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The Player: Kenta Maeda

The Terms: Los Angeles Dodgers for 8 years, $25 million

The above figure is laughable on it's surface, but the intrigue goes as we dive into the details of Maeda's new contract with the Dodgers. I often cast a critical eye toward posting fees given the immense cost for the club to secure negotiating right with a player, but this one is too tantalizing for the Dodgers. Even with the $20 million paid to the Hiroshima Carp of the Japan Central League, the potential cost in the event of failure is so low that the deal would be a bargain for any club, let alone the richest team in the sport.

Maeda is on the hook for eight years (through the 2023 season) at a base of just $3 million per year (and a $1 million signing bonus), so he can't benefit from free agency until he's 35 years old and his prime is but a distant memory. Despite opt-outs being all the rage and with this contract having the time to fit three or four of them, Maeda's deal with the Dodgers does not include an opt-out clause, though he does receive $1 million each time that he is traded.

The playing-time incentives are significant and could bring his compensation up to $13 million each season, with carbon-copy parameters set for each campaign during the length of the contract. The deal was not without complications as Maeda's medicals revealed some potential cause for concern, an issue that has become all too familiar for a club that has had deals fall apart at the final hour with pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Aroldis Chapman. But the two sides were able to iron out the wrinkles, with the Dodgers claiming that the medical issue is asymptomatic, but the medical results may have had an impact on the structure of this unusual signing.

Career Stats

GS

IP

ERA

WHIP

H%

HR%

BB%

K%

217

1509.7

2.39

1.048

20.9%

1.6%

5.3%

20.4%

Maeda has impressive numbers on the surface, and his relative prowess is reflected in his twice winning the Sawamura Award as his league's top pitcher (2010 and 2015). However, it's tough to judge the merit of these numbers without knowing some context, so just for the sake of comparison, here are the numbers for a few other pitchers who have recently made the transition from Japan to MLB:

GS

IP

ERA

WHIP

H%

HR%

BB%

K%

M. Tanaka

172

1315.0

2.30

1.108

22.2%

1.2%

5.2%

23.3%

Y. Darvish

164

1268.3

1.99

0.985

18.4%

1.2%

6.7%

25.1%

H. Iwakuma

225

1541.0

3.25

1.204

23.7%

1.7%

5.4%

18.4%

The numbers paint the picture of a player who falls somewhere between Iwakuma and Tanaka, with a similar penchant for limiting free passes but a K rate that falls short of ace-worthy. Pitchers making the transition from Japan to MLB have generally enjoyed great success, and eight years of an Iwakuma floor would make this deal an instant steal. The stat indicators point toward a successful transition for Maeda, though the K count might be a bit low and many of his brethren have seen their home run rates skyrocket in MLB.

The Stuff

Pitch Type

Count

Freq

Velo (mph)

pfx HMov (in.)

pfx VMov (in.)

H. Rel (ft.)

V. Rel (ft.)

Fourseam

27

33.75%

90.70

-2.83

8.64

-2.40

5.55

Sinker

9

11.25%

89.48

-7.22

3.76

-2.45

5.55

Change

10

12.50%

82.72

-7.91

0.67

-2.35

5.55

Slider

23

28.75%

80.65

6.64

2.72

-2.35

5.58

Curve

11

13.75%

71.62

6.42

-10.40

-1.94

5.89

The above stats represent Maeda's lone appearance that was captured by the PITCHf/x cameras, which was his WBC outing against Puerto Rico in March of 2013. The single-game snapshot is consistent with scouting reports, which suggest that he works in the low 90s with his fastball (there are videos of his hitting 94 mph on the stadium gun in Japan). He brings a relatively familiar mix of breaking pitches to the table in addition to a shuuto, an offspeed pitch that is listed as a change in the above table.

Maeda is known to have command of every pitch in his arsenal, yet no single offering stands out as particularly nasty or effective, a factor which differentiates his profile (and prognosis) from countrymen Yu Darvish (the corkscrew slider) and Masahiro Tanaka (the trapdoor splitter). The numbers for stats and stuff support the general notion that Maeda is a command-first pitcher whose effectiveness is predicated on subtle movement and pinpoint location; if true, then he will likely live on the edges of the strike zone, limiting walks and aiming for weak contact. The question will be how well his approach translates to the free-swinging game of MLB. It could mean more strikeouts, but those are likely to come paired with a greater abundance of hard-hit baseballs.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

60

Torque

50

Posture

55

Repetition

60

Overall

B –

For an explanation on the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

Take this assessment with a few extra grains of salt given the lack of exposure, and I erred on the side of caution by sticking to round numbers (those ending in -0) for most of his grades.

Maeda carries a few of the idiosyncrasies that we have come to associate with pitchers from Japan, the most notable of which is an exaggerated “stop at the top” (I call it the “NPB Pause”) in which he halts his motion at maximum leg lift, gathers his balance, and then continues into the stride phase of his delivery. Such a stop of forward progress ought to be the recipe for a sub-par grade in the momentum category, but Maeda follows the path of fellow NPB pausers like Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka in generating a great burst in the secondary phase of his lift-and-stride sequence. Maeda also gets his forward progress going early, leading with the hip to generate plus momentum both before and after the halt at max leg lift.

His posture spiked a 60-grade in the footage that I have seen, but more often he invokes some extra spine-tilt late in the delivery, leading to the 55-grade seen above. His balance is a plus attribute overall, particularly in the Z-plane (rubber to plate), but a drop to his center-of-gravity and some occasional side-to-side shake keeps him parked at a 60 for now. The torque is generally unimpressive, falling within league-average with a near-equal contribution of his upper- and lower-halves in generating hip-shoulder separation. The repetition grade might be even higher, given the similarity in timing between pitches from various outings, but I would have to see more to give him better than a 60-grade in the all-important category.

The grade of B- is his floor and the power scores (torque, momentum) are unlikely to improve, but he has room for growth in measures of stability (balance, posture) and repetition. This could very well be a B grade delivery, and by the end of April we'll have a great idea of what he brings to the table.

The Verdict: No downside

I'm not sure why Maeda committed himself to such a low base for such a lengthy period, but from the Dodgers standpoint this signing was a major coup, and that's before considering the team's need for a right-handed starter or the lackluster options that are left on the free agent market. If every team could sign a deal like this, they would, but most players will not expose themselves to such risk in the event that they struggle to perform. Maeda is entering a new environment against the toughest hitters in the world, and it's easy to see the pessimistic side of the coin, but his new deal with the Dodgers is inspiring in the sense that he will earn his salary through performance rather than raking in the chips regardless of outcome. The Dodgers can afford to pay Maeda if he reaches ceiling, and if he does then the $13 million per annum will be an easy bargain, especially if he's still earning those incentives in the inflated MLB of 2023.

Thank you for reading

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