Looking for a Kenta Maeda Comp

Since we don’t have much more than velocity readings from Japan, it can be difficult to rely on anything but scouting reports when evaluating pitchers coming over from Nippon Professional Baseball. And now that 27-year-old Kenta Maeda is once again rumored to be coming to America through the posting system, we’re once again left wondering how to place him in context.

We have his Japanese strikeout and walk rates, which we can compare to recent postings to find comparable countrymen. We also have his velocity readings and a general sense of the quality of his pitches that we can use to compare him to pitchers beyond just ones that have come from Japan. We even have one game of PITCHf/x data to help us look at the movement of his pitches.

And the few comparable players we produce might be the best we can do from out here in the public sphere.

The easiest thing to do is call up the stats for recent pitchers that have come over from Japan. The yearly stats there jump around fairly erratically — in the last six years, the league ERA has been as high as 4.13 and as low as 2.86! — so we should index them to league average:

Recent NPB SPs in the Three Years Before They Left Japan
Age 3yr ERA 3yr K% 3yr BB% 3yr IP 3yr ERA- 3yr K%+ 3yr BB%+
Kenta Maeda 27 2.26 21.9% 5.4% 189 62 121 66
Masahiro Tanaka 25 1.44 24.9% 3.3% 204 45 139 42
Yu Darvish 25 1.64 27.8% 5.4% 205 46 156 74
Hisashi Iwakuma 31 2.87 14.3% 4.9% 163 80 80 67
Kei Igawa 27 3.50 23.3% 6.7% 194 86 122 93
Daisuke Matsuzaka 26 2.40 25.2% 5.7% 182 59 132 79
Kaz Ishii 28 3.48 26.4% 10.9% 164 88 152 132
Kenshin Kawakami 34 2.81 22.4% 4.3% 166 75 124 60
Hiroki Kuroda 33 2.87 18.5% 4.5% 194 74 100 62
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com
ERA- = player ERA / league ERA * 100
K% and BB% + = player stat / league stat * 100
3yr IP = average IP over last three years in Japan

In a strange twist of fate, Maeda is basically the average posted pitcher. He’s the closest to the sample average across the indexed ERA, strikeout and walk rates at least. But it’s unclear what that means, since something like half of the pitchers who came before were relative busts.

But what also becomes clear is that Maeda is not the best of the group. Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and even Kaz Ishii and Kei Igawa struck out more batters than Maeda. Maeda has nice control, but Tanaka was better and Kenshin Kawakami, Hiroki Kuroda, and Hisashi Iwakuma were comparable. By ERA-, Tanaka and Darvish were clearly better. Maeda might be most like Kawakami other than the age factor.

Another way that Kawakami and Maeda are slightly similar is their reliance on the slider. Maeda’s best secondary is a slider, and his next-best is probably also his slider (he varies the velocity and shape). Against righties this year, Maeda was almost 95% fastball/slider according to some observers.

But there is some hope, provided by one game that Maeda played in San Francisco for the World Baseball Classic. There were PITCHf/x cameras in the park that day, so we have some numbers for him, however limited. Let’s put his velocity and movement numbers from that start up against league average for a right-hander, for context.

Kenta Maeda’s 2013 WBC Start, In MLB Context
Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) Velo Pfx Hmov PFx Vmov
Four-Seam 27 34% 90.7 -2.8 8.6 16 21 28
Sinker 9 11% 89.5 -7.2 3.8 20 14 79
Change 10 13% 82.7 -7.9 0.7 37 59 96
Slider 23 29% 80.7 6.6 2.7 15 96 26
Curve 11 14% 71.6 6.4 -10.4 5 65 98
SOURCE: BrooksBaseball.net
The last three columns are percentile ranks in baseball, minimum 500 four-seamers, 400 sinkers, or 100 secondary pitches. For example, 16 = 16th percentile, or worse than 84% of the league.

In this context, the velocity is terrible. There’s no other way to say it. Average his pitches, and he’s in the 20th percentile. He’ll need all that movement and command to make it work on this side of the pond.

It is nice to see, however, that he has some elite movement numbers. Only nine right-handers have more horizontal movement on their sliders than Maeda showed that day in 2013, and the pitch looks a little bit like Sergio Romo’s slider by the numbers, if a few inches short of being the super-frisbee that the longtime Giant has thrown. The numbers are thrown off a bit by the fact that Maeda throws both a slider and a traditional cutter, but that could be an asset here in America. That’s one of the rarest pairings in baseball.

And the changeup! Among starters, only Felix Hernandez, Williams Perez, and Aaron Nola showed more drop on their changeups. Aaron Nola’s changeup is the closest in overall movement and velocity, and it got above-average whiffs and grounders last year in a decent sample. Given that movement is more important than velocity, and Maeda’s change has great movement, it’s fair to believe in that the Japanese righty has two good secondary pitches.

That name, Aaron Nola, might provide us an interesting comp. Nola does not have great velocity. If he’d thrown more fastballs, he’d have been in the 15th percentile for four-seamer velocity, as well. His changeup (83.2 mph, -7.9 Pfx_x, .3 Pfx_z) is almost a straight match for Maeda’s (82.7mph, -7.9 Pfx_x, .7 PFx_z). While Nola’s big curveball is faster and probably better than Maeda’s, Maeda has those two sliders that could function as something of an equivalent.

Coming up with a Nola comp — which sounds much better than the Young Kawakami one we had going — doesn’t help us a ton because of Nola’s stature in baseball. He hasn’t pitched 80 innings or signed a free agent contract, so neither his production so far or his salaries can really guide us well. Nola does look like a major league pitcher, though, and he was once the 39th-best prospect by Baseball America.

That kind of pitching prospect could have as much as $19 million of surplus value, though, so if you believe you can save as much as that off of Maeda’s true value in the posting system, you’d be interested.

And maybe there’s a chance that Maeda’s better than that one game he pitched in 2013. The owner of NPB Tracker, Patrick Newman, was in the park that day. “He wasn’t throwing strikes that day and didn’t look like himself,” Newman remembered. And, as you can see from his velocity data for the years that are on record, Maeda has been trending up. “I’ve seen some 94s up in the zone,” Newman relayed, and that lines up with what Ben Badler said last year.

In this clip, you can see plenty of 92s and 93s, as well as both versions of his slider in action. It’s not without swings and misses, but it is against the Netherlands team, which swings and misses a decent amount.

Who knows if he’ll post at all. Despite the rumors, there aren’t a lot of reasons for the Hiroshima Carp to post him. The new rules limit the potential income from posting to $20 million.

The Carp will get Maeda at a reduced cost due to their arbitration system, and the value he provides above and beyond a free agent acquisition defrays some of the value of that posting fee. Star pitchers can get as much as $6 million on the market, and Maeda will make about $3 million next year in their arbitration structure. That means that, over the next two years, as much as $5-6 million of the posting fee value goes away when you account for Maeda’s surplus value in Japan.

The Carp have also been improving — they were above .500 for the first time since 1996 in 2014, and have consolidated some nice young talent and lured former stud Hiroki Kuroda back onto the roster. Since the Carp have haven’t won a title since 1984, and last won a pennant in 1991, any improvement is important to the fan base. They are the team farthest removed from a league championship in Japanese baseball. They may want to hold on to their young ace.

Still, if Maeda posts, there’s enough upside there to get interested. Getting a 27-year-old right-hander who might be as good as Aaron Nola without paying full price should get more than a few teams the table. And if he does come over, we’ll all enjoy watching him warm up.

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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Bobby Ayala
8 years ago

Great analysis, thanks! I hope he posts.