The Los Angeles Dodgers added depth to their starting rotation last week by agreeing to a long-term contract with Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda, according to reports.
Maeda started 29 games in 2015, going 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. He allowed 168 hits and 41 walks in 206.1 innings pitched to go with 175 strikeouts. The 27-year old-right hander pitched in the Japan Central League for the Hiroshima Carp since 2008 and will undoubtedly draw comparisons to recent Japanese imports like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.
However, Maeda is different than his predecessors for a number of reasons, the first being his contract. After a $20 million posting fee, Los Angeles and Maeda have reportedly agreed to an eight-year, $24 million deal loaded with annual incentives between $10-12 million.
First, let’s take a look at the contracts of some of the pitchers who recently arrived from Japan.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox (2006): $51.1 million posting fee with six-year, $52 million contract
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers (2011): $51.6 million posting fee with six-year, $60 contract
Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees (2013): $20 million posting fee with seven-year, $155 million contract
What’s most glaring is how Maeda’s deal compares to the others, especially today’s market where baseball’s elite pitchers are making upwards of $100 million. Part of that is because Maeda isn’t viewed as an ace like the aforementioned Japanese pitchers. In his final year in Japan, Darvish went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP and 276 strikeouts in 232 innings. Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 168 hits allowed in 212 innings pitched before he came over. Maeda's numbers are less impressive, hence the No. 2 or No. 3 projection in most teams' rotation.
The contract appears advantageous to both sides, as Maeda is gambling on himself but can earn up to $15 million per year with performance bonuses while the Dodgers are only guaranteeing $3 million per season.
Maeda isn’t overpowering at 6'0 and 165 pounds, yet he may still make an impact as a control pitcher who eats innings. He may also prove more durable than other Japanese pitchers making the jump to the U.S. because unlike most, he doesn’t throw a splitter or forkball. The stress on the elbow due to those pitches is believed to contribute to serious arm injuries. Darvish and Matsuzaka both needed Tommy John surgery and Tanaka pitched all of 2015 with a partially torn ligament in his elbow and could be heading down the same road.
Maeda is mostly a fastball/slider pitcher with velocity between 90 and 93 miles per hour but tops out around 95 mph. Scouts rave about the excellent command on his four-seam fastball (1.8 walks per nine innings in 2015) but also throws a two-seam fastball, a "get-me-over" curveball and an improved change-up. The differences between baseballs used in Japan and MLB baseballs could dictate a change in the movement of pitches. Japanese baseballs are wound tighter, harder and slightly smaller than an MLB baseball. More adjustment will come with the shift to a five-man rotation and a different MLB strike zone.
There's reason to be optimistic in Los Angeles. In a recent MLB Network Radio interview, Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt described Maeda’s delivery as "extremely good" and boasted of his command.
“What I’ve liked about the Japanese pitchers we’ve had in the past is they have a really good delivery that’s repeatable,” Honeycutt said. “They throw a lot of strikes, command the ball extremely well. Very interesting arm there in Maeda.”
Maeda joins a lengthy list of Japanese players to pitch for the Dodgers, beginning with Hideo Nomo (1995-98, 2002-04), the first Japanese-born player to throw a no-hitter in MLB. He was followed by Masao Kida (2003-04), Kazuhisa Ishii (2002-04), Takashi Saito (2006-08) and Hiroki Kuroda, (2008-11), another former Hiroshima Carp player. With the exception of Kida's brief stint, each pitcher provided the staff with a big lift.
Maeda is the only right-handed pitcher in the Dodgers' rotation, which may feature four southpaws: Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson, Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu.