Kenta Maeda pitched in the WBC against Puerto Rico in San Francisco, which means we now have Pitch F/X data. In this post, I will look at some interesting things in the data, and compare it with his NPB Tracker data. Maeda is a 24 year old that has already made 135 starts in the NPB with a 3.48 kwERA. He has already racked up 940.2 innings in the NPB (not to mention the High School and Ni-Gun innings, often without pitch counts, and the extremely long bullpen sessions Japanese Pitchers go through). From best I can tell, since 2000, Felix Hernandez has racked up the most MLB innings before age 25 at 1154.2, nearly 200 more innings than anyone else. The other 3 that threw more than 900 innings were Jeremy Bonderman, C.C. Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw. While Felix has seen some rapid velocity loss, it is much too early to tell what that mileage has down to Kershaw or Sabathia (it would seem that Sabathia has aged very well through it), and Bonderman had some serious arm problems that cut his career short. Even compared to NPB standards, this is a lot of innings at a young age at the highest level, as if you look at all the 24 year old or younger pitchers in the Central League of the NPB, no one is even close to Maeda in NPB innings, with the closest being 571.1 innings. Just like in America, pitchers in the minors (Ni-Gun) in Japan pitch less innings than pitchers at the highest level. The Ni-Gun leader in innings in 2012 was 127.1 (with no one within 15 innings of him). Maeda hasn't thrown that few innings since I guess 2007 (when he didn't pitch in the NPB. I can't find Ni-Gun statistics for before 2008). In 2008, at age 20, he threw 40.1 innings in the Ni-Gun and then threw 109.2 innings in the NPB. By comparison, only 8 pitchers at age 20 since 2000 have thrown at least 100 innings in the Majors. So Maeda has shown he is an advanced pitcher for his age, but one that has a lot of miles on his arm already.
Every pitcher is unique, so no comparison is complete, perfect, or even that good, but comparisons, especially using Pitch F/X data, can give us a better picture of what kind of pitcher Maeda is, and extrapolating this out, can tell us whether he is a good MLB prospect (or more accurately judge the quality of the pitcher).
The MLBAM Tags have Maeda throwing 7 different pitches. By contrast, NPB Tracker has him throwing 5 different pitches (at least since the tags say he has quit throwing the cut fastball and forkball in 2011). The MLB AM tags have him throwing 7 cutters, and for some reason, have him throwing 1 "fastball" and 25 4-seam fastballs. He threw 1 2-seam fastball as well, which matches as the shutto in NPB Tracker. Ironically, he started throwing the 2-seamer more in 2012. Whether this is just classification problems, him just avoiding it this outings, or him going back away from it as any real part of his repertoire again, isn't really clear.
The ~89 MPH fastball (depending on which fastball you look at) is about what he has shown in Japan, as he averaged 89.89 MPH on his fastball (Kyle Kendrick is the closest comparison with right-handed starters) and 89.43 MPH on his "shutto" in 2012. The fastest pitch he threw against Puerto Rico was at 91.4 MPH, not a big jump, meaning even when he throws his hardest, he still only throws about an average fastball. He threw some version of the fastball (including the cutter) 34 times, or 42.5 % of the time. This matches up pretty well with his 2012 number (43.2 %). This seems like a low percentage of fastballs, and out of the 196 qualified starting pitchers since 2007, only about 9 of them have a lower fastball percentage. 2 of them are knuckleballers, and other than Freddy Garcia, the rest throw a high volume of cutter. Garcia is a really unique pitcher, but maybe Maeda provides a decent comparison, another guy that has a well below average fastball.
Maeda threw the slider 20 times (25% of the time), a pretty high volume. It saw a slight uptick in velocity from 2011 to 2012, but was slightly down at 79.51 MPH in his WBC outing. Obviously this slider is well below average in velocity, but Jered Weaver is actually the closest comparison velocity wise, and Maeda's gets better movement than Weaver's and Weaver's slider is a really successful slider in the Majors.
Maeda clearly releases his curveball higher than the rest of his pitches:
I separated by inning and saw it had nothing to do with inning by inning as it was pretty consistent. We see that many pitchers release their curveballs higher than the rest of their pitches, and that it isn't a big deal at all. However, this is about as significant of a difference as I have seen. With that said, he threw a stupid amount of strikes with the pitch, as
11 of the 12 were thrown for strikes. He only got one whiff, but 9 of
them were throw for strikes not in play (SNIPs, with league average being around 44 percent).
His curve is clearly a slow curve, averaging around 70 MPH in Japan and 70.91 MPH against Puerto Rico. There have really only been about 7 or 8 starting pitcher MLB curves that slow in the Majors since '07, and they haven't been that successful. However, his curve gets elite vertical drop, similar to Barry Zito and Ted Lilly's. Horizontally, it moved almost exactly like his slider, really elite for a slider, and good for a curveball. Speaking of Ted Lilly, Maeda's cutter moves horizontally like Lilly's, and has good vertical movement (better than Lilly's).
