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International Free Agent Profile: Kenta Maeda

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After years of rumors, the Hiroshima Carp ace is actually being posted

Maeda, in the 2013 World Baseball Classic
Maeda, in the 2013 World Baseball Classic
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Born April 11, 1988, in Okaka, Japan, Kenta Maeda is currently the ace of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Nicknamed Maeken, the right-hander attended PL Gakuen High School, one of the more successful schools in the annual Summer Koshien tournament over the last 30 years, and was drafted by the Carp out of high school in 2006.

After spending a season on their ni-gun (secondary team, the NPB equivalent of the minor leagues) team in 2007, the 20-year-old right-hander made his professional debut in 2008. He went 9-2 for the year, posting a 3.20 ERA over 109.2 innings, and was a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming season. In 2009, with the departure of veteran Ken Takahashi to the Mets, the Carp needed Maeda to continue pitching well. Though his win-loss record fell to 8-14 for the year, he improved in virtually every aspect of his game.

Statistically, Maeda had his best season in 2010, winning the Eiji Sawamura Award, the first Central League starter to win the award since 2004 (Kenshin Kawakami) and the first Hiroshima Toyo Carp since 1991 (Shinji Sasaoka). Despite Maeda's performance, the Carp were unable to crawl out of the cellar, actually losing one more game than they did in 2009 because of the loss of Colby Lewis to the Texas Rangers and rotation stalwart Kan Otake to injury. With 15 wins, a 2.21 ERA, and 174 strikeouts, Maeda won the pitching Triple Crown, the youngest pitcher in professional Japanese baseball to accomplish such a feat. He also became the the fastest Carp to reach the ¥100 million (roughly $1 million) mark.

In 2011, Maeda had a better season than he did in 2010, but because of specific criteria used to select the Eiji Sawamura Award winner, Maeda was not in consideration—not that it mattered much, as Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish had monster seasons, in part because of the new standardized ball to which NPB transitioned.

The 24-year-old started the 2012 season strong, throwing a no-hitter in his second start of the season. For five innings, he had a perfect game going against the Yokohama DeNA Baystars before walking pinch hitter Yuta Naito and second baseman Takehiro Ishikawa. Maeda kept the magic going throughout the rest of the year, posting a career-low ERA and FIP. Although he was in the Eiji Sawamura Award conversation, the right-hander lost out yet again, this time to Fukuoka Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu. Maeda arguably deserved the award more than Settsu did: Maeda won the same amount of games, posted a lower ERA, threw more innings, walked fewer batters, and struck out more hitters.

Maeda was selected to be a member of Samurai Japan during the 2013 World Baseball Classic and was a member of a formidable pitching staff that included 2005 Eiji Sawamura Award winner Toshiya Sugiuchi, 2009 winner Hideaki Wakui, 2011/2013 winner Masahiro Tanaka, and 2012 winner Tadashi Settsu. On the eve of the tournament, Maeda mentioned that his experience in the World Baseball Classic might color his opinion of coming to North America and playing baseball there professionally. "I only know Japanese baseball. I might enjoy facing MLB players at MLB stadiums, or I might not," the right-hander said. "It would be nice if I can expand my world with the WBC. It is all experience. It will depend on how I am feeling after it is all done."

Samurai Japan coach Koji Yamamoto, himself a former Carp, tabbed then-reigning Sawamura Award winner Settsu as the team's "Opening Day" starter and it soon became apparent that Maeda would be the ace upon whom Yamamoto relied. Maeda held Team China to no runs in five innings in an eventual 5-3 Japan win that saw the Carp ace allow one hit, one walk, and strike out six. His next start came nearly a week later in the tournament's second round. Though he faced a much more formidable Netherlands team in this match-up, the results were more of the same: Maeda gave up no runs while allowing one hit, walking none, and striking out nine.

Based on his dominant performance, Maeda started the semifinal game against Team Puerto Rico. Though Maeda lost and Samurai Japan was denied their third championship in as many competitions, the right-hander pitched admirably. In five innings, he allowed one run on four hits, walking two, and striking out three. The ace started three games and pitched 15 innings in total, the most of any pitcher in the 2013 WBC. His 0.60 ERA was third in the tournament among starters who pitched at least two games, and his 18 strikeouts were the most by any pitcher. As a result, he was named to the All-WBC Team.

