Kodai Senga graphic

International players like Kodai Senga are always a challenge to project. Aside from the subtle differences in the gameplay and the spirit of the league, the zeitgeist if you will, there’s also the potential language barrier and communication challenges. And then, there’s the equipment itself. So people do not realize that the ball in the Japanese leagues is different. Not shocking once you think about it, but it is indeed different—a different manufacturer and different standards.

League Maker
Weight Size
NPB Mizuno ~141.7g ~22.9cm
MLB Rawlings ~148.8g ~23.5cm

That is the first hurdle for pitchers, the ball. The MLB ball averages slightly bigger and heavier than its Japanese counterpart. Not only that, the Mizuno balls all come pre-tacted so the grip is always the same. “Why are you bringing this up in a sleeper post for Kodai Senga? That sounds bad.” I hear you saying in your head. We’ll get there! I wanted to plant this seed first, because, it might actually help THIS pitcher. Let’s take a look at his recent NPB career.

Year IP ERA WHIP SO H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
2018 146.0 3.45 1.25 169 7.5 1.3 3.8 10.4
2019 180.1 2.79 1.16 227 6.7 0.9 3.7 11.3
2020 131.0 2.20 1.18 159 6.5 0.3 4.1 10.9
2021 111.1 2.67 1.05 116 6.5 0.2 2.9 9.4
2022 148.0 1.89 1.04 159 6.3 0.4 3.0 9.7

Senga has pitched for Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks his entire career since 2012, but we’re going to focus in on the last 5 seasons. 2018 was by far his worst season as a pro, despite making a jump in K-rate he also regressed in command as his WHIP also climbed above 1.20 for the first time since his rookie season. But since then, every season he has made improvements on each of WHIP, BB/9, H/9, and HR/9. What I take from that is that he learned to command his pitches better. He lost some of his chase rate with pitches outside of the zone but located more on the edges with fewer mistake pitches. The biggest thing of note is his HR/9 dropped by 2/3 from 2019 to 2020 and has sustained the lower rate. Almost no one can take him deep.

Remember the ball difference earlier? The Mizuno balls are smaller, lighter, and easier to hit out. In part why it’s hard to evaluate home run hitters coming over to the states. But a pitcher that can neutralize home runs, that could carry over more (to the league and less over the wall). How does he compare with the other recent crossover, Shohei Ohtani… let’s compare.

Year League IP ERA WHIP SO H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2016 NPB 140 1.86 0.95 174 5.7 0.3 2.9 11.2
2018 MLB 51.2 3.31 1.16 63 6.6 1.0 3.8 11.0

Kodai Senga’s pitching profile is similar to Ohtani’s in a lot of ways.  Like all NPB pitchers before him, Ohtani experienced a first-season regression in walk rate (except for Tanaka) hits and home runs allowed. But one thing that has remained constant for most of the pitchers with velocity is a K-rate that carries over and usually has an uptick the following season. Like Ohtani and Darvish before him, Senga’s fastball sits in the upper 90s. To understand more of how he compares to his compatriot we need to look at his repertoire.

As I alluded to, Kodai Senga’s fastball sits around 96 mph but he’s able to dial it up and down as needed—even clocking 101 mph in one game last season. Unlike most power pitchers with elite velocity, like Ohtani, Senga does not rely on max effort and instead picks his moments to go after it. What works in his favor is that there is some natural rise and run on it that will allow him to be aggressive in the top of the zone. He also utilizes a 88-91 mph sinker (that looks more like a hard change) with more sink than average that looks comparable to the MLB average or slightly above. Senga also mixes in a slider, cutter, and curveball, that due to his pitchability can dial them up and down in a variety of ways and then can tend to bleed together. His command on slider/cutter can leave him at times, but there’s usually enough late movement to keep hitters off-balance.

The feature pitch though is his forkball, gaining notoriety as the “ghost fork.” This is the pitch that sets him apart. What is it? Essentially it’s a modified splitter that has a lot of late drop and disappears out of the zone, hence the “ghost.” Looking at the clips, you can see it’s very similar to Ohtani’s and Gausman’s splitter.

He’s already made a believer out of Pete Alonso. Watch him flail at it. Tanaka had some difficulty adapting his splitter to the MLB ball, but Senga looks like he’s already been able to accommodate it as Ohtani did.

It’s for this reason paired with his elite velocity that I see him flourishing in the current MLB environment. The heavier MLB ball should also help maintain the depth on his splitter even if it loses a bit of bite. I foresee it still being a plus offering. Gausman has become a top-25 pitcher by featuring almost exclusively his fastball-splitter combo while sitting around 95 with his 4-seamer. Ohtani in his first couple of seasons also relied heavily on his fastball-splitter combo and posted an average velo of ~96 during those seasons.

Last year in NPB, Senga’s forkball accounted for nearly half of his strikeouts. Compared to the rest of the league, it was by far the best pitch in Japan with a 50% whiff rate and chased over 40% of the time and went to it often when batters had two-strike counts. This is due to his release of it looking a lot like his fastball with similar wrist positioning that makes it hard to distinguish from it. In 2021, Ohtani’s splitter had a 49% whiff rate and over the last 2 years, Gausman’s splitter has averaged ~45% whiff rate. If Senga has trouble commanding his slider/cutter I see him falling back on his splitter more like Ohtani and Gausman, and getting similar results.

Lastly, with the new pitch clock, batters will be at a disadvantage in decrypting pitch sequencing. And given that most everyone has not seen Senga before they will not see the forkball coming to be caught off-guard, just like Alonso in the video. It is a unique pitch that he has a good feel for and the surprise factor alone should lead to plenty of Ks, especially against MLB average hitters and the free-swinging launch-angle-focused philosophy that is the spirit of the game right now. Much different than the contact, put-the-ball-in-play philosophy that still prevails in the NPB.

At an average ADP right now of around 185 that has crept up from around 200, he still represents a solid buy with a good chance of positive ROI. If he returns anything close to Ohtani’s first season and Gausman’s 2022 it will be worth it. And calling the Mets stadium home certainly works in his favor for flyballs. Right now, I have him projected for something in the range of 150 IP with a 9.5-10 K/9 and likely a 3.5-3.7 BB/9 that could result in ratios around 3.60/1.20; there’s a lot to like there that late in the draft if you can hedge your ratio risk in earlier rounds. Grab him before he disappears!

If you want more Coolwhip to top off your baseball experience, fantasy or otherwise, you can follow me on Twitter: @CoolwhipRB.