Scouting the Pacific Rim: The Progression of Kenta Maeda

Los Angeles Dodgers Kenta Maeda at his press conference Thursday, January 7, 2016 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles,California. Photo by Jon SooHoo/©Los Angeles Dodgers 2016

Feature Photo: Kenta Maeda, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
(Photo credit: Jon SooHoo, L.A. Dodgers)

Editor’s Note: Today we’re proud to welcome Dave DeFreitas as a new contributor to 2080. Dave spent the last nine years scouting for the Indians (covering the Pacific Rim from 2007-12) and Yankees (pro and international scout from 2012-15). Dave will be contributing his extensive knowledge of the NPB and KBO during the season, as well as filing reports on prospects in the L.A. area.

I first picked up on the newly-signed Los Angeles Dodger Kenta Maeda in 2008 during his rookie season with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB), while scouting for the Cleveland Indians. He was a highly touted 20-year-old, coming out of the high school baseball factory that is PL Gakuen, and being dropped into a Carp system with a reputation for drafting and developing players better than any team in the NPB. He was blade thin, but the athleticism was obvious; with fast-twitch muscle to burn, he just moved differently than most in everything that he did. He had the velocity, the command, and the secondary, so check those boxes; but what was more intriguing was the way the ball would leave his hand – the stuff really stood out and you could tell that there was more to come.

When it comes to the Japanese delivery style and mechanics, the inclusion of various stops and starts throughout the windup are consistently seen. As scouts, it is also common to look at a player’s countryman as a point of comparison. There is no exact mold that coaches work with in Japan as they raise their young players. I see the consistency more as a result of a historically homogenous society, with a country-wide player base that demonstrates strength in certain athletic attributes. The Japanese game has always presented as a pitching and defense-first mindset with small-ball tactics on the offensive side. Japanese pitchers historically have not had overpowering raw stuff (Yoshihisa Naruse (LHP) and Shunske Watanabe (RHP) of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Kazuhisa Makita (RHP) of the Saitama Seibu Lions are good examples), and therefore have had to rely on command and deception, which can inevitably lead to some funky mechanics. Add to that a country’s worth of young players growing up wanting to emulate their heroes, and it’s like the same potter using the same clay.

Which brings me back to Maeda, whose Japanese comparison I see falling closest to that of Hiroki Kuroda, formerly of the Dodgers and New York Yankees (2008-14). Maeda doesn’t have the ultra-smooth mechanics that we saw with Kuroda, but his pause atop the rubber is reminiscent, and seeing as Maeda spent his first pro season under Kuroda’s tutelage with Hiroshima, it is an easy comparison to draw. Kuroda held up incredibly well throughout his career, something that had a lot to do with the effort level in his delivery. Not only did he know how to throttle up and back, but his really good stuff did not require that he be at max effort. He had great rhythm and was able to repeat on a very consistent basis. An area of concern with Maeda is that he needs significantly higher effort levels in order to produce his really good stuff. He makes a concerted effort to drive downhill, creating good angle considering his size, but the high effort through the final third of his delivery has him really jamming his landing foot into the mound. This is not necessarily a negative: there are many pitchers in the big leagues today with violent landings: Jordan Walden (RHP, Cardinals) and Francisco Liriano (LHP, Pirates) come to mind as examples.

My concern for Maeda in this regard lays in the differences between Japanese and MLB mounds. NPB mounds get dug out far more often, producing loose dirt that allows the landing foot to slide slightly. MLB mounds use a harder clay around the rubber and landing area, which keeps those points of contact firm.

While I was with the Indians, I asked then-Hanshin Tigers reliever Shinobu Fukuhara about the firmness of MLB mounds and he told me that he was sure he could get used to it, but that it actually bruised the bottom of his landing foot at first. So Maeda stabbing his lead foot into the mound may help him to establish that firm contact…in Japan. However, how will that hard landing play over time in the big leagues when the surface is significantly more firm? Seemingly tiny changes like this will play differently for each individual. Maeda is a tremendous athlete and may have no issues adjusting, but an MLB mound is still something that will be different for him, and it will require some level of adjustment to his finely tuned mechanics.

Kenta Maeda at his press conference Thursday, January 7, 2016 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles,California. Photo by Jon SooHoo/©Los Angeles Dodgers 2016

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda at his press conference Thursday, January 7, 2016. (Photo credit: Jon SooHoo, L.A. Dodgers)

Maeda’s signing itself could also represent a turning point for Asian players with major league aspirations. Maeda found his new MLB home when the Dodgers put up a $20 million posting fee and signed him an incentive-laden deal with $24 million in guaranteed money over eight years. The lower guaranteed value of the contract came as a surprise, with industry estimates more in in the $50-70 million range. Maeda has had some nagging injuries over the past two-plus seasons, namely the recurrence of elbow soreness which was piled on to by “irregularities” found in his team physical before signing. Still, for a player of his caliber to accept such a deal is interesting and I think that it shows how motivated he actually was to make the jump to the big leagues.

As a scout, I loved the contract; it minimizes a good deal of the risk that comes with international players that are expected to go right into the big leagues and, in this case, helps ease concerns of future injury. From a player standpoint, it’s nice as well since it sets him up to get paid like the pitcher they expect him to be if he stays healthy. It is more risk to the player to be sure, as it is not the hefty guarantee that many enjoy; but ultimately if Maeda makes good on his projected performance, I think it will alleviate the ‘fear of the unknown’ and convince more mid-to-upper level Asian players to make the jump to MLB.

