Monday, January 25, 2016

The Most With The Least: Hisanori Takahashi (2010)

Ever since Hideo Nomo burst onto the major league scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, creating a craze at Chavez Ravine not seen since the days of Fernando-mania, the pipeline for Japanese players has remained quite active in the United States, particularly for the Mets.  Two years after Nomo became the first player from Japan to win the Rookie of the Year award - edging out future Mets killer Chipper Jones for the honor - the Mets signed their first Japanese player in reliever Takashi Kashiwada.

Kashiwada became the first of 15 players born in Japan to play for the Mets from 1997 to 2010, making Flushing the top destination in the major leagues for Japanese players.  However, none of the 15 athletes achieved the success and adulation that Nomo (who was one of the 15, becoming a Met in 1998) earned in Los Angeles.

Masato Yoshii won 12 games for the Mets in 1999 - albeit with a high ERA (4.40) and WHIP (1.30) - then fizzled in the postseason, pitching just 13 innings in three starts.  Tsuyoshi Shinjo became the first position player from Japan to don a Mets uniform in 2001.  But after a decade of being a rock star in Japan, he became soft rock in New York and was gone after just one somewhat productive season (returning for a shorter, less productive stint with the Mets in 2003).  And who could forget Kaz Matsui?  If the Mets signed him specifically to hit home runs in his first at-bat each season, then they were wildly successful, as Matsui did just that in each of this three years in New York.  But high expectations, in addition to temporarily displacing the more popular Jose Reyes to second base in 2004, caused the Matsui era in Flushing to be mostly forgettable.

It wasn't until 2010, when a lesser-known veteran pitcher joined the Mets, that the team found a Japanese player who actually exceeded expectations in New York.  He also developed an unexpected following and redefined himself during his one season with the Mets to became a lights-out reliever, helping the team improve by nine wins after a disappointing season the year before.

Hisanori Takahashi found success in New York in multiple roles.  (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Hisanori Takahashi played ten years in his native Japan from 2000 to 2009.  Unlike some of his more celebrated peers, Takahashi didn't begin his Japan Central League career until he was 25 years old.  And although he was a popular player in his home country, his career as a starting pitcher and sometimes reliever had its share of ups and downs.  He was an All-Star who helped the Yomiuri Giants win three championships, but he also had a number of poor seasons, which made several major league teams hesitant to sign him when he declared his interest to pitch in the United States as a 35-year-old in 2010.  But the Mets were a team in disarray and needed all the help they could get, especially in the pitching department.

After winning the N.L. East division crown in 2006 and falling one game short of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, the Mets crumbled completely in 2009, finishing the year with a 70-92 record as several key players spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list.  One of the glaring weaknesses on the 2009 team was its pitching, as the staff finished the year with a 4.45 ERA - the third-worst mark in franchise history, surpassed by only the 2003 club (4.48 ERA) and the inaugural 1962 squad (5.04 ERA).

John Maine and Oliver Perez combined to make just 29 starts in 2009 and Johan Santana also had his season cut short due to injuries.  The only pitcher who remained healthy in 2009 and was guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation in 2010 was Mike Pelfrey, who became the first and only pitcher in team history to make 30 or more starts and finish the year with an ERA above 5.00, as he posted a 5.03 ERA in 31 starts during the nightmarish 2009 campaign.  Needless to say, the Mets went into the 2009-2010 off-season needing to bolster its pitching in the worst way.

A week before the start of spring training, the Mets signed Takahashi to a one-year, $1 million deal, with the potential to earn $2 million more in performance bonuses.  At the time, Anthony Nakanishi - who worked for Takahashi's team of agents - was quite optimistic for his agency's client.

"This could work out very well for the Mets," said Nakanishi.  "Hisanori is a bit of a late bloomer and like some other left-handed pitchers from Japan, like Hideki Okajima, his pitching style may translate even better in major league baseball.  Who knows, he could win 15 games.  It's a possibility."

