A Closer Look at Kenta Maeda

The Dodgers just committed 8 years to a Japanese Ace but just what have they got?

The Dodgers came into the off-season needing to add to the back end of a very top heavy rotation, then Zack Greinke left as expected and the rotation was sent into chaos. The Dodgers were then linked to everyone from Johnny Cueto to Mike Leake as panic spread through Dodger fans. Thankfully just before the New Year the front office put out the fires as reports came that the Dodgers had signed Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda. As a result, the rotation went from scarily sparse to enviably deep in just 48 hours but now we know Maeda will be appearing at Chavez-Ravine in 2016 it’s time to look at just what the Dodgers have gotten themselves. 

Maeda is a 27 year old right-handed pitcher from Japan who has spent the last 8 seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan’s NPB. Listed at just 6’0″ and 154 lbs, Maeda does not posses your typical starters build which certainly raises concerns about his durability. These concerns were realized when it was reported that the creative structure of the deal was due to health problems with his elbow. Despite the elbow concerns, Maeda has been extremely durable in Japan, having made at least 26 starts in every season since his rookie year. Note that starters pitch once a week in Japan and there are fewer games played, as well. In fact, this injury appears to be very similar to that sustained by Masahiro Tanaka who has managed to avoid surgery to date. The fact that the deal only guarantees Maeda approximately $3M per year, provides the Dodgers with ample protection against such an injury. Maeda will pitch next season at age 28, meaning the Dodgers have acquired the right-hander right at the start of his prime years.

Maeda features a fairly impressive pitch mix and compliments that with impeccable command and very advanced pitchability. Maeda’s fastball isn’t overpowering, sitting in the low-mid 90’s but it does have some late life and he locates it well to both sides of the plate. He also appears to throw a distinct two-seamer/sinker which should help generate plenty of groundballs. After that his slider is definitely his out pitch as it features a good hard break and he hides it well. He also has a curveball and changeup both of which are average or better pitches. One positive (especially given the elbow concerns) is that Maeda throws a true changeup rather than the splitter that many Japanese pitchers use, which has often been linked to elbow injuries.

In Japan Maeda has compiled a 97-69 record with a 2.39 ERA with 1233 strikeouts and a 1.048 WHIP in 1509.2 IP. Those numbers are all extremely impressive and point to Maeda featuring at the front end of a Major League rotation if replicated in the US. Just in case you weren’t impressed already, Maeda has won 3 ERA titles, 2 strikeout titles and 2 Sawamura Awards (Japan’s Cy Young).

If you break it down a little further, Maeda has posted 7.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 7.5 H/9 over the course of his career – What should jump out at you there, is a staggeringly low 1.9 BB/9. What is even more impressive is that he has managed to maintain such a low walk rate whilst producing a very respectable 7.4 K/9. It should come as no surprise that being able to induce strikeouts and limit walks is a huge weapon for any pitcher and Maeda has done just that.

Thankfully we know intuitively, that a pitcher’s BB/9 should hold relatively stable regardless of league (as it is dependant on the pitcher’s respective skill rather than some other external factor like H/9 or H/9) so at the very least we know Maeda will do a great job at limiting walks. I also believe his strikeout rate should hold pretty stable for two reasons – one I like his stuff and two other Japanese starters (Tanaka, Darvish etc) have had no trouble inducing strikeouts. Now those two starters I mentioned there a very different pitchers to what Maeda is so it is by no means a perfect comparison. We’ll put a wait and see on that one but I think a strikeout rate around 7 per 9 should be sustainable.

Another thing that is often predictive of a pitcher’s future success is their ability to induce groundballs. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to batted ball data from Japan but his arsenal does appear to be groundball oriented as Maeda generates good downhill action on all of his pitches. The limited footage available to the public supports this idea as he appears to generate his fair share of grounders in these games. If Maeda can limit walks whilst generating strikeouts and grounders the way he has in Japan,we could be in for a real treat when Maeda takes the mound come April.

By now you’re probably sick of speculation and want to know just who the Dodgers might be getting, so I’ll give you this:

Pitcher A: 7.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 7.5 H/9
Pitcher B: 7.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 8.6 H/9

By now I’m sure you’ve all realised that Pitcher A is Maeda but you may be a little surprised to find that Pitcher B is Jordan Zimmermann – the guy many of us wanted to replace Greinke with. What makes this even better is that while Detroit had to guarantee Zimmermann $110M, Maeda cost the Dodgers just $25M in guaranteed money. Zimmermann is more of a power pitcher but the good news is that Maeda also draws close comparisons statistically to both Hyun-Jin Ryu and Hisashi Iwakuma – two very respectable pitchers. So in answering the question ‘what are the Dodgers getting in Maeda?’, my response is something between Ryu and Zimmermann (pretty good for $25M!).

There is also a flow-on effect from this signing that’s worth touching on. As I mentioned earlier, the signings of Kazmir and Maeda mean the Dodgers now have a surplus of quality major league starters. This problem is only going to get worse when Brandon McCarthy returns from Tommy John surgery and top prospects Jose de Leon, Julio Urias and Frankie Montas continue their ascent to the big leagues. This means, as you may have worked out already, that the Dodgers are almost going to be forced to move some of their starting depth at some point during the calendar year.

One option here would be to try and move quantity for quality in a deal for someone like Jose Fernandez or Carlos Carrasco. Whilst the rotation already looks strong, both of those arms would be a significant upgrade over anyone not named Clayton Kershaw. Both of those teams would almost certainly require some significant prospects to complete the deal but having that depth in the rotation does make it easier to facilitate a deal. They could also try and use that depth to help strengthen the back-end of the bullpen with Mark Melancon, Drew Storen, Jonathon Papelbon and Andrew Miller all believed to be available on the trade market.

Whether the Dodgers make another move or not the Dodgers have once again added a high upside arm with minimal risk thanks to the creative structure of the deal (details click here). Maeda is unlikely to replace Greinke one-for-one but he should be at least a solid number three if not a more traditional number two starter. Whatever the case the Dodgers rotation looks to be in good shape for 2016.