Maeda did not suffer any kind of "WBC hangover" (as the media narrative periodically pushes), turning in yet another successful season that saw him near the top of the leaderboards in 2013. With 15 wins, Maeken was second in the Central League, behind only Yasuhiro Ogawa of the Yakult Swallows. His 2.10 ERA was best among starting pitchers, his 158 strikeouts second best. In the end, he lost out to Masahiro Tanaka for the Eiji Sawamura Award. For as good as Maeda had been, Tanaka's numbers blew him out of the water. The future Yankee went an undefeated 24-0 for the season, posting a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings, walking 32 and striking out 183 batters.

With a record of 69-72-3, Hiroshima ended the season in third place, earning a playoff berth. In the best-of-three first stage of the Central League Climax Series, they took on the Hanshin Tigers. Maeda was on the mound for the first game of the series and pitched a good game, tossing seven innings of one-run ball, allowing five hits, walking two, and striking out five. The Carp swept the Tigers, and moved on to final stage of the Central League Climax Series, where they took on the division winning Yomiuri Giants. Maeda pitched in game two of the series and was not as sharp as he was against Hanshin. The right-hander was tagged for three runs over five innings, giving up a three-run homer to second baseman Takayuki Terauchi. The Carp lost the next night, ending their playoff run and the 2014 season.

The right-hander had been mum on whether or not the World Baseball Classic had affected his desire to play baseball abroad, but when contract negotiations came around in December, Maeda made his desire publicly known. After meeting with team officials at Mazda Stadium and agreeing to a  ¥280 million contract (roughly $2.3 million), eclipsing Hiroki Kuroda's ¥250 million salary as the most in team history, he let it be known that he was indeed interested in coming to North America to play with an MLB team. "It would be a lie if I said I did not want to go," Maeda said. "It's something I have thought about for quite some time. The feelings grew stronger after I had a decent outing during the WBC. I do not know how things will go, but I would like to go when I am in a good place. I only have one baseball career. I do not want any regrets. This is not something I can do if I want, so I will continue to discuss things with the organization." Before the 2014 season began, the Hiroshima ace reiterated,

"When it was Nomo, I never thought about it for myself. But then Darvish and Iwakuma went, and when I saw them go, I got the blurry image in my head. Then I pitched in the WBC and that blurry image turned into, ‘I want to pitch there.' I decided ‘I want to go there too' when I heard the news about Tanaka maybe getting posted to the Majors. We're the same age and he's a pitcher that pushes me to do better. I will do my best so that I can go [to the Majors] with people around me cheering for me."

Hiroshima Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura vaguely supported his ace, saying, "I think it is very important and wonderful for a baseball player to set high goals", as did senior team official Kiyoaki Suzuki, who said, "We understand that as a player he would like to make this challenge. We talked about when would be a good time for him to go, considering our team, players and the fans", but team owner Hajime Matsuda was more blunt and to the point, saying, "I will accept it as a dream, but right now, there are no plans to accept. If the excitement among the fans gains momentum, then there might come a time we have to think about it. Of the twelve NPB teams, we are furthest from a championship. If we can have an overpowering season in all regards, then perhaps."

The 2014 season was more of the same for the young right-hander. Despite tightness in his right elbow in mid-April, a bruised thigh in late May, and tightness and inflammation in his left side in mid-June, Hiroshima's ace missed only a single start, and avoided being taken off of the active roster to recover. Maeda pitched his way through all of those nicks and dings and is well on his way to posting another plus season. The Carp, surprisingly, were in the playoff hunt, on the tails of the Yomiuri Giants for much of the season, and Maeda was a big reason for Hiroshima's resurgence. The team was unable to overtake the Giants, but did earn a playoff berth. In the first stage of the Central League Climax Series, the Carp took on the Hanshin Tigers for a second consecutive season. Maeda started the first game of the series, and pitched a good game, tossing six innings of one-run ball, allowing seven hits, walking one, and striking out six. The one run he allowed, a sixth inning solo home run to Kosuke Fukudome, gave Hanshin all the rope they needed, as Randy Messenger pitched eight shutout innings, and closer "The Final Boss" Seung-Hwan Oh locked down the ninth. The Carp and the Tigers played to a draw the next night, and because of their better record, that meant that the Tigers won the first stage.

With the 2014 season in the books, it was time for housekeeping. The right-hander was told that he would not be posted that winter, but did receive a nice little Christmas gift as, on December 25, Kenta Maeda and the Hiroshima Carp finalized a ¥300 million contract (roughly $2.5 million) for the 2015 season. With the roughly ¥20 million raise, Maeda became the first player in Carp history to earn ¥300 million or more, and at 27-years-old, also became the youngest in Central League history to earn as much, beating out the record of 29 shared by Koji Uehara and Kyuji Fujikawa.

