NEW YORK — Kodai Senga was as sharp as ever on Thursday afternoon, cruising through six shutout innings in the New York Mets’ 11-1 win over the Diamondbacks. Senga improved to 11-7 with the victory, lowering his ERA to 2.95 for the season.
At this point, Senga has a good chance of earning Cy Young votes alongside ones for Rookie of the Year. But following what’s likely his penultimate home start of the season, let’s explore just how good this rookie season is within the context of Mets history.
Few teams boast as strong a tradition of rookie pitchers as New York does. In the late 1960s and the mid-2010s, the Mets were rolling out a solid rookie starter year after year. Four Mets hurlers have won Rookie of the Year; only the Dodgers have produced more.
Senga will almost certainly become the 10th starter in Mets history to earn votes for Rookie of the Year, and he has an outside chance at becoming the fifth Mets pitcher to win the award.
“He’s got to be thought about,” manager Buck Showalter said, in reference to both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. “He’s got to be somebody that’s in the discussion.”
Where does Senga rank among that group for the best season by a rookie starter in club history? We’re looking here at players whose rookie seasons lasted long enough to get that award consideration, so no luck for Matt Harvey or Zack Wheeler, and it’s a tough break for good rookie campaigns that didn’t earn votes from Jae Weong Seo, Al Jackson and Gary Gentry, among others.
9-8, 3.40 ERA, 118 ERA+, 132 1/3 IP, 129 K, sixth in Rookie of the Year
Matz was the final piece of the Mets’ ace quintet to debut in July 2015, with his rookie season officially coming the next year. Few players in club history have had as good a first day in the majors as Matz did, and the quality of his rookie season is undercut a little by the fact he’d already started a World Series game by that point.
Matz’s first start in 2016 was a disaster against the Marlins, and he missed the final six weeks of the season on the injured list. In between, he had a top-20 ERA in the sport and pitched as consistently well as he ever would for the Mets.
9. Ron Darling (1984)
12-9, 3.81 ERA, 94 ERA+, 205 2/3 IP, 136 K, fifth in Rookie of the Year
The Mets’ “other” rookie in 1984, the 23-year-old Darling was a much-needed workhorse for a team that began its turnaround (and that had unexpectedly lost Tom Seaver in the offseason thanks to a misjudgment by Frank Cashen). Darling was especially good in the middle of the summer, going 9-2 with a 2.31 ERA over an 11-start stretch to help propel the Mets into first place.
Neither he nor they could hold on to that form that season, but they’d exceed it soon enough.
8. Noah Syndergaard (2015)
9-7, 3.24 ERA, 117 ERA+, 150 IP, 166 K, fourth in Rookie of the Year
Syndergaard debuted in mid-May, taking the spot of veteran Dillon Gee to further infuse New York’s emerging rotation with intimidating youth. The Mets were off to a quick start in first place in the NL East, and Syndergaard was joining Harvey and Jacob deGrom at the top of the rotation. A four-walk debut at Wrigley Field proved anomalous; Syndergaard issued only 27 more free passes over his next 23 starts, and he’d get those Cubs back come October.
Syndergaard pitched into the eighth in a quarter of his regular-season starts, including the night he pulled the Mets into a first-place tie with a win over the Nationals in early August. Technically, he’s the only pitcher on this list to pitch in the postseason during his rookie season, and he answered the bell: He posted a 3.50 ERA in three October starts to go along with one very memorable high-leverage relief appearance at Dodger Stadium.
7. Jason Isringhausen (1995)
9-2, 2.81 ERA, 144 ERA+, 93 IP, 55 K, fourth in Rookie of the Year
Isringhausen arrived after the All-Star break for a team going nowhere — and helped spur a splendid second half in which the Mets were nearly as good as anyone else in the National League. (The Mets were 19 under .500 at the break and 13 over the rest of the way, behind only the eventual champions from Atlanta in the NL.)
They were 11-3 in Isringhausen’s starts as the 22-year-old piled quality start on top of quality start, with the occasional eight-inning gem mixed in. He pitched into the eighth in six of his 14 starts, including eight shutout frames over Atlanta on the final day of the season.
Isringhausen’s tenure with the Mets would never match those highs, but the letdown of Generation K shouldn’t sit on his shoulders. A 44th-round draft pick, he’d be back with the Mets 16 years after his debut to record his 300th career save.
6. Kodai Senga (2023)
11-7, 2.95 ERA, 141 ERA+, 155 1/3 IP, 191 K
Senga has exceeded any expectations the Mets could have had for him this season: He’s taken the ball every turn in the rotation and he’s proven to be both consistent and dominant as the year has gone on. Thursday’s outing was his fifth start with double-digit punchouts (and third in the last four starts), and he hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs since May 11. His ERA since that rough start against the Reds is 2.59.
