Every time we hear about a foreign player coming to MLB, one of the first things we wonder is whether or not his skill set will translate. I wouldn’t call it a crapshoot, but there have been so many different results regarding foreign players that it's basically impossible to accurately predict their production in the majors. For every Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki, there's also been a Kei Igawa and Norihiro Nakamura.
Kenta Maeda, a 28-year-old right-handed starting pitcher, became the latest to go under the microscope after signing an 8-year, $25-million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since emerging as one of the top NPB starters, Maeda has been heavily scouted by major league teams. Ben Badler of Baseball America (subscription required) wrote that scouts evaluated him as a MLB-ready no. 4 starter. Dayn Perry also saw Maeda as a mid-rotation guy.
He doesn't have an overpowering fastball or a knockout secondary pitch, but Maeda knows how to get hitters out by changing speeds and locations. With the amount of money the Dodgers committed, it looked like Maeda would be a good bang-for-buck pitcher as a no. 3/4 starter.
However, Maeda has exceeded expectations during his first month. In six starts, he's 3-1 with a 1.66 ERA and a 3.13 FIP. Sure, that low ERA is helped a lot by an unsustainable 91.5 percent LOB rate, but he’s been able to strike out a decent number of hitters (8.29 K/9) while limiting walks (2.37 BB/9). Overall, you could say that he's been ace-like.
It would be foolish to call the Dodgers' move a total success just based on the first month, but Maeda has shown a lot of promise so far. Looking at his numbers, besides the amount of runs he has allowed, Maeda has basically pitched just as he did in Japan. The table below shows his career stats starting from his breakout 2010 season in which he developed as a Hiroshima Carp ace and won the prestigious Sawamura Award. From 2010 to 2015 in NPB, Maeda was remarkably consistent:
There just isn't much variation throughout the years. As a Dodger, his stats are essentially the same, and actually better in some cases. This is a very welcome trend; he's showing the traits that he showed as a two-time Sawamura Award winner (2010, 2015), two-time strikeout king of Central League (2010, 2011), and three-time ERA leader (2010, 2012, 2013) in Japan.
I don't know how much we can bank on his current rates lasting throughout the season. Conventional wisdom is that MLB hitters are up a notch from NPB's, and the odds are that they will figure out to some extent how to attack Maeda. However, even though he doesn't have top-starter stuff, he's exhibited excellent command in the majors. He seems to have distinct plans against right and left-handed hitters and so far has executed well.
Versus RHH: .249 wOBA
Versus LHH: .223 wOBA
It's pretty straightforward: he's luring righties with breaking stuff outside and lefties with something offspeed and outside as well (probably a changeup, like this one). He's not a power pitcher a la Yu Darvish, but he can use his wiles to mix pitches to toy with hitters. Think Koji Uehara, another NPB guy who doesn't overpower anyone but mixes pitches to rack up a 10.34 K/9 rate in his MLB career while displaying superb command for a 1.34 BB/9. That's not to say that Maeda is the next Uehara, but there are reasons to believe that Maeda can succeed for years to come.