Get To Know This Year’s Foreign Imports: Japan

After yesterday’s look at Korean import possibilities, today we move on to a pair of Japanese pitchers.

Remember, while in Korea, the old posting rules are in effect — MLB teams bid blindly, the KBO accepts one, and then the MLB team has exclusive negotiating rights for 30 days — things have changed in Japan. The NBP team sets a posting fee (capped this year at $20m) and then it’s a free-for-all, a true free agency that allows the player to negotiate with all 30 clubs. Whichever team signs the player then owes the posting fee to the NBP team, so think of it as a tax.

Kenta Maeda, 26, RHP

Now we’re getting somewhere. Maeda isn’t quite Masahiro Tanaka, but he’s easily the prize of this foreign import season… or he will be if he’s posted, which was still uncertain as of two weeks ago. Maeda reportedly told his team, the Hiroshima Carp, that he wanted to move to America last year. They didn’t, and now dig these quotes:

“We have the right. We would like to let him go, but based on his production this year it will be difficult,” Matsuda said.

Don’t forget, anyway, that a year ago, Tanaka’s team was saying they may not post him either. About that apparently lousy production? Maeda fell all the way to a 2.56 ERA, which was the second-best by any NPB starter. Hey, who knows, maybe the owner was referring to pitcher wins, because Maeda was merely 11-8. That’s not exactly a great way to pump up the value of your asset, though.

Maeda has been with Hiroshima, Hiroki Kuroda‘s old club, since 2008, and he’s gotten by with outstanding control (1.9 BB/9) and an extreme aversion to homers (0.6 HR/9), though he appears to lack a wipeout pitch like Tanaka has. Since he pitched in the World Baseball Classic last year in San Francisco, Brooks actually has some PITCHf/x data on him, and while I assume I need not remind you not to think too much about a sample size of one game, it’s what we’ve got. While he mixed in five pitches — some sources in Japan said seven — he also topped out at 90 on his fastball, which isn’t all that exciting.

From IR Fast, a scouting report from 2013:

The actual pitcher Maeda, in a vacuum, has below average velocity across the board, with his average pitch thrown at 83.58 MPH, which would be in the bottom 30 % of starting pitchers since 2007. Despite the good movement on his breaking pitches, his fastball doesn’t move a lot, and all his pitches are below average velocity wise. He has good control and pitchability, placing the ball away from hitters and working backwards, which will help him not be too hittable. However, I question whether or not he will be able to get lefties out, since his release point is so out, and he isn’t going to challenge them. Unless he paints the black perfectly, they just aren’t going to swing and I would imagine he would have a high walk rate against lefties, even though walks isn’t a big part of his profile. The eye test told me the changeup was a pretty good, though really unorthodox pitch, while the Pitch F/X data says it has a lot of spin but not great movement. Will the spin make up for it and fool enough lefties. I am not sure.

From NBP Tracker in February:

Maeda’s strengths:

  • A fastball that won’t be a liability at the MLB level.
  • An ability to locate at least two breaking pitches, a slider and a changeup.
  • He gets his curve into the strike zone as well.
  • An ability to suppress hits. Maeda has allowed just 7.51 per 9IP over his 1116.1 inning career. In 2013, he allowed just 6.61 hits per 9IP.
  • Health and durability. Maeda has never had a serious injury, and has topped 175 IP in each of the last five seasons.
  • Consistency. Maeda’s WHIPs over the last four years: 0.98, 1.02, 0.99, 0.99.

Maeda’s weaknesses:

  • Overall his stuff is just not as whiff-inducing as Yu Darvish’s or Masahiro Tanaka’s.
  • He has lacked the eye-popping K:BB ratios of guys like Tanaka, Koji Uehara or Colby Lewis, though he is no slouch at about 5:1.
  • I’ve noticed he can nibble a bit.
  • On my list, Maeda’s build and stuff resemble’s Kenshin Kawakami’s more than anyone else.

From Baseball America, via River Ave. Blues, a few weeks ago:

[he] doesn’t have overpowering stuff of a frontline starter like we’ve seen from fellow Japanese righthanders Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish, (but his) ability to command his fastball and mix his pitches allows him to keep hitters off-balance.” Badler said Maeda sits anywhere from 87-94 with his fastball and his go-to pitch in a low-80s slider. He also throws a mid-80s changeup, an upper-80s cutter, and a slow low-70s curveball.

