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 game for the Mets, the most of any team in the major leagues. The Seattle Mariners are next with 11.
It is a connection fostered over the years, with enthusiastic support from Bobby Valentine, the former Mets manager, who has led teams in both the United States and Japan. And the pipeline, it appears, 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.
The 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 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 unique nature of the Mets connection is not lost on Yoshii.
“Each of us played for the Mets,” he said recently in Japanese when asked to name the N.P.B. managers with major league playing experience. “That’s really interesting. I wonder if it’s coincidental or something more?”
Yoshii’s tenure with the Mets came first, with him jumping straight to the majors in 1998 after a strong season pitching for the Swallows. Some of the Mets’ Japanese players had short stints, like Takatsu, a right-handed reliever who made only nine appearances for the team in 2005. Others had more substantial runs, like Matsui, who had 949 plate appearances for the team from 2004 to 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 hard to pin down the exact root of the connection, but Yoshii has a theory on why N.P.B. would look to managers who have experience in the U.S. major leagues.
“Japan tends to follow the trends started in America,” he said. “Data has become a big part of strategy in Japan and training has evolved. Teams believing in endless, boot-camp-like drills are far fewer and spring training workouts have become shorter and more efficient. As our approach becomes more American, front offices place a value on experience in the U.S. major leagues.”
The leadership style Yoshii craves was evident from the first day of spring training as he roamed Lotte’s complex, going from station to station to observe his players. As he made his rounds through the bullpen, the Marines’ phenom of a starting pitcher, Roki Sasaki, was throwing. Yoshii unobtrusively asked a few questions and moved on. During his daily media briefing, Yoshii was peppered with questions about what advice he gave Sasaki, a sensational right-hander who pitched a perfect game last season and very nearly was perfect again in his next start.
“I didn’t give him any advice,” said Yoshii, who had 121 career wins between Japan and the United States. “He doesn’t need me messing with his mechanics because he understands them far better than I do. I merely wanted to make sure he was comfortable and had everything he needs to do the work he feels is necessary to be ready for the season. That’s all I can ask.”
Japanese managers have historically been known for being far more demanding. Rarely content to leave things to their players, they tend to nitpick the form of their pitchers and demand things be done by a time-honored book.
Asked if he was emulating a communication style he observed in the United States, Yoshii quickly attributed his approach to something he learned from his Mets experience with Valentine.
“I’ll never forget Bobby coming to me once to say that a rehabbing pitcher was about to rejoin the rotation, so how would I feel about pitching out of the bullpen,” Yoshii said. “I said, ‘I’m not comfortable there and prefer the rotation.’ He went with a six-man rotation after that. I was forever appreciative. That’s the kind of openness I strive for here.”
Yoshii was 32 at the time and said he had not yet considered a future in coaching or managing. The openness that he experienced from Valentine, however, 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 part of his Mets experience with influencing him in his second season as manager of the Fighters.
He spent part of 2003 toiling at Norfolk, then the Mets’ Class AAA affiliate. He found the conditions far harsher than the minor leagues of Japan, where teams are more like a junior varsity squad based in the same city as the top club.
“For lunch we smeared peanut butter and jelly over two pieces of bread and called that a meal,” he said in Japanese. “For showering, we got these ragged towels that barely dried us. It made me realize that the guys who actually make it to the big leagues must have such a will to fight by surviving that environment to emerge from it after so long.”
When he found out that Gosuke Katoh, a player who had fought his way through nine seasons in such conditions, was available, Shinjo urged the Fighters to sign him. He thought that Katoh’s hunger could be a great motivator for his young, developing team.
Katoh was born in Japan but raised in the United States, and he 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 to the majors, appearing in eight games for the Blue Jays. But he was subsequently waived and signed with, of course, the Mets, spending the remainder of the season with Class AAA Syracuse before joining the Fighters over the off-season.
Shinjo’s Fighters finished last in Japan’s Pacific League in his managerial debut season last year and are languishing once again in 2023. Yoshii’s Marines were leading the Pacific League ahead of this week’s games, Matsui’s Lions were in fifth and Ishii’s Golden Eagles were last.
Takatsu is the only one of the former Mets who is managing in Japan’s Central League. Although his Swallows were in fifth place heading into the week, he has already accomplished something the Mets have not done since 1986: He won the league championship in 2021.