Back when Maeda first popped up on MLB teams’ radars, I took keen interest in his stuff and projection, though I’ll be the first to admit that he wasn’t a priority at the time. A nice piece to dream on, sure, but a player staring down the barrel of at least several more years in the NPB before posting was a realistic option. At the time, we were under the rule of the old posting system where it was quite lucrative for the NPB clubs to sell their players, yet the general consensus among MLB scouts was that only a select few teams would consider doing so for fear of alienating their fan base and turning the NPB into a U.S. minor leagues of sorts. So Maeda was just another of Japan’s best prospects that we would have to wait for.

But that was before 2012 when the 17-year-old phenom Shohei Ohtani spoke out on his MLB dreams and almost became the first high school stud to skip the NPB altogether and sign with a major league team. Though he ultimately decided to stay when the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters drafted him, the fiasco brought to light the possibility of young players bypassing the NPB to sign with MLB clubs.

As a prospect, where Maeda separated himself from other NPB pitchers was in his aggressiveness in the strike zone and his propensity for challenging hitters. He also boasted a potential plus slider and solid-average curveball to go along with his already plus circle changeup and above-average fastball. 2009-12 saw Maeda continue to develop into a valuable rotation piece that any club would love to have. Even in his early 20‘s he showed tremendous poise, aggressiveness and advanced mound presence, and while Maeda and Kuroda are not the same pitcher, there are similarities in the approach. Often times the approach in the NPB, both on the mound and at the plate, is one of defense; hitters looking from the get-go to fend off the pitcher and the pitcher doing his best to trick the hitter with off-speed offerings; a technique we refer to as “pitching backwards.” Seeing a guy out there pounding the zone with solid average to plus stuff stands out in the NPB, and projects well in the big leagues.

Maeda won the Sawamura Award in 2010 (NPB’s version of the Cy Young Award; he would win it again in 2015) and followed that up with an equally impressive 2011 campaign. By the end of 2011, the number of MLB scouts attending games in Japan had increased exponentially, as the posting of Yu Darvish (RHP, signed by the Rangers) and the signings of Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, Mariners) and Wei Yin Chen (LHP, Orioles – now a Florida Marlin) all saw varying levels of success.

The possibility of Maeda being posted at some point was an intriguing, but the feeling was that Hiroshima was against the posting system and would elect to wait and let him walk as a free agent. Of course this didn’t stop every Maeda start from being a spectacle. The day after each of his outings would see write-ups in all the sports papers listing the MLB teams present. With the NPB being an expensive pool to swim in, it was common to see MLB clubs’ elite executives at these games; there was plenty of fodder to feed the hype.

Maeda seemed to feed off of the attention, and in 2012 he turned in the best season of his NPB career. While I think the praise of Maeda to this point was warranted, it does need to be mentioned that 2011 and 2012 represented a league-wide offensive black hole in the NPB, as they tinkered with the composition of their official ball. Jason Coskery of The Japan Times noted, “the average number of homers per game from 2009-2012 was 1.78, 1.86, 1.09 and 1.02, respectively.” (Full article here)  To help put those numbers in even greater perspective, in 2012, 104 out of the 909 games played in the regular season and postseason saw two or fewer runs scored; five of which were 0-0 ties through 12 innings (there is a 12-inning cap on regular season games in the NPB, 15 innings in the postseason). While this likely helped Maeda over that stretch, the league went back to a “livelier” ball in 2013.

Maeda’s size and durability have long been atop of the list of concerns for MLB scouts. In 2013 and again in 2014 elbow soreness would sideline him; missing 3-4 starts in each of those seasons. This gave a little momentum to those less optimistic about his potential. During this two-year stretch, there did seem to be a decline in his overall stuff; the breaking balls were not as sharp, there didn’t seem to be as much late hop on the fastball and perhaps what was most interesting was his departure from the circle change. This was a plus pitch, his out-pitch in my opinion, and he was opting to go slider heavy; even when he did use the changeup, he lacked conviction with it and couldn’t seem to find the late bottom that made it such a good offering in years prior. In 2014 he even came into spring camp throwing a splitter, but quickly canned the pitch after struggling with it early in the year. Some will want to view the “down” stretch of 2013-14 as a sign of things to come; a natural decline perpetuated by the high workload throughout his NPB career. This all said, he was still quite effective in both 2013 and 2014, and in 2015 he eclipsed 200 innings for the 4th time in his career, winning the Sawamura Award for a second time and taking a huge step towards returning to the dominance he showed in his early 20’s.

Any type of injury can change how an athlete prepares and recovers, and ultimately cause him to have to back off a bit. I believe that is what we saw in 2013-14 with Maeda, and considering his age and athleticism, there should still be plenty in the tank. At 6 feet tall and about 170 pounds, Maeda has the well above-average range of motion and flexibility – attributes that go a long way towards staying healthy and maintaining strength over the long run. Marty Brown, Maeda’s former manager in Hiroshima, would gush over Maeda’s work ethic and once told me how they would have to get him to stop running for fear that his legs wouldn’t have time to recover before his next start.

So, all-in, how does he project to help the Dodgers in 2016? Click here for my scouting report.