2014 Statistics (in Japan): 187 IP, 2.60 ERA, 22% K%, 5% BB%,
2015 Age: 27
Position: Right-handed starter
The Yankees starting rotation depth chart is looking pretty thin at the moment. The possible departures of Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy, along with flimsy health records of Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia leave the team with a real lack of reliable arms to fill out their rotation. As a result, Brian Cashman and co. seem likely to add a starting pitcher or two or three before it's all said and done. Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields headline this year's crop of free agent starters, but there's a much less recognizable name out there that could also be on the market: Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda. The Hiroshima Carp have yet to announce whether or not they will post the 26-year-old this winter, but if they do, Maeda could be a good fit for the Yankees. The Bombers have obviously had recent success in the Japanese pitching market with Masahiro Tanaka, so perhaps they'll be willing to try their luck with this winter's top Japanese export. To be perfectly clear, Maeda isn't Tanaka. Neither his stuff nor his statistical track record from Japan match what Tanaka offered, but that's not to say he can't be a useful mid-rotation starter. Ben Badler of Baseball America (subscription required) had some encouraging things to say about Maeda's repertoire:
Maeda’s velocity was impressive, ranging from 90-94 mph and hitting 94 four times. In previous outings, he’s thrown anywhere from 87-94 mph, but he didn’t throw a fastball below 90 today and he spotted it well. Maeda pitched mostly off his four-seamer, though he mixed in a handful of two-seam fastballs with a little more armside run, too. His go-to secondary weapon is his 80-84 mph slider, which batters swung through eight of the 33 times he threw the pitch. It’s a slightly-above average offering with tight spin and quick, late break, though he’s prone to hanging the pitch and got away with some mistakes today. Maeda threw an 85-86 mph changeup that flashed average with good tailing action that he used mostly against lefthanded hitters, with 15 of his 16 changeups coming against lefties.
Let's dive into some PITCHf/x data to find some current big leaguers who have similar stuff. A total of eight right-handed pitchers threw at least 100 innings last year and met those pitch selection and velocity criteria. Most of them put up numbers that suggest their true-talent ERA is somewhere in the high 3's.
|Rubby De la Rosa||17%||8%||46%||4.43||4.30||4.21|
Now let's take a look at how Maeda's numbers from Japan might translate to the MLB. In his age 26 season, Maeda pitched to a 2.60 ERA in Japan, which was among the best in the Japan Central League. Maeda struck out 22% of opposing batters, while walking 5%, and allowing just 12 homers over 187 innings. Here's how K%, BB%, and HR% have translated for the nine starting pitchers who have made the transition from Japan since 2007:
MLB K% = Japan K% - 2.2%
MLB BB% = Japan BB% + 3.6%
MLB HR% = Japan K% + 1.2%
Applying these transformations to Maeda's numbers gives us a pitcher who strikes out 19% of opposing hitters, walks 9%, and allows a homer 3% of the time. Here are a few MLB pitchers who came close to meeting those statistical criteria in 2014.
|Jorge De la Rosa||18%||9%||3%||4.10||4.34||4.05|
By both of these analyses, Maeda looks like a steady, mid-rotation starter, who'll put up an ERA around 4.00. While not nearly as exciting as a Scherzer or Lester, an arm like that is still worth two or three WAR over a full season of games, and would fit very nicely in the Yankees starting rotation.
Going after Maeda would also make some economic sense for the Yankees, as they'd eschew the 50% Competitive Balance Tax on a chunk of the cash given to Maeda. By the CBT, the Yankees are required to pay an extra fifty cents on every dollar of payroll over the $189M threshold -- a mark they'll certainly blow past this winter. However, the CBT doesn't apply to posting fees, so any Maeda deal would effectively be taxed at ~42%, while a contract given to a domestic free agent would be taxed at the full 50%.
Plenty of clubs figure to start vying for Maeda's services if his posting starts to look like more of a certainty, especially after seeing Masahiro Tanaka's successful transition to American Baseball. Time will tell if Maeda will be available, and how aggressively the Yankees will pursue this year's high-profile Japanese arm. But the Bombers clearly need some quality rotation pieces, and Maeda fits that bill.