Fantasy Baseball: Can Kenta Maeda Duplicate His Rookie-Year Success?
Kenta Maeda started his big league career with a bang and didn’t look back.
No, he literally started with a bang, homering in his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched pretty well, too, allowing just a single run in his first four starts en route to finishing his rookie campaign with a 3.48 ERA and 3.58 FIP.
He also tied for 23rd among big league starters in fWAR (3.3) and 27th in terms of Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP (3.9), becoming a steady presence for a Dodgers pitching staff that was decimated by injuries, leading the team with 175.2 innings pitched.
The 28-year-old came to the United States after a stellar career in Nippon Professional Baseball, where he posted a 2.39 ERA, 3.9 strikeout-to-walk rate and 1.05 WHIP in over 1,500 innings with Hiroshima.
Can fantasy baseball owners anticipate a repeat of his success, which led to him placing third in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2016?
As was said early last season about Maeda, control was his calling card in Japan, as he only walked 1.9 batters per nine innings through eight seasons in NPB. In his final season with Hiroshima, he was tied for fifth in the Central League with a 1.8 BB/9 rate.
He was above average in this regard last season, walking 2.6 batters per nine -- his 7.0% walk rate was tied for 34th in baseball.
Perhaps surprisingly, this skill was dwarfed by his ability to strike batters out. His 9.2 strikeouts per nine was better than any of his individual seasons in Japan. He finished his NPB career by striking out 7.4 batters per nine, and struck out 7.6 in 2015.
Some of this uptick is the result of MLB hitters striking out more than their Japanese counterparts. In 2015, the average strikeout rate in the Central League was 7.1 batters per nine, compared to 8.1 in MLB in 2016. This is only part of the explanation, as Maeda’s strikeout rate was 0.3 standard deviations above the mean in 2015, while it was 0.7 standard deviations better last season.
Eno Sarris wrote about the changes in Maeda's pitch selection for FanGraphs in September, citing data from NPBTracker.com. Maeda told Sarris that because of differences between the actual baseballs in Japan and the U.S., he had “more movement on the two-seamer” and more break on his changeup (the seams are higher in the U.S.). The two-seamer only had a 4.5% swinging strike rate, but the changeup had a healthy 14.6% rate.
However, this doesn’t explain everything, as Maeda finished 12th in overall swinging strike rate (11.6%).
Sarris also found that the right-hander threw more two-seam fastballs and curveballs in America compared to Japan, though neither pitch was above average in terms of generating whiffs. He did pound the zone with his curveball despite batters not swinging at it, which produced strikes -- 38.1% of his curveballs went for strikes, the highest rate of any of the pitches he threw, per Brooks Baseball.
Maeda’s best pitch in terms of generating whiffs was his slider (21.3% swinging strike rate), which he threw often; only six pitchers threw a slider more often, per PITCHf/x data at FanGraphs.
His four-seam fastball was also above average in terms of getting whiffs (producing a 9.2% swinging strike rate, while the league average is around 7.0%), though he only threw the pitch around 30% of the time.
While it’s still not abundantly clear why the strikeout rate climbed last season, his swinging strike rates suggest this approach is sustainable, as whiff rates correlate strongly with strikeouts.
Balls in Play
Aside from Maeda's strong walk and strikeout rates, he also posted a better-than-average 1.02 home runs per nine. He actually did so despite posting a below average 43.9% ground-ball rate, relying on a 11.8% home run/fly-ball rate (HR/FB%) that was actually below the big league average of 12.8%.
He also allowed just a .283 BABIP, so it’s fair to expect some regression in 2017 given how much BABIP and HR/FB% are prone to variation. That said, a closer look suggests his good numbers in these areas last year were not just the product of luck.
Maeda allowed an 11.2% infield fly-ball rate last season, which was the 21st highest in baseball. Infield flies are the best type of contact to allow, as they are almost always outs. He also tied for 16th in soft contact rate and had the 13th-lowest hard-contact rate, according to FanGraphs. His average exit velocity was only 86.0 miles per hour, which tied for third among the 171 pitchers who allowed at least 200 balls in play, per Baseball Savant.
Based on exit velocity and launch angle data from StatCast, he “should have” allowed a BABIP of .293, according to XStats.org.
Whether or not he can continue to allow this kind of soft contact moving forward remains to be seen, but it at least suggests Maeda did not entirely fluke into his good results on balls in play.
Heading into last season as an unknown commodity, Maeda had an average draft position (ADP) of 185.48, according to NFBC, which meant he was getting selected in the 15th round of 12-team leagues. His ADP has currently increased to 103.17, putting him just ahead of Aaron Sanchez and reigning AL Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello. Is there enough evidence to support feeling comfortable spending a ninth-round pick on him?
There should be given the combination of the above factors, plus strong peripherals. Maeda should once again be one of baseball's better pitchers in 2017.