For the vast majority of the year, the Western baseball world completely disrespects and overlooks Nippon Professional Baseball. We do this by simply not caring about it at all, in any way shape or form.
It is of course true that the talent pool in the Major Leagues is significantly deeper. But the resulting notion that Japanese baseball is therefore not worthy of our attention is reductive at best, and arrogant at worst. Moreover, if you care about watching great baseball players play baseball — which Western fans theoretically do — then it’s also completely self-defeating. Consider this for a moment: if you believe, as I do, that Shohei Ohtani is the single best baseball player on Earth (and possibly the most talented baseball player of all-time), then we must also acknowledge as a logical consequence that, in 2016 and 2017, the single best baseball player on Earth was not playing in the Major Leagues, but in Japan. The same is largely true (though on a slightly lesser scale of historical greatness) with respect to Ichiro. The Ichiro who lit Major League Baseball on fire with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 was the exact same Ichiro who had been doing the exact same thing in Japan for several years before.
If, as a baseball fan, you enjoy watching Shohei Ohtani play, just as we all enjoyed the hell out of watching Ichiro play, then you should find it fun to watch them play in Japan, too.
Baseball is unique among American sports with respect to this dynamic. It is inconceivable that the best basketball or football player in the world would ever not be playing in North America. But it is possible in baseball, and we are better for it. It’s a blessing that a foreign league exists with the economic power, tradition, and infrastructure to produce planetary greatness. It’s a joy to be able to watch the game we love be molded and shaped by another culture, one that has as much of a claim of ownership over it as we do.
And yet, the market has spoken pretty clearly with respect to the Western view of Japanese baseball. We don’t watch it, we don’t follow it, and and we don’t even know who the players are.
The one exception to this occurs when one of those players expresses his intent to move to the Majors. When this happens, we finally acknowledge that Japanese baseball exists and that it has at least some value. We’re not valuing it on its own terms, of course, but merely to the extent that it benefits us and affirms our own self-conceived superiority. Japanese baseball justifies its existence only to the extent that it serves ours.
Hop on Twitter right now and you’ll see that this is happening with respect to Kodai Senga of the Fukoaka SoftBank Hawks. “Go get Kodai Senga,” says a Mets Twitter account run by people who probably had never even heard of him two months ago. “Kodai Senga almost makes too much sense,” says a Cardinals fan who, just last year, called Japanese stats an illusion. “I’m in on Senga,” says a certain Framingham-based, former Red Sox backup infielder and current radio host who once scoffed at the idea that Shohei Ohtani could be mentioned in the same breath as Bo Jackson.
As Kodai Senga contemplates his baseball future over the next few weeks, the internet is going to be flooded with takes about his ability, and almost every single one of these takes will come from people who have never seen him play and who didn't give a shit about him one month ago. You’re going to get roped into this, too, just by virtue of being on the internet and caring about the Red Sox.
So here’s a starter pack of Kodai Senga clips. Consider it a public service — if you’re going to offer Kodai Senga takes, you should probably at least know what he looks like.
We’ll start with a Pitching Ninja style clip showcasing the incredible drop on his splitter, a pitch that tends to be used much more heavily in Japan than in the States. Senga’s is so effective it’s been nicknamed the Ghost Fork:
And here he is completely dominating the Orix Buffaloes with it this past July. He keeps them honest with a few rising four-seamers, but mostly he’s just toying with them with one tumbling splitter after another:
In case you’re wondering how he handles pressure, here he is cooly shutting down an opposing lineup in a postseason elimination game. Notice, too, that he displays a more varied pitch mix in this game, notching several strikeouts with a tight slider:
If you insist on holding off validation of his talent until you see him succeed against big leaguers, here he is striking out five in two innings of work against Team USA in the last World Baseball Classic. His command looked to be lacking that night, but he certainly kept these guys off balance. The first and last strikeouts look to come on a pitch that has some changeup/screwball action, though it’s probably just a variation of his split:
So there you go. Now you’re armed with just enough knowledge to pretend you know something about Kodai Senga. And with that, you are once again free to go on ignoring some of the very best baseball in the world for the next 12 months.