Of course, Nakanishi had to say positive things about Takahashi to give Mets fans a reason to be optimistic and not boo his client from day one.  Those same fans had seen several Japanese players try to succeed in New York, with most of them failing miserably.  But predicting 15 wins for a pitcher competing for the role of fifth starter on a 70-win team?  That seemed like quite a stretch.  But before long, Nakanishi's words almost seemed prophetic, even after his client failed to earn a spot in the starting rotation coming out of spring training.

"What has my agent gotten me into?  15 wins?  Really?"  (Kyodo News, via AP)

Takahashi pitched very well for the Mets in his first spring training outside of Japan, holding opposing hitters to a .170 batting average and collecting 14 strikeouts in 13 innings of work.  But even with Jonathon Niese struggling in his Grapefruit League appearances, opening the potential for Takahashi to sneak into the rotation, manager Jerry Manuel preferred to see Takahashi in the bullpen.  When Opening Day arrived, the Mets' rotation consisted of Santana, Maine, Perez, Pelfrey and Niese, with Takahashi joining Pedro Feliciano as the team's second lefty option in the bullpen.

Takahashi's major league debut did not go well.  On April 7, 2010, the Mets erased a five-run, seventh-inning deficit against the Florida Marlins, scoring two runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth to tie the game, 6-6.  Closer Francisco Rodriguez had been used to preserve the tie in the top of the ninth inning, but was due to lead off in the bottom of the frame, causing Manuel to insert Ruben Tejada (who was also making his debut in the big leagues) into the game as a pinch hitter.  When Tejada and the rest of the team failed to push across a run, Manuel gave the ball to Takahashi to start the tenth, who allowed the Marlins to score the go-ahead run on two singles and a walk.  Takahashi was saddled with the loss in the debut, as the Mets fell to Florida, 7-6.

Although Takahashi did not have the debut he wanted, he quickly learned from his mistakes.  Manuel started to use Takahashi as a long man in the bullpen and was rewarded instantly.  From April 13 to May 16, Takahashi made 12 relief appearances, pitching three innings or more in four of those outings and striking out 32 batters in 23⅔ innings.  His best performance during the five-week stretch came on April 23, when he struck out seven Atlanta Braves hitters in three innings, earning his first big league victory in the process.

As the calendar flipped from April to May, the Mets found themselves in a surprising position - first place in the N.L. East.  But the seeds planted in April did not lead to a full bloom in May, as the Mets lost 13 of their first 18 games in the season's second month.  Games weren't the only things being dropped by the Mets, as three-fifths of the starting rotation went down, either to injury (Jonathon Niese strained his right hamstring) or ineffectiveness (Oliver Perez allowed too many long balls and John Maine allowed too many balls).  With all the tumult going on with the starting rotation, manager Jerry Manuel needed to make some decisions.  One of them was made when R.A. Dickey was inserted into the rotation, launching what became a magical three-year tenure in New York for the rejuvenated knuckleball pitcher.  Manuel's next decision involved Takahashi's move from the bullpen to make a start against the New York Yankees on May 21.  It was then that Takahashi's season really took off.

Takahashi pitched six scoreless innings against the Yankees in his first big league start, scattering five hits and striking out five batters.  But one year after Mets second baseman Luis Castillo made a costly error to give the Yankees a come-from-behind victory, it was another second sacker - Alex Cora - who tossed the game away.  Cora's throwing error on a potential double play ball was followed by a two-run double by seldom-used outfielder Kevin Russo.  (Russo had just four RBI in his entire major league career, with half of them coming in that one game-changing swing.)  Those were the only tallies needed by the Yankees in their 2-1 victory over the Mets.

