Although the contract Kenta Maeda is expected to complete in the coming days with the Los Angeles Dodgers is for eight years, it will likely be a bargain for a pitcher with such a solid track record in Nippon Professional Baseball.
According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the guaranteed portion of the deal will be just $25 million, giving Maeda an average salary only slightly higher than the one he leaves behind with the Hiroshima Carp. The Dodgers will also be required to pay the Carp’s posting fee, expected to be the maximum of $20 million. The reported sweetener to the deal for the Carp ace is a pile of incentives.
An MLB scout who has watched the 27-year-old Maeda since he turned pro in 2007 recently gave the following assessment.
“He’s not that power arm guy that’s going to get swings and misses all the time,” the scout told Kyodo News at December’s baseball winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee. “(He locates) to the bat rather than away from the bat, whereas (Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei) Otani is away from the bat. Otani is about 10-12 strikeouts a game, whereas Kenta Maeda is about six-to-eight, with a lot of ground balls.
“He knows himself as a pitcher and I’ve seen him pitch without his best stuff on a given day, and he still gives you the opportunity to win. To me, that’s a pitcher, rather than just a thrower. Maeda can figure a way to get off the bat head and get outs. Masahiro Tanaka had to learn about the tendencies of hitters (in the majors) and that’s something Maeda’s going to have to learn.”
Maeda’s fastball has not had the velocity in Japan that Yu Darvish or Tanaka had. Unlike Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma, he has given up on his split-fingered fastball in order to feature his changeup more often.
For years, the barometer for Maeda was how well he located his darting slider, but over the last season, his changeup has replaced the slider as his best swing-and-miss pitch. In addition, the slicker major league ball will take some break off of his spin pitches, his slider and curve.
At 81 kg, Maeda is the smallest Japanese starting pitcher to make the jump to the majors, although he is said to be strong for his size.
What is not in doubt is the degree to which Maeda has succeeded in NPB. Using a method developed by Boston Red Sox analyst Bill James called win shares, Maeda’s NPB performance compares favorably with the 16 starting pitchers who have left Japan for the majors.
In terms of peak value, as measured by his three best NPB seasons, Maeda is fourth after Tanaka, Darvish and Hideo Nomo, while sitting just ahead of Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Iwakuma. With the exception of Darvish, none of the young starters leaving Japan has been more consistent in terms of his year-to-year value than Maeda. Since Maeda made his first-team debut in 2008, his 97 wins are the most by any pitcher in NPB.
In addition to a different ball, Maeda will confront other changes from life as a starting pitcher in NPB: a harder mound, fewer days rest between starts, jet lag and games spent on the bench between starts.
In 2010, when Maeda won his first Sawamura Award as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher, his former manager Marty Brown spoke about his first impression of the youngster, his physical strength, and his adaptability — factors that could influence how well he deals with his big league challenges.
“The first thing you noticed was his arm strength,” Brown said that autumn. “He could stand on one side of the field and throw it to the other side effortlessly. He had an extreme looseness to his ability to get out in front and release the ball and really throw it a long way. He was way more advanced than a lot of kids his age. He was only 18. You could tell that he caught on to things really quickly. He had a real good feel for figuring things out. His aptitude was in some ways was a lot more advanced.”