The ¥300 million man, no stranger to success, had one of his best seasons in 2015. Maeken made 29 starts and pitched 206.1 innings with a 2.09 ERA, walking 41 and striking out 175. At the end of October, the Eiji Sawamura Award selection committee came together, and after much debate, awarded the Carp ace with the prestigious honor, making him a two-time winner. Balancing the different criteria that are analyzed–wins, winning percentage, strikeouts, starts, innings pitched, complete games, and ERA–the committee narrowly honored Maeda with the award. Young fireballers Shintaro Fujinami of the Hanshin Tigers and Shohei Otani of the Nippon Ham Fighters were also in contention, while one selection committee member did not think it necessary at all to name a recipient for the award, unimpressed with all three.

The reigning Sawamura Award winner participated in the Premier 12 Tournament in November, the lone representative for the Hiroshima Carp on the 28-player Samurai Japan roster. Named "ace of the staff" due to his success in the 2012 World Baseball Classic and the relative youth and inexperience of the other pitchers on the team, Maeda pitched admirably but was unable to get the team into the tournament finals, instead settling for third place. Facing rosters largely devoid of major league talent, the right-hander pitched against Mexico and Puerto Rico. He went five innings against Mexico, allowing two runs on five hits and a walk while striking out seven, and went seven innings against the American commonwealth, allowing no runs on four hits, walking none and striking out another seven.

In late November, after the tournament, Maeda met with team officials. Though he did not directly say why he met with them, he did however allude to the fact that he was seeking to be posted. As such, the topic of playing baseball in the United States came up, and Maeda offered a very thoughtful answer as to why he was indeed interested. "I think it's a different kind of baseball", he said. "Not everyone can make it there. If I have a shot at making it, then I'd like to take it. A lot of Japanese players are going, but for some, they haven't done as well as they would have liked, or things aren't going as well as they were in Japan. And that's why I want to go. I don't think the level in Japan is low, it's just the scale is so different. There's a difference in the number of teams. If I do this now, there might be a team that wants me. That's also why I want to go. I don't think I'd feel this way if I had no chance."

On December 4, at a press conference at team offices at Hiroshima, the organization officially announced their intention to post their long-time ace. Speaking to gathered reporters, Kiyoaki Suzuki said, "We went over player performances, contributions, and conditions from this past season in preparation for next year. We made our decision after considering a number of things, like player options and the posting system after this year. In the end, we felt now was the best time, for both Maeda and the organization. Based on this, we decided to begin preparations for the posting system." He added afterwards, "Our decision will make fans sad, but I hope we can all support him if he ends up going to the Majors." When pressed for specifics, Suzuki elaborated that Maeda's performance and the uncertainty of what the posting system would look like in the future were the primary deciding factors. On their ace-pitcher, he said, "Maeda had a good season and put together some good numbers. He is set to earn his FA options after this year- he has seven years and 137 days, which means he will earn his option with just eight more days." On the posting system itself, he said, "The posting system is for three years, it ends after next year and we're not sure what is going to happen to the system, it could even be scrapped. There are uncertainties so we thought this year would give him the best chance at reaching his dream."

On December 9, the Hiroshima Carp officially filed the paperwork to post Kenta Maeda.

Year Age G/GS IP ERA FIP K BB
2011 23 31/31 216 2.46 2.86 192 43
2012 24 29/29 206.1 1.53 2.56 171 44
2013 25 26/26 175.2 2.10 3.04 158 40
2014 26 27/27 187 2.60 2.97 161 41
2015 27 29/29 206.1 2.09 2.41 175 41

According to a tweet Jeff Passan sent out during the WBC, an anonymous scout said that he he saw Maeda as a "fourth starter in MLB" at best, citing his fastball velocity. His fastball generally sits around 90 mph, which is not overpowering for a right-handed pitcher, but tops out a few miles per hour higher, which is generally more than enough velocity to get major league hitters out. The right-hander complements the pitch with a variety of secondary offerings: According to Clint Hulsey, MLB Advanced Media algorithms have identified seven different pitches, while Patrick Newman's NPB Tracker data has identified five.

Maeda throws a slider that averages roughly 80 mph. While generally below average in terms of velocity, the pitch has a lot of movement to it. Jered Weaver throws a slider with similar velocity, but with excellent results thanks to its movement. PITCHf/x data show Maeda's slider as having more movement than Weaver's, potentially making it an above-average major league pitch. Maeda's curveball is also a slow pitch, averaging 70 mph. It has elite vertical drop, and almost as much movement as his slider. Because he throws from a three-quarters release point, Maeda telegraphs the pitch by bringing his release point up to get the necessary vertical movement to make it effective. While he doesn't necessarily get a lot of swings-and-misses with it, he is able to place the pitch with excellent precision despite its movement, resulting in the pitch consistently being thrown for strikes. Maeda also uses a changeup that, at times, can look like his best pitch because it induces some very ugly swings. Rounding out Maeda's pitching repertoire is—depending on what pitch tracking algorithm is more accurate—a shuuto, a sinker, and a cutter.

