How Much Should Teams Spend on Kenta Maeda?

Reports indicate that Japanese righty Kenta Maeda met with the Hiroshima Carp this week and requested to be posted. He hasn’t been posted yet, but when things like this get public, there can be a growing pressure on the team to fulfill their star’s wishes. We’ve already looked for a comp for Maeda, but how can we use that data to answer the next question on the checklist: how much should teams shell out for him?

The way posting now works, there’s a max bid — $20 million — and any team that reaches that max bid is able to negotiate with the player. Those rules make it a worse deal for Japanese teams, who have their income capped, and for the American teams, who have to outbid the other teams with deep pockets and can no longer suppress the yearly salary much beyond the $20 million in posting they had to spend to get to the table.

It’s better for the player, because he can get a deal more like a free agent deal, and because he also gets to choose where he’ll play. And since that’s true, it’s probably less likely that the whole process gets egg on its face the way it did when Hisashi Iwakuma failed to sign with the Athletics that one year.

In any case, we’re talking about $20 million to get to the table, and then a slightly more limited open market. And the teams would probably like to bake in some of the risk they face in signing a player who hasn’t yet played in the major leagues.

When we took a look at comps, we got a Young Kenshin Kawakami or an Older Aaron Nola, and neither pitcher actually exists right now. Projecting Nola out five years based on 77 major league innings in order to price Maeda seems like a bad deal. Zeroing in too much on what a 34-year-old Kawakami did in America also seems like the wrong direction.

So let’s instead identify current major league pitchers who show similar skill sets to Nola but are closer to Maeda’s age (27). We’re talking right-handers with an average strikeout rate, a better-than-average walk rate, and average or worse velocity. If you limit the age range to 26 to 29, you get two qualified pitchers from this past year. Two!

2015 MLB Kenta Maeda Comps
Name Age IP K% BB% SwStr% HR/9 GB% HR/FB ERA FIP WAR
Rick Porcello 26 172.0 20.2% 5.2% 8.5% 1.31 45.7% 14.5% 4.92 4.13 1.6
Jordan Zimmermann 29 201.2 19.7% 4.7% 8.4% 1.07 42.0% 10.9% 3.66 3.75 3.0

We don’t have a great sample size, but at least it represents a range of outcomes fairly well. Because if you were going to hand out contracts to these two players right now, they’d have different numbers attached to them. Vastly different numbers.

Let’s hand out a contract as if Maeda will be Porcello next year. And then re-do it as Zimmermann. In both cases, we’ll use Maeda’s age.

Maeda as Porcello’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $65.9 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2016 27 1.6 $8.0 M $12.8 M
2017 28 1.6 $8.4 M $13.4 M
2018 29 1.6 $8.8 M $14.1 M
2019 30 1.6 $9.3 M $14.8 M
2020 31 1.1 $9.7 M $10.7 M
Totals 7.5 $65.9 M
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

And now with Zimmermann.

Maeda as Zimmermann’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $127.8 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2016 27 3.0 $8.0 M $24.0 M
2017 28 3.0 $8.4 M $25.2 M
2018 29 3.0 $8.8 M $26.5 M
2019 30 3.0 $9.3 M $27.8 M
2020 31 2.5 $9.7 M $24.3 M
Totals 14.5 $127.8 M
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

That’s a $60 million chasm right there. How do we bake in the risk for Porcello and the upside of Zimmermann?

Well, we’ve already looked at previously posted Japanese pitchers. Of that group, it’s probably fair to say that five of the eight outcomes benefited the signing team. That figure includes Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose major-league career might not have represented a great outcome for Boston. Still, the Red Sox got a league-average pitcher for three of the five years during which he played for the club — that is, the years in which he was healthy.

Using that calculus, we might weight adjust for the risk of signing Maeda by weighing five Zimmermanns (the good outcome) against three Porcellos (the less good). The result: six years and $105 million, ostensibly $20 million of which would go to the Hiroshima Carp.

Maeda is two years younger than the actual Zimmermann, who would get a $105 million contract using the same set of assumptions we applied to Maeda above and beginning with Zimmermann’s projection of roughly three wins next year. But Zimmermann would be a top-tier outcome for Maeda. Clay Davenport has translations for the Japanese leagues in 2014, and his MLB equivalent numbers for Maeda are a little depressing: a 4.09 ERA with a 5.5 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. That would make him more like a younger Yovani Gallardo, who the crowd says will get $56 million over four years.

Maeda is not the player that Tanaka was. Going into his posting, Tanaka’s league-indexed strikeout minus walk rate was 75% better than the one Maeda just showed over the last three years. Tanaka’s signature pitch, the splitter, is better than Maeda’s slider, and he has more velocity, and he showed a better walk rate. The contract should reflect those facts.

It’s guesswork any way you slice it, and it’s fair to wonder what Maeda himself is expecting. Masahiro Tanaka got so much more than the numbers we are talking about here (seven years, $155 million). But if his new American team gives Maeda any more than six years and $85 million, they’ll be paying only for his upside with no reflection of the risk he represents. A better contract would pay him like a Porcello or Gallardo and hope for a Zimmermann.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

Is it really better for the player when the team sees the reduced benefit to posting a player, decides not to do it, thus cutting the player out of a bigger payday in the first place?

6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Presumably yes, as the year or two delay in being posted should be more than off-set by the larger contract.