Get to Know This Year’s Foreign Imports: Kenta Maeda, Dae-ho Lee, Nobuhiro Matsuda

It’s that time of year again. Teams are looking for every solution to fill out their rosters. We all know about the big names on the market, and are hoping that the Dodgers sign a few of them. However, not every potential solution to the Dodgers’ plentiful roster needs have played in the US. The new front office has not looked overseas for talent before, and Logan White is now gone, but the Dodgers know very well that players from other countries can find success in blue.

Here are three of the highest-profile potential free agents from NPB this year:

Kenta Maeda

If Kenta Maeda‘s name sounds familiar, it should. Last year, Maeda’s Hiroshima Carp let the baseball world twist in the wind while they decided if they would or would not post their young right-handed pitcher. Mike detailed Maeda last October, but the Carp ultimately decided to hold onto him.

This turned out to be a very good decision. Maeda pitched 206-1/3 innings with a 2.09 ERA this year, which resulted in his second Sawamura Award, annually given to Japan’s best pitcher (Maeda won over Shohei Otani because Otani pitched 40 fewer innings). Maeda’s Carp play in a park that’s about neutral, in the Central League (pitchers hit), so his 2.09 ERA translated into a 58 ERA-. For context, Clayton Kershaw had a 57 ERA- and David Price had a 60 ERA- in MLB this year. Maeda’s ERA was better than the NPB average to the same degree that Kershaw and Price were better than the MLB average.

Maeda’s FIP lagged behind his ERA this year, but a 2.41 FIP is still good for approximately a 67 FIP-, which again is very comparable to what David Price did in MLB. Looking back at previous seasons shows that this is not new for Maeda, either. Maeda’s ERA has been better than his FIP in each of the last four seasons (the period for which data is easily available), indicating that he induces consistently weak contact. This is good, because Maeda doesn’t blow people away. His career high strikeout rate is 8.1 per nine innings, and he’s usually somewhere in the mid-sevens like he was this year. However, his walk rate has always been extremely low and he has always been excellent at suppressing home runs (he only allowed five this season).

The Carp missed the playoffs this year, though not by any fault of Maeda (or his teammate Hiroki Kuroda for that matter). In fact, for people wondering if Maeda can deal with an MLB schedule, the Carp offered a glance. On the final day of the Carp’s season, they were controlling their own destiny: win and they were in the playoffs. Lose and they were out. They were facing the lowly Chunichi Dragons, who finished second-to-last in the Central League this season. Maeda pitched the game on four days’ rest, the same as what he’d do in MLB. He threw six shutout innings, striking out five batters and walking three. However, the Carp’s offense only managed one hit in a game started by 50-year-old Masahiro Yamamoto, who gave way to the bullpen after retiring the first batter in something of a retirement ceremony. One game isn’t much of a sample, but it’s more experience than what NPB pitchers usually have.

Maeda’s scouting report hasn’t changed much since Mike wrote about him last year. He tops out in the lower 90s, is more of a grounder/soft contact pitcher than one who will get a lot of strikeouts. He can be a bit of a nibbler at times. His secondary pitches are decent but not ace-level, but he commands those pitches very well. It’s a good combination, but one which will require a lot of skill to move over to the majors. There aren’t a lot of comparable pitchers who made the jump.

But, enough words and numbers. Time for moving pictures! Since Maeda pitches in Japan’s Central League, highlights are hard to find – the league is stuck in the 1990s when it comes to archiving highlights and game footage (in that they don’t do it at all). Fortunately, there is a solution: Maeda pitched against MLB’s stars in last season’s All Star Series.

Here’s Maeda striking out Yasiel Puig on a changeup:

Here he is fooling Robinson Cano with a good curve from the windup:

Here’s something more like what to expect, Justin Morneau rolling over and weakly hitting a grounder to second:

And here’s MLB’s highlight package from the start, which features his 80-grade pitching face:

Maeda pitched five shutout innings that day, striking out two batters while walking two more.

Overall, it’s still not certain that Maeda will make his way to MLB this year. The Carp can hang onto him and try to contend again next year. This is the exact same situation they were in last season, when they elected to keep him. If Maeda is posted (roughly 50% chance by my guess), the Carp will almost certainly command the maximum posting fee of $25MM. However, the contract after that is a big question. Despite Maeda’s dominance in Japan, he seems more like a number three or four starter in MLB than he does an ace. He’s young (27) and has been very durable. That comes at a cost, as Maeda’s arm has a lot more wear on it than the average 27-year-old (1500IP). Both contract length and duration will be up in the air as a result.