In studying Maeda's PITCHf/x data, one can see that Maeken is a cerebral pitcher. Aware of his lack of overpowering stuff, the right-hander uses what he does excel at–mainly his control and pitch repertoire–to keep batters off balance. Maeda keeps the ball away from hitters' power zones, throws pitches in counts you wouldn't expect them to be thrown in, and relies more heavily on his breaking pitches and off-speed offerings than his fastball. This would seem to be a definite plus for Maeda from a scouting perspective. Rather than succeeding against inferior hitters with below-average stuff, only to struggle against superior hitters, he should be able to adapt and continue using the approach with which he is familiar.

Scouts and evaluators have cited his height and weight as a red flag, and a potential cause for concern. Maeda stands an even 6 feet tall and for most of his career has been listed at 160 pounds, both of which would be on the relatively small side in MLB. It should be noted that Maeda purposefully put and kept on extra weight during the 2012 offseason, showing up to winter and spring training camps at roughly 180 pounds. Few MLB pitchers have weighed as little as Maeda's listed weight—but 180 pounds, while light, isn't unheard of. Among others, current pitchers Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum, Mike Leake, and Sonny Gray all are about six feet tall and weigh roughly 180 pounds, as were all-time greats Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. Not that any of that particularly matters, as Glenn Greenberg found that there was very little correlation between height and weight, and effectiveness and durability in his article "Does a Pitcher's Height Matter?" in the Fall 2010 SABR Baseball Research Journal.

Maeda's slight frame has also caused some concerns about injury risk, especially when combined with the total number of innings he has logged. Between ages 20 and 25, Maeda has thrown roughly 1,115 innings of work, and that doesn't account for the higher pitch counts or longer bullpen sessions that Japanese pitchers are allowed to undertake. Only a handful of contemporary pitchers in MLB have thrown that many innings between their ages 20 and 25 seasons: Felix Hernandez threw 1,304 innings between 2006 and 2011, Clayton Kershaw threw 1,180 innings between 2008 and 2013, CC Sabathia threw 1,165.1 innings between 2001 to 2006, and Jeremy Bonderman threw 994.2 innings between 2003 and 2008. While Kershaw and King Felix have not yet experienced any real kind of adversity, both Sabathia and Bonderman had the later stages of their careers limited by elbow and shoulder injuries. Fellow Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka also logged a similar number of innings between 20 and 25: Matsuzaka threw 1,057 and Tanaka threw 1,085. While generally durable in NPB, both have experienced injury woes since coming to the United States.

From a scouting point of view, Maeda reminded Patrick Newman of NPBTracker fame of Kenshin Kawakami, insomuch as he also succeeded with a low 90 mph fastball and a variety of off-speed pitches, most notably a slider. In more stat-oriented research, Eno Sarris analyzed recent NPB pitchers who came to the United States and also concluded that Maeda resembled Kawakami. Looking at available PITCHf/x data, Sarris also compared Maeken to Aaron Nola.

Coming on the heels of Masahiro Tanaka's record-breaking seven-year, $155 million contract, Kenta Maeda is likely to generate enough interest to ink a sizable, if not slightly inflated, contract. Though he isn't on the same level as recent émigrés Darvish, Iwakuma, or Tanaka, Maeda has the potential of being a solid-to-above-average mid-rotation pitcher. He is no Tanaka, however, and talent evaluators are aware of that, so don't expect any team to equal or exceed what the Yankees paid for their star pitcher. The life and structure of Maeda's contract could be similar to Tanaka's—including allowances for moving, housing, interpreters, no-trade clauses, and opt-out clauses—but the dollar values will most certainly differ. That is not to say that Maeda will get peanuts, but rather that it is unlikely that he makes the $22 million per year that Tanaka will make for the majority of his contract.

There is no doubt that Kenta Maeda will improve the pitching rotation of whatever team wins the bidding for his services. Given the cost of the $20 million posting fee to the Hiroshima Carp and Maeken's contract itself, it is unlikely that the Mets will be one of the teams vying for the right-hander–not only would adding an additional pitcher to the Mets' rotation be an ineffective use of funds, but the team itself simply may not have the funds available to begin with.