How will Kenta Maeda’s skills translate to the major leagues?

Kenta Maeda has nothing left to prove in Japan. The ace of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) Hiroshima Carp and a stalwart on the Japanese national team, Maeda’s eight seasons in Japan have been nothing short of spectacular. In just over 1,500 innings pitched, the 6-0 righty has posted a 2.39 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and 1,233 strikeouts against just 319 walks.The latest Japanese ace to undergo the posting process, the 27-year-old Maeda, like many imports, brings a positive mystique to his profile. The raw numbers are enough to make any front office giddy and give fan bases visions of the next Yu Darvish fronting their rotation for years to come. The transition from NPB to Major League Baseball is not easy, but with a long line of predecessors blazing the trail to the States, Maeda faces fewer questions than early Japanese players. MORE: Baseball’s most miserable fan bases, rankedQuestionsThe biggest physical concern for Maeda is the transition to a five-man rotation with few off-days. The Hiroshima ace led his team with 29 starts and 206 1/3 innings pitched in the 2015, but thanks to the frequent off-days, Maeda averaged a whopping 6.7 days between starts. The sample of pitchers making the switch from NPB to is far too small to render any statistically significant conclusions, but it is possible that the change in throwing schedule could have had an impact on the arm injuries suffered by Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, among others. At the very least, this is something an acquiring team should consider. Next, thanks to NPB’s switch to a uniform baseball in 2013, the differences between the American and Japanese baseballs have been reduced. The Japanese ball remains slightly smaller than the American version but this is less of an issue than before.Finally, Maeda must adjust to the talent and style of play in the States. the major leagues’ affinity for home runs and strikeouts stands in stark contrast to the small-ball Japanese game. Although Maeda has allowed just 0.6 home runs per nine innings in his NPB career, the presence of home run threats throughout lineups will leave him much

less margin for error.In spite of these concerns, Maeda possesses many skills that are easily transferable to the majors. In spite of the differences in baseballs, schedule and style of play, the fundamental talent possessed by one of the hottest remaining names on the pitching market will not be left in Japan.Scouting reportContrary to the hype surrounding Matsuzaka, there are no tricks or gyroballs with Maeda. Instead, the righty features a standard four-pitch mix: fastball, slider, changeup and curveball.Maeda’s fastball sits at a comfortable 89-94 mph and has some life. He does a very good job locating the pitch to all quadrants of the zone and shows good feel for establishing the offering at the knees. As the velocity is merely average, location will be essential in his transition to North America. His balanced delivery is a significant point in favor of his continued ability to spot the pitch.His best offspeed pitch is his 83-86 mph slider, which is plus at times but lacks the consistency that would make it an elite offering. The break is short, with more vertical movement than lateral movement, and is enough to miss the barrel. The slider stays on the same plane as the fastball for a long time and has a late break, giving hitters very little ability to distinguish between the two pitches.Maeda’s third pitch is his 83-85 mph changeup. He makes up for the lack of a typical speed difference between it and the fastball with his ability to sell the pitch to the hitter. His consistent arm speed adds to the deception and a late fade makes it more effective down in the zone. Especially when the slider command is lacking, the change will be an essential piece of his repertoire and could end up as a plus pitch.The fourth pitch is a slow 12-to-6 curveball. Similar to the offering made popular by Darvish, the slow curve is a show-me pitch designed to disrupt the hitter’s timing. Sitting at 75-78 mph, the big breaker creates a velocity difference from the fastball of up to 19 mph — a gap large enough to mess with any opposing hitter and a very effective offering in long sequences.While his raw stuff is good on its own, Maeda earns high marks for his ability to sequence his pitches and work a count. He is comfortable throwing any pitch in any count and has the necessary control to successfully do so. For example, in his quarterfinal start against Puerto Rico in the recent Premier 12 tournament, Maeda began the game with a swinging strike on a slider and began subsequent innings with a fastball, changeup, fastball, slow curve and fastball. There are no patterns and no hitters will be able to sit on any of his pitches.Maeda’s delivery features elements consistent with the appraised principles of modern Japanese pitching. Balance is a major attribute throughout his delivery, allowing him to repeat the motion and consequently control the baseball. From the windup he features a brief pause at maximum leg lift, with great balance but very little momentum. After this, he accelerates the lower half down the mound, generates a strong rotation with the hips and throws from a standard three-quarters arm slot. From the stretch, Maeda begins from a very wide base, limiting the momentum he can generate from the slope of the mound but allowing him to reduce his time to the plate. It would not be surprising to see the signing team reduce the width of that base.Apart from the standard concerns about joining a new league, the biggest concerns with Maeda are the status of his stuff as good but not great and his possession of more control (avoiding walks) than command (hitting spots). The slider could become a true putaway pitch, but until then Maeda must rely more heavily on his ability to sequence. Second, his low walk totals have been very good in his NPB career, but his distaste for free passes can come at the consequence of delivering more hittable pitches. He still shows creativity in pitch selection when behind in the count, although the location of these pitches can suffer. Still, these are small, surmountable challenges.WrapMaeda is a very talented pitcher who has drawn, and will continue to draw, significant interest from major league clubs. He can slot immediately into a big league rotation and will be expected to perform immediately. The remaining question, and the critical question being asked by clubs, is: Where does he fit in a rotation? Is he an ace? Is he a mid-rotation pitcher? Is a No. 5 starter?As a pitcher with notable remaining unknowns, the answer is broad. The most likely scenario is that Maeda settles in as a No. 3 starter. If he can improve the consistency of his slider and exhibit more command rather than mere control, a No. 2 starter role is within reach. Contrarily, and perhaps more likely than a rise to a No. 2, Maeda could fall to a No. 4 starter whose inability to master major league hitters reduces his effectiveness.The surprise signing of Zack Greinke by the Diamondbacks altered the starting pitching market, including potential suitors for Maeda. The Diamondbacks have long been rumored to be interested in his services but are likely out of the picture as a result of the Greinke and Shelby Miller acquisitions. The Dodgers, having missed out on all top names thus far, could join the mix. Teams will not have to surrender a draft pick to acquire Maeda, but they will have to surrender a posting fee that almost certainly will reach the full $20 million should they reach an agreement. With many of the top pitchers off the board already, Maeda could become the beneficiary of a bidding war between clubs still in need of quality starting pitching. The acquiring team will see its rotation improve immediately, but the degree of improvement can only be determined in time. Dan Weigel is a contributor at Sporting News focusing on pitching. Follow him on twitter at @DanWeigel38.


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