Senga gets dinged a little but because of his long professional experience in Japan and the Mets’ decision to consistently give him an extra day of rest early in the season. With a few more starts left this season, Senga still has a chance to move up another spot on this list.
5. Jacob deGrom (2014)
9-6, 2.69 ERA, 128 ERA+, 140 1/3 IP, 144 K, won Rookie of the Year
Everyone knows the story: DeGrom was coming up for one spot start before a trip to the bullpen while Rafael Montero, slated to go the next night against the Yankees, was the real rotation prospect. DeGrom’s debut, however, was a precursor of so much to come: He pitched brilliantly for seven innings against the crosstown rivals, only to receive no run support in a 1-0 loss.
DeGrom delivered with remarkable consistency as a 26-year-old rookie. He pitched into the seventh inning 13 times in 22 starts, and he allowed more than three runs only three times. During one stretch bridging July and August, deGrom won five straight starts over which he limited the opponent to four runs over 34 2/3 innings — a sample of the dominance to come eventually.
4. Jon Matlack (1972)
15-10, 2.32 ERA, 145 ERA+, 244 IP, 169 K, won Rookie of the Year
Probably the most overlooked great pitcher in Mets history, the lefty Matlack was the ace of a ’72 staff that included the next two names on this list. After starting the year with a pair of relief outings, he moved into the rotation with a complete-game victory over the Dodgers at the end of April. In July, he compiled one of the greatest four-start stretches in club history: 36 innings, one earned run.
Matlack made three All-Star teams for the Mets, and his 115 ERA+ during seven seasons with them sits ninth among starters in team history, nestled between Dwight Gooden and Jerry Koosman.
3. Tom Seaver (1967)
16-13, 2.76 ERA, 122 ERA+, 251 IP, 170 K, won Rookie of the Year
It’s rare indeed when a ranking of Mets pitching doesn’t include The Franchise in the top two. In terms of narrative importance, Seaver’s rookie season might still be the most important in the club’s history: His arrival helped turn the tide on a losing culture firmly established during the Mets’ early days.
New York won each of Seaver’s first three starts and 20 of his 34 overall. (He completed 18 of those stats with two shutouts). He once relieved in the second game of a doubleheader after starting the first game. (He’d been pulled after two ineffective innings.)
Seaver was not as dominant as the next two on this list, but he did foreshadow his impressive ability for a finishing kick. Over his final nine starts, he threw 74 innings with a 1.82 ERA. Two years later, he’d author one of the finest finishes to a regular season ever, going 7-0 with seven complete games and a 0.71 ERA over his last seven starts to lift the Mets to their first division title.
2. Jerry Koosman (1968)
19-12, 2.08 ERA, 145 ERA+, 263 2/3 IP, 178 K, second in Rookie of the Year
Koosman’s debut season was so good you can credibly say he got hosed in the Rookie of the Year voting in losing by a single vote to some catcher named Johnny Bench. His final numbers belie how much better he’d been throughout the season: His ERA stood over two after only two starts all season — the last two.
Koosman’s year started with a shutout in LA and another against San Francisco. He’d throw seven shutouts all season, including another pair back-to-back in July against the Cardinals and Reds. Not included among those seven? The 12 shutout frames he tossed in a 17-inning, 1-0 loss to the Giants in August.
The 25-year-old left-hander made 34 starts and completed half of them, throwing 263 2/3 innings — more than any other rookie in club history. (Not surprisingly, only three rookies have thrown more since, none since 1974.) The Mets were still not a good team in 1968, losing 89 games. But they were over .500 when either Koosman or Seaver started, portending the growth to come.
1. Dwight Gooden (1984)
17-9, 2.60 ERA, 137 ERA+, 218 IP, 276 K, Rookie of the Year
Gooden’s 1985 season remains one of the greatest in the history of the sport. But there’s one thing he did better in ’84: He struck out guys at a higher rate.
Gooden ran a 31.4 percent strikeout rate in 1984. Now we’ve become inured to strikeouts the more and more they’ve proliferated in the sport; four starters have strikeout rates over 30 percent this season, including Spencer Strider’s league-leading 37.6 percent and Blake Snell matching Gooden’s number. But striking someone out in 1984 was significantly harder than it is now. To wit, the league strikeout rate was just 14.0 percent that season, compared to 22.6 percent this season. That’s more than a 60 percent increase.
Put it another way, Gooden as a rookie struck out batters 124 percent more often than the league average rate. That’s the equivalent of striking out just under 51 percent of opposing hitters this season.
He did it all at 19.
(Photo of Kodai Senga: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)