The Mets lost the game, but found a new starting pitcher in Takahashi.  The southpaw continued his scoreless streak by putting six more zeroes on the scoreboard in his next start - a 5-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.  Although he had some hiccups along the way, Takahashi allowed one run or fewer in five of his 12 starts, which included a second brilliant performance against the Yankees on June 18, a game in which he threw another six scoreless innings.  This time, the bullpen and the defense came through for the Mets, as four relievers combined with Takahashi on the shutout.  Most importantly, the victory was the Mets' eighth straight and improved the team's record to 39-28.

Unfortunately, the Mets regressed from late June to early August, dropping 23 of 34 games to fall below .500 for the first time since late May.  The wheels came completely off the Mets' bus on August 11 when K-Rod attempted to KO his children's grandfather in the Citi Field family lounge after the team's 6-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies.  Rodriguez was arrested and missed the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his right thumb, which he suffered during the altercation.

A portrait of Citi Field's Least Wanted.  (Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News)

Although the Mets were under .500 and their playoff hopes were all but gone, the team still needed to play the games on its schedule.  They also needed a closer for the rest of the season, with Rodriguez out for the year.  Once again, Manuel turned to Takahashi to fill a specific role and the 35-year-old responded with aplomb.

Takahashi got his first save opportunity on August 16, retiring the Houston Astros in order in the ninth inning of a 3-1 Mets victory.  From that point to the end of the season, Takahashi was brilliant in his new role, earning three wins and going 8-for-8 in save opportunities.  In 19 appearances, Takahashi had a 0.84 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, holding opposing hitters to a .197/.247/.289 slash line, which was slightly better than the .213/.289/.308 slash line allowed by Rodriguez prior to his season-ending scuffle.

The Mets ended the 2010 season with a 79-83 record, which represented a nine-game improvement over their 2009 performance.  Takahashi's first season in the majors was an unexpected success.  Although he didn't quite reach the 15 wins predicted by his agent at the beginning of the year, he did notch ten wins and eight saves, becoming the fifth Met - and the first since 1986 - to reach double digits in wins while saving eight or more games, joining Tug McGraw (11 wins, 8 saves in 1971), Skip Lockwood (10 wins, 19 saves in 1976), Jesse Orosco (13 wins, 17 saves in 1983; 10 wins, 31 saves in 1984) and Roger McDowell (14 wins, 22 saves in 1986) in this exclusive club.  But those four pitchers combined to make one start in their spectacular seasons (McGraw got a no-decision in that start), meaning they earned all their wins in relief.  Takahashi was the only true starter/reliever hybrid of the group, earning four of his wins as a starting pitcher.  Takahashi was also the Mets' first "rookie" pitcher to earn 10 or more wins in his inaugural major league season since 1985, when Rick Aguilera posted a 10-7 record as a first-year player for the team.

Unfortunately, once the 2010 season ended, the Mets cleaned house, ridding themselves of manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya.  The new regime (featuring Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson) did not see the soon-to-be 36-year-old Takahashi as part of the team's future and allowed him to become a free agent, ending the respected pitcher's one-year stay in New York.  Takahashi spent the next three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, before returning to Japan to pitch for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2014.

There have been many pitchers in team history who were never expected to amount to much when they joined the big league roster.  Except for his agent, no one expected Hisanori Takahashi to contribute much to the team.  But the left-hander silenced all his critics, and in doing so, became one of the most appreciated Japanese players to ever play for the Mets.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

"Eight months here in the United States, I'll spend most of the time in New York.  I kind of like New York."

--Hisanori Takahashi (September 2010)


And New York kind of liked Takahashi back.  After years of high expectations for Japanese players such as Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kaz Matsui, it was a player originally brought in to compete for the fifth starter job that finally succeeded in every role he was called upon to fill.

Hisanori Takahashi had a short career in New York, but accomplished things that very few pitchers in team history had been able to do.  In a year that provided very few highlights for the Mets, Takahashi was a bright spot, making the most of his varied opportunities and giving Mets fans a reason to cheer whenever he set foot on the mound.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel

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