From Newsday, in June:

“He’s not Tanaka,” one major-league executive said. “But he’s the next-best thing.”

Here’s WEEI’s Rob Bradford, echoing the “good but not elite” opinion…

And while this is a little older, it’s echoed by a scout:

Let’s watch some highlights, which don’t include 2014:

Of course, remember that the change in posting system makes a huge difference here. The Dodgers can’t just buy their way to exclusive negotiating rights any longer, and there’s been reports that Maeda prefers to play for the Red Sox or Yankees. (Of course.) Who knows if that’s true or not, obviously. It seems clear that Maeda isn’t a Tanaka-level ace, but with three above-average to elite starters in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-jin Ryu, the Dodgers don’t necessarily need that. Maeda as your fourth-best starter seems like a pretty great situation to have, especially since he’s young and hasn’t had any major injury history to speak of. There’s just a lot of ifs to get there — if the Carp post him, and if he’s willing to come to Los Angeles, and if the Dodgers have enough interest to pay him.

Chihiro Kaneko, 31, RHP

Kaneko turns 31 next month and his contract has expired, but he’s not yet a true free agent, at least internationally. He’s eligible to sign with another Japanese team if he likes, but can’t jump to America free and clear until 2016. That said, his age and limited amount of service time remaining would limit any posting fee. Just this week, Kaneko won his first Sawamura Award, which is Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young (Tanaka won it twice in the last three years, and Maeda won it in 2010). The same day, he let it slip that he had interest in coming to America:

Asked about the possibility of asking Orix to make him available to big league clubs through the posting system, Kaneko admitted it was on his mind.

“That’s one option I’m thinking about,” Kaneko said at Hotto Motto Field. Kaneko is eligible to file for domestic free agency this offseason, and will be able to go abroad a year from now without Orix’s consent. “I’m thinking about all the options open to me,” said Kaneko, who traveled to the United States to watch the World Series after Orix was knocked out of the playoffs a week ago.

“The atmosphere at American ballparks is something I’ve admired for a long time. The Japan-major league All-Star series will give me an opportunity to face the hitters from over there. When that’s done, I’ll think about it again thoroughly.”

He apparently watched Game 3 of the World Series with “someone from Arn Tellem’s office,” per another report, and that doesn’t sound like a player who is making no future plans. So while we don’t yet know if Kaneko is an option, he’s worth talking about, especially since we may see him facing Yasiel Puig and friends in the Japan series in a few weeks — and if he really wants to go, it makes sense for Orix to post him now rather than watch him walk for nothing in a year.

So, what do we know about him? He missed most of 2012 with a right elbow injury, making only 9 starts, and had “forearm inflammation” in early 2013, but still threw 407.1 innings over the last two years. It’s actually been a little tough to find good scouting reports on Kaneko, though here’s another from IR Fast last year, and be sure to click through for a ton of GIFs of all of his pitches:

Kaneko is roughly as good against lefties as righties, yielding a lower batting average against righties with more strikeouts, but walking less lefties (the amount of batters faced for both sides is about equal) and only 2 of his 7 homers allowed are against lefties.

I like the fork/splitter pitch, and that is how he limits his platoon splits, but the stuff across the board is not really notable, with a fastball that sits below 90 MPH, a slider that sits below 80 MPH, a mediocre looking change he throws more than the forkball, and a curve that sits under 70 MPH.

You can’t really argue with his NPB success this season, and I think as long as he stays healthy, he will be a good NPB pitcher for the foreseeable future because he has decent velocity and a good mix of pitches that he can and will attack the strike zone with. At the same time, I don’t think he is quite the MLB prospect that his numbers suggest he might be. He doesn’t quite look like the guy that MLB teams would be interested in and it is really tough to know how his breaking pitches would play in the Majors.

Here’s a pretty good video of a start of his from June, passed along by Brim:

While we know better than to scout the stat line, a 194/41 K/BB in 184 innings this year sure seems fun. Like Maeda, he doesn’t seem like a top-of-the-rotation starter, but the cost should be considerably lower. Of course, we still have no idea if he’s even coming to this part of the world.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.