At this time last year, the baseball world was wondering whether Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles would post star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka for the 2014 season.
They did, and the New York Yankees invested in the right-hander’s future with a monster seven-year, $155 million contract after a winning bid of $20 million to secure negotiating rights. Tanaka, meanwhile, went on to surpass all reasonable expectations with a dominant rookie campaign, albeit one that was shortened due to a right elbow injury.
Teams that came up short in the Tanaka sweepstakes may have a chance this offseason to land the next big-name pitcher to come out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Kenta Maeda, though that depends on whether his team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, decide to make him available via the posting system.
Should that happen, the 26-year-old would be one of the most sought-after pitchers on the market, especially after he allowed two hits over five scoreless innings against accomplished MLB hitters in last month’s Japan All-Star Series.
A 6’0”, 160-pound right-hander, Maeda possesses three average-or-better pitches with room left to develop. Sure, there is uncertainty as to how his stuff and approach will translate to the major leagues, but that’s also been the case with every international pitcher. And the majority of the time, teams know what they’re doing.
Maeda, who possesses a fastball that ranges from 89-94 mph, doesn’t have the velocity to blow away hitters within the strike zone. That was clear in his performance against the MLB All-Stars, as he failed to induce a single whiff with his heater.
What Maeda does have, however, is excellent command of his fastball. Against big league hitters last month, the right-hander demonstrated an advanced feel for attacking both sides of the plate and largely avoided the top of the zone.
But the lack of velocity also means Maeda doesn’t have the margin of error to employ a fastball-heavy approach; when he does throw it (both two- and four-seamers), it’s usually intended to expand the zone horizontally so as to set up the rest of his arsenal.
Maeda’s slider is his go-to secondary offering, and he showed against the MLB All-Star squad that he’s comfortable throwing it for a strike in any count against both right- and left-handed hitters.
Specifically, Maeda looks to establish the outer half with his fastball early versus righties and then uses his slider to expand the hitters’ zone in that direction with the goal of generating either a whiff or weak contact. At the same time, Maeda also has an impressive feel for throwing backdoor strikes to lefties with the pitch, and he does a nice job keeping his misses out of the hitting zone.
My issue with Maeda’s slider is that it lacks wipeout break. He’s capable of throwing ones with tight rotation and late break, but against the MLB squad, too many seemed to roll out of his hand and flatten out in the zone. This was something that Baseball America’s Ben Badler (subscription required) noticed in Maeda’s final start of the NPB playoffs.
"The problem is that Maeda hung way too many sliders up in the zone, but for the most part, the Tigers didn’t capitalize on those opportunities," Badler wrote. "Against a major league lineup, a pitcher who leaves that many sliders flat and above the belt is rarely going to get through six innings with only one run on the scoreboard."
Though he’ll need to improve his slider command, Maeda does his part to keep hitters from sitting on the pitch by effectively mixing in his curveball and changeup.
The curveball, which is thrown in the low- to mid-70s with huge 12-to-6 vertical break, has the potential to generate swings and misses, but Maeda’s below-average command of the pitch currently limits its overall effectiveness. He has a tendency to either spike the pitch or hang it above the belt.
Maeda’s changeup, on the other hand, proved to be a weapon against the MLB All-Stars. The pitch induced swinging strikeouts of right-handed batters Alcides Escobar and Yasiel Puig, both of whom swung at fading changeups that simply dropped off the table as they neared the plate.
Maeda might not have that “wow” pitch like Tanaka did with the splitter, but his ability to effectively change speeds and keep big league hitters off balance should not be overlooked.
By establishing command of his fastball to both sides of the plate from the onset of games, Maeda is able to work in his full arsenal and test opposing hitters’ discipline while also feeling out their approaches.
"He can pitch in the big leagues," Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau said, via MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, after facing the right-hander in Japan.
Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar also praised Maeda’s feel for mixing pitches, via Joey Nowak of MLB.com.
"Slow curveball, slider, change, curve. He was throwing really good. He can pitch in the Major Leagues. He's got good stuff."
Meanwhile, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart believes Maeda is ready to impact the major leagues, and he’ll be keeping a close eye on the right-hander’s status this offseason.
"I love Maeda," Stewart said, via Steve Gilbert of MLB.com. "I love him. We have a lot of video and film and we have people who have seen him. We think that he's got a chance to be very successful in Major League Baseball. We're going to try to be in on the market when he does post, if he does post."
The Diamondbacks are one of several teams said to be interested in Maeda, along with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, and there surely would be more clubs to enter the mix should his posting become official.
The immediate successes of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have helped ease the usual concerns regarding NPB pitchers jumping to the major leagues, like the transition from pitching once per week to once every five days or having to develop a feel for the different texture of the ball on the fly against elite hitters.
Maeda won’t be a front-of-the-rotation starter cut from the same mold as Darvish or Tanaka. However, his age, deep arsenal and strong command profile still give him the floor of a solid No. 3 starter in the major leagues, and I don’t think many would be surprised if he surpassed that projection. Either way, a 26-year-old starter with upside is incredibly valuable, as he’d represent a potential fit for teams that are either contending or rebuilding.
Unfortunately, until the Carp officially post Maeda, all we can do is speculate about his seemingly bright future in the major leagues.