New Arm from NPB in 2015?

This past week, it was reported that the Arizona Diamondbacks were added to the list of teams interested in twenty-six year old Nippon Professional Baseball starting pitcher Kenta Maeda. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp pitcher will likely be pursued by those who missed out on Masahiro Tanaka, namely the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs among others, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe. Unlike Shohei Otani, whom I covered fairly in-depth here, there is a considerably stronger possibility that Maeda gets posted following the 2014 Major League Baseball season. There was talk of posting Kenta Maeda following the 2013 season, but that did not materialize. Last offseason, Maeda made comments that he wanted to play in Major League Baseball after performing well in the World Baseball Classic. The real question most are asking regards his skill level? Is he the next Yu Darvish? Is he the next Masahiro Tanaka?

While generally those comparisons are made for the wrong reasons, Maeda is facing the same level of talent that Darvish and Tanaka dominated. While Maeda is a quality pitcher, he is not on the same level as Yu Darvish and there is no debate as to that point. Darvish’s last five years in Nippon Professional Baseball all resulted in an ERA under 2.00 each year, with the last year, 2011, resulting in an ERA of 1.44 in 232 innings pitched. In four of those five seasons, Darvish posted a WHIP under 0.900. Darvish was phenomenal and continues to be so in Major League Baseball, but Maeda just is not at that level. Arguably Maeda’s best season, 2012, resulted in an ERA of 1.53 in 206.1 innings pitched, but a WHIP of 0.994, which, while good, indicates that even in his best season, he gave up a rather high number of walks and hits, at least in comparison to Darvish. When it comes to strikeout rate, Darvish struck out more than one full batter per nine innings (roughly 8.5 batters per nine innings) during his NPB career in comparison to Maeda during his seven-year tenure in NPB, which has resulted in 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings. An interesting note is that Maeda is walking fewer batters than Darvish did in NPB, but Maeda’s walk rate stagnated, and then rose over the past few seasons, which is unlike Darvish, who saw a dramatic drop in his walk rate during his last season with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Statistically, he is not on par with Tanaka either, as Tanaka produced three straight sub-2.00 ERA seasons prior to joining the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball. Maeda’s strikeout rate is somewhat lower than Tanaka’s, but Maeda’s walk rate is interesting when compared to Masahiro Tanaka’s. In his seven seasons in NPB, Maeda has a walk rate of 1.9 batters per nine innings, which is nearly identical to Tanaka’s walk rate of 1.93 batters per nine innings, but unlike Tanaka, Maeda has failed to show improvements in that category. Tanaka started out fairly roughly in NPB as an eighteen year old, posting a walk rate of 3.3 batters per nine innings. Over time Tanaka’s walk rate decreased dramatically, dropping to under 2.0 batters per nine innings in his four final seasons. Maeda has improved from his rookie year walk rate of 2.9 batters per nine innings, but nowhere near the level that Tanaka did so. Following his rookie season in 2008, Maeda’s walks per nine innings are as followed: 1.4, 1.9, 1.8, 1.9, 2.0, and 2.2. As you can see, there was an immediate improvement following his rookie campaign, but the walk rate has crept up as seasons have accumulated. Like Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka also struck out more than one full batter per nine innings on average in his NPB career (roughly 8.43 batters per nine innings).

There is obviously more to projecting a pitcher than just statistical comparisons, but his numbers do tell a story regarding his performance at what is considered a lower level than Major League Baseball. Maeda does have the best ERA among starters in the Japanese Central League this season, along with posting the best starter ERA in 2013 and 2012 in said league. Heading into the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Maeda was listed as seventh best player not with a MLB team by Baseball America and the fourth best player not with a MLB team by Athlon Sports. A number of those ahead of him, including Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu and the aforementioned Masahiro Tanaka have since signed with MLB teams, leaving Maeda as one of the best pitchers not in Major League Baseball and arguably the top pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball.

His build and pitch makeup is somewhat concerning for a starting pitcher attempting to make the transition, as Maeda, twenty-six years of age, stands just 6’0”, weighing in at roughly 160lbs. 6’0” is generally the bare minimum to be a successful starting pitcher in Major League Baseball and I am probably being a bit generous here. I struggle thinking of successful long-term starting pitchers that stood below 6’0”. Tim Lincecum stands at just 5’11”, but was not successful in the long-term. Johnny Cueto also stands at 5’11” and has had a successful career thus far, albeit somewhat early as he is just twenty-eight years of age. Pedro Martinez, at only 5’11” had a successful career for a fairly lengthy time, so he is probably one of the few exceptions. Kenta Maeda, while slightly taller than the aforementioned individuals, weighs less, which is slightly concerning also. There have been established links between velocity and weight. If his fastball velocity sat in the low-to-mid 90s, then I would not be concerned, but his average sat at 89.89 mph in the 2012 season, the last season I could find full data on. His fastball has allegedly topped out at 95 mph, which is not completely surprising, as he is considered an individual with good command, which is fairly accurate, albeit not the same level of command that either Darvish or Tanaka possessed in their time in Nippon Professional Baseball. It is a good pitch at this level, but I am unsure as to how it would translate to another level, akin to Nick Kingham or Henry Owen, both of whom possess similar fastballs in the sense that it is hard to tell how they will do when moved up a level. His main secondary pitch is his slider. Ben Badler of Baseball America seems unable to make up his mind regarding the quality of Maeda’s slider, calling it “an excellent hard-breaking slider that is his out pitch” in March 2013, but then calls it a “solid-average slider” in December 2013. From all of the video I have seen of Maeda, his slider is absolutely a plus pitch that has a great break to it, but the amount of break varies perhaps too widely. Sometimes the bottom will just fall out and wreck batters not only in Nippon Professional Baseball, but in the World Baseball Classic too, while at other times it just looked above-average, so there is some context to Badler’s thoughts. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives on his slider to the point to where it can be described as a plus pitch. His curveball is an average pitch at the major league level, while his changeup can be described as average at best. The good news is that he mixes the pitches fairly well, which is certainly an asset.

The two big questions boil down to where in a MLB rotation does he fit and what are the chances of him being posted, both of which lack completely clear answers. Scouts that have seen him (most likely from the Boston Red Sox) profile him as a fourth starter in a contending rotation. From the footage I have seen, seeing him as a third starter is possible too, but that fourth starter description is fair. Some will see this as a knock on Maeda, which it is to an extent, but a quality mid-rotation starter is a valuable asset. He is not Darvish. He is not Tanaka. He is a completely different type of pitcher, which is not a bad thing, just different. As for the posting question, it is tough to say. The posting changes that limit the amount of money a NPB team may receive for a player give them incentive to not post the player. Twenty-six year old Maeda also has three more years under team control for the Hiroshima Carp. There is hope that he will be posted still, as he wants to play in Major League Baseball and there is somewhat ramped up scouting on him. Teams in MLB apparently believe there is a strong enough chance that he will be posted that they have scouted him. I do not know Hiroshima Carp’s ownership or front office, so I have no clue as to how they will operate following the season regarding Maeda’s posting.

If there is going to be one new pitcher from Japan joining Major League Baseball in the offseason, all bets are on Kenta Maeda.