Looking at his release point further, that is a pretty low and out delivery for a starter (especially ignoring the curveballs). At 6-0, he obviously isn't very tall for a starting pitcher, and that definitely plays a role. Alexander Cobb and Erasmo Ramirez have similar vertical release points, but Cobb releases his closer to his body, while Ramirez releases the ball dramatically more out (Shawn Hill is also not a horrible comparison). Blake Hawksworth is a great comparison (5.66 to 5.62 vertically/ -2.31 to -2.33 horizontally. This is best picture I could find of him releasing the ball). Hawksworth is a hard thrower, with a fastball average of around 95 MPH, and although there isn't a large sample size of him in the Majors, he has pretty large platoon splits (though not horrifyingly so) when you look at defensive independent metrics.
The changeup looked like Maeda's best pitch at times, with some unconventional looking break, but it got him some really ugly looking whiffs. It averaged 82.16 MPH, just slightly under what he threw it in 2012. The pitch has a lot of spin, but it gets very little vertical movement, with similar vertical movement to Josh Tomlin and Mike Pelfrey, which is a mixed bag, as Pelfrey has a solid change, while Tomlin has a horrible change.
I found Harry Pavlidis' classifications interesting. He gives Maeda 3 extra sliders, but takes away some changeups and curveballs (and adds the two stray fastballs to his fastball and spreads the cutter out). This adds a little bit of vertical movement to Maeda's slider, but subtracts 3 times as much horizontal movement. Pavlidis' classifications make the fastball velocity versus the moving fastball (shutto/sinker) difference a little larger than the MLB AM tags or the NPB Tracker classifications. While the change and slider are almost exactly the same, the curveball gets a slight bump from the MLB AM tags and about a MPH and a half higher than his 2012 NPB Tracker curveball.
Maeda's vertical fastball (working with Pavlidis' classifications) movement is below average, closest to Chris Volstad (who you would think would have good vertical movement because he is a sinkerballer, but Sam Deduno and Justin Masterson have the smallest amount of vertical movement on their fastballs). What Pavlidis calls his sinker is also well below average in vertical movement, closest to Erasmo Ramirez, who didn't get many whiffs (9.86 %)with his in 2012, even compared to other sinkers.
When you look at his overall spin graph, you notice that his curve rotates more than most curves.
Most curves seem to be around the very bottom left of these graphs, no real spin, and no real rotation. The slider also, while having normal spin, has more rotation than you usually see as well. His fastballs also seem to get a little bit below average spin, but a lot of rotation.
Even with the low release point and lack of height mentioned above (many times short pitchers or low release point pitchers have problems keeping the ball low or "getting on top of the ball"), Maeda keeps the ball pretty low
It is hard to see a real trend armside or gloveside, other than the fact that he missed badly armside so many times (he was really struggling with his grip of the baseball, as you could tell while watching the game). I think it is clear that this was not intentional. The thing I really noticed though is that he was not trying to make anyone whiff on high fastballs. If you look at his last start of 2012 (140 pitches!), the same theme plays out, a lot of middle/low, and a lot of armside pitches (we could go through and input his whole season, but that would take a while, this illustrates the point well enough):
When you look at Pitch selection, the first thing that stuck out to me is that he didn't throw a single changeup to right-handed hitters. It is clearly a platoon disadvantage pitch that he tries to use to get lefties out and limit his platoon splits. No matter the count (but especially with two strikes), he threw a ton of sliders to right-handers. He threw this pitch mainly away from righties, but threw it for strikes most of the time, and it wasn't a pitch he buried. That the slider works like this showed against lefties, when the only time he really threw it frequently was when the batter was ahead. He knows he can throw strikes with it, so in this sense it is a pretty unconventional slider. Out of the 7 pitches he threw with a full count, 5 of them were sliders (6 of the 10 pitches he threw with 3 balls were sliders). He didn't throw hardly any moving fastballs/sinkers against righties, saving it for early in counts to lefties. Of course, it needs to be noted again that this is just one start, so this is definitely a small sample size and could be misleading. It does seem that he wanted to keep the ball way, no matter what platoon the batter was:
If we assume that the ball isn't just slipping out of his hand against lefties and his location is on purpose, than it is an awareness by Maeda that he doesn't have overpowering stuff. What you wouldn't want to see, if you were a MLB team interested in Maeda, is to see him with below average stuff (or at least a below average fastball) succeeding because he is just challenging inferior hitters. Instead, it looks like he is just keeping the ball away from them, keeping them off balance with either the slider or the change (depending on platoon) and mixing in the fastball every once in a while.
This may just be small sample size noise, but the fastballs and the curveball Maeda threw with 2 strikes were harder than the pitches in previous counts, which would seem to mean he has the ability to ramp it up a little when he is getting close to a strikeout. This can be good for strikeouts, but seemingly bad for health reasons.
Reports indicate that scouts view Maeda as a back of the rotation piece and that he probably won't be posted after the 2013 season. This is not a Hyun-Jin Ryu situation (to make a lazy comparison) when looking at a young pitcher with a lot of innings. Maeda is not nearly as big as Ryu, and one would think at least, that he would be less able to withstand such a workload than Ryu. The high volume of sliders is also really concerning when it comes to Maeda's arm. There are a lot of health concerns with Maeda, at least going forward.
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.
In conclusion, while you can point to several teams that are planning on using worse starters than Maeda in the Majors, his profile seems to fit more as a reliever to me, just like, you could argue, Freddy Garcia's does at this point in his career. The MLB is dominated by fastball starters, and that is clearly not what Maeda is.