Entering the 2014-2015 off-season, there was plenty of speculation that Japanese pitching star Kenta Maeda would be posted by his team, the Hiroshima Carp. While he did not end up hitting the free agent market that off-season, however, he was posted this past year prior to the start of the 2016 MLB season. Once expected to net a contract in the 4 to 5 year and $60 to $90 million range, his earning power was sapped by a strong free agent class and lack of true dominating stuff. Ultimately, he signed an 8-year $25 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though this deal includes plenty of innings pitched and games started incentives that can bring the total contract value to about $106.5 million (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/nl-west/los-angeles-dodgers/).
This season, in 5 starts, the 28-year-old Maeda is 3-1 with a 1.41 ERA, 28 strikeouts and only 6 walks in 32.0 innings. It is safe to say that the Dodgers are very happy with their investment so far; but, can Maeda be expected to maintain this production over the duration of the season?
In 8 seasons in Japan, Kenta Maeda pitched to a 2.39 ERA with a 7.4 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 over the span of 1509.2 innings. Switching over to the MLB was not necessarily expected to be a flawless transition for Maeda, but his history of great control did bring with it a considerable level of confidence in his floor as a number 5 starter in the majors. So far in the MLB, Maeda’s successes have amounted to a 7.88 K/9 and 1.69 BB/9, which are actually better than his rates in Japan, but not far off. Furthermore, he has garnered his 1.41 ERA and 2.79 FIP against opponents such as the Diamondbacks, Giants and Rockies (at Coors Field nonetheless), none of who’s lineups would be considered weak. Realistically, the only numbers that I would consider as evidence of potential decline would be in Maeda’s strand rate (92.2% LOB%), which is about 20% above league average, and his HR/FB rate of 6.5%, which is about 4% below league average. Even if these numbers return to league average, however, they would still amount to the 3.45 xFIP that FanGraphs has calculated (xFIP is fielding independent pitching normalized to a 10.5% HR/FB rate). Even given this fact, however, I do not foresee Maeda’s rates falling all the way to league average, as he has a 16.1% infield-fly ball rate (IFFB%), 5% above league average. That means that he is likely to maintain a HR/FB rate that is better than league average, and thus a 3.45 xFIP would under-state his true abilities.
Lastly, while I would normally call into question Maeda’s strikeout rate, which was expected to decline in the majors but has actually improved slightly over his career rate in Japan (7.88 v. 7.4 K/9), it is not unreasonable to believe that he can maintain his current number of strikeouts given the ever-increasing K tendencies of MLB batting lineups. Though he lacks velocity (his fastball averages 90.21 mph), he does exhibit above average control throughout his 5-pitch arsenal (four-seamer, sinker, circle-change, slider, curveball), allowing him to mix and match pitches. Furthermore, maintaining a 73.19 mph average curveball velocity allows him to alternate his off-speed stuff with his fastball, using the 17-mph velocity differential to keep hitters off-balance.
The way I see it, Kenta Maeda is a very good Major League pitcher. While nobody can expect him to maintain a 1.41 ERA, I would not at all be surprised if he managed to finish the season with an ERA somewhere between his current 2.79 FIP and 3.45 xFIP. Expect a strikeout rate right around the 7.00 to 7.5 K/9 range and a walk rate below 2.00 BB/9. Couple this with his infield-fly ball tendencies, and it would appear that the Dodgers will be very happy with their long term investment, especially with the low-risk nature of Maeda’s contract, and his current outlook as a number 2 to 3 starter on a playoff team.
Pitching profile provided by: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/dashboard.php