Judging by his Instagram account, if there’s three things Kenta Maeda likes, it’s his dog, golf, and t-shirts with himself on it. While Maeda has been enjoying his offseason playing what appears to be his second favorite sport, it’s almost time for the ball-thrower to produce his sophomore offering (and hopefully premiere his new glove, which has a small dog embroidered on it.)
Two days before Ross Stripling’s controversial MLB debut, Kenta Maeda unleashed his premiere performance. Throwing 6 shutout innings, walking no one, smacking a home run to left, and performing the greatest dance move ever, Maeda produced a memorable outing.
In the second half of his rookie season, Maeda started to show signs of wear and tear. He put up a 4.25 ERA (first half 2.95 ERA) batters slugged .399 against him (first half .330 SLG) along with marginally more home runs per 9 (0.87/1.25) and marginally less strikeouts per 9 (9.29/9.00). He also didn’t hit any more home runs.
This decline in performance can probably be attributed mostly to cultural differences in the sport between Japan and the US. Maeda spent six years as a starting pitcher for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the NPB, which is plenty of time to get used to having a full week’s rest in between starts. It’s easy to imagine that the adjustment to the American five day rest cycle could eventually start to catch up with someone. Kenta’s pre-signing physical was also said to have ‘red flags’ and ‘irregularities,’ so perhaps his red flags began to wave toward the end of the season, I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.
The difference between First Half Kenta and Second Half Kenta, while notable, isn’t exactly astronomical. His newly acquired workload probably accounts for most–if not all–of his decline. While the second half displayed a tarnished version of the pitcher, nowhere did he seem less like himself than the postseason. Through his three starts he doubled his regular season ERA and cut his regular season K/BB in half.
There was a lot of talk about Maeda being burnt out by the time the postseason came around, but his performance is disproportionately worse than his established rate of decline suggests it should’ve been. It seems feasible that this is more of a matter of situation than it is of his apparent deterioration.
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp have just come off a 25 year playoff drought that covered the entirety of Maeda’s tenure, making the 2016 MLB postseason his first bout of playoff experience. While the average Carp game puts about 30,000 bums in the seats, the 2016 NLCS Game 5 sat about 55,000. That’s about 25,000 extra people to breath down Maeda’s neck, and 50,000 extra eyeballs to watch his every move. Needless to say that’s a lot of pressure, and if there’s one thing Kenta Maeda doesn’t like, it’s pressure. During the regular season he’s done consistently worse with men on base and in scoring position, walking more, striking less out, and giving up more home runs. High leverage situations show the same trends, giving up twice as many HR/9 (1.21/3.68) and shaving 10% off his strikeout percentage.
October is essentially a month-long high leverage situation, perhaps one that Maeda is not quite ready to thrive in just yet. Dodger fans didn’t get exactly what they hoped for out of their new second spot man, but three starts is a small sample size to look at. We know we’re going to see more of Kenta Maeda in the postseason, and hopefully he can make whatever adjustments it is he needs to make to perform in October.