Ultimately, the Dodgers do need mid-rotation starters, and it would not be surprising if they get creative and take a chance on Maeda.

Dae-ho Lee

Dae-ho Lee is one of my favorite players in NPB, and now he’s an international free agent, which means he will not require a posting fee to sign. Now I have an excuse to write about him!

Lee was born in Korea and started his professional play there, hitting .308/.395/.529 in eleven seasons of KBO ball (including a .331/.419/.571 line in his final six years). Lee made the jump to Japan in 2012, where he put up a .293/.370/.487 line in four seasons for the Orix Buffaloes and Softbank Hawks. Lee hit a career-high 31 home runs this year, though it was aided by the Hawks moving the fences in at the beginning of the season. His strikeout rate also spiked to 19% this season, well above-average for NPB. In this year’s Japan Series, Lee won the MVP award, hitting .500/.619/1.000 including two home runs. Lee was with the Hawks for two seasons and they won the Japan Series both times.

A few videos of Lee will tell you what you need to know:

And while it isn’t fair to show Shohei Otani showing off a player’s potential weakness, I’m going to take any chance I can get to show Shohei Otani pitching that I can:

Lee can hit. I’m not an expert at judging swings by any means, but it looks pretty good to me. There will certainly be doubts on if his power can work in the US due to the relatively high strikeout rate and the fact that sluggers in NPB have not been able to make it work in the US so far, but to my eyes he has as good of a chance as anybody. Lee’s strikeouts are a new thing and he was still really good before the Hawks moved the fences in.

However, more important for the Dodgers in particular is the body. Lee is a DH. The Dodgers don’t play in that league. That just about ends the discussion for them. That also means that if any team does sign him has to be willing to gamble on the bat alone, which is a very risky proposition. In an era where dedicated DHs are disappearing, Lee may have trouble finding a home. Ultimately, Lee’s MLB candidacy reminds me a lot of Takashi Toritani‘s failed bid to move over last year. They’re very different players, but both attempts seemed extremely optimistic. It’s not impossible to see a team desperate for Right Handed Power (TM) taking a shot on Lee, but that team will not be the Dodgers. However, he will still be fun to watch no matter where he ends up.

Nobuhiro Matsuda

Another player from Japan declared international free agency this weekend: Nobuhiro Matsuda. Matsuda, a 32 year old right-handed third baseman, also played for the SoftBank Hawks this season. Also like Lee, Matsuda had an eye-popping batting line in 2015: .287/.357/.533. Matsuda strikes out even more than Lee, usually near 25% every year.

Matsuda hit a career-high 35 home runs this year, blowing away his second-highest total of 25. Here’s a video of the first 12 this season:

Like Lee, Matsuda’s power spike is not coincidental, as it occurred right as the Hawks moved their fences in by almost 20 feet. The changes have increased the stadium’s home run park factor from -10% to +19%, per Jim Allen. As one would expect, Matsuda’s ISO numbers coincide dramatically with the change:

  • 2012: .192
  • 2013: .164
  • 2014: .204
  • (Hawks move fences in)
  • 2015: .246

Of the 12 homers in the video, five go into the new “porch” that the park’s dimensional adjustments created. That, combined with the swing-and-miss, is a pretty scary combination. This is an overly-simplistic analysis, of course, but there are red flags.

Unlike Lee, however, Matsuda can provide value in other places. Matsuda plays third base, and while defensive highlights from this year are scarce, here are a pair of reels from a few years ago:

These highlights aren’t the most impressive you’ll see, but he certainly seems competent enough at the position. He plays his home games on a really fast infield, too. Also, for what it’s worth, Matsuda has a good reputation in the locker room:

Matsuda’s not a headliner, and the bat doesn’t seem as likely to make an impact as Lee’s. However, the defensive ability makes him a more likely candidate for the Dodgers. It’s still an extreme longshot, though, especially when considering that Matsuda may want a starting role in Japan over a utility role in the US.

These three aren’t the only options out there, either. The Swallows have posted their closer Tony Barnette looking for a fee of $500k, but he’s of less consequence than these three. Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh closed for the Tigers over the last two seasons and is also likely to try to make the majors this season. There are other options, too. However, of all of the players in Japan who will potentially be on the market this year, Kenta Maeda is the one most likely to be wearing Dodger blue in April.

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.