signed Ichiro Suzuki. Shinjo credits the serendipitous aspect of his experience with the Mets for his sophomore season as manager of the Fighters.
He spent part of 2003 struggling with Norfolk, then the Mets’ AAA affiliate. He felt the conditions were much tougher than in Japan’s minor leagues, where the teams are based in the same city as the top clubs, like the junior national team.
“For lunch, I had two slices of bread with peanut butter and jelly and called it a meal,” he said in Japanese. “I prepared a tattered towel in the shower, but it barely dried. Players who actually go to the major leagues have the fighting spirit of surviving the environment after many years and crawling up. It made me realize that
Mr. Shinjo, who knew that it was possible to acquire Gosuke Kato, a player who fought through nine seasons in such a situation, strongly recommended the Fighters to sign him. He thought Kato’s hungry spirit could be a great motivation for a young, developing team.
Born in Japan and raised in the United States, Kato was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 2013. After signing with Toronto as a minor league free agent in 2022, he finally made it into the majors, appearing in eight games for the Blue Jays. But then he was waived, signed with the Mets, of course, spent the rest of the season at AAA Syracuse, and then joined the Fighters in the offseason.
Shinjo’s directorial debut season, last year’s Pacific League finish at the bottom, and 2023 is sluggish again. Yoshii’s Marines led the Pacific League until Sunday, while Matsui’s Lions were fifth and Ishii’s Golden Eagles were last.
Takatsu is the only former Mets manager in Japan’s Central League. His Swallows languished in fifth place through Sunday, but he’s already done what the Mets haven’t done since 1986, winning the NPB championship in 2021.