Maeda learns to change

Kenta Maeda
Kenta Maeda speaks to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, in Glendale, Arizona.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda spoke about what his three years in the big leagues have taught him about baseballs, climate and the honesty one experiences from American crowds.

Time for a change

Last year was a step forward in some ways for Maeda. After attacking the strike zone more in relief at the end of the 2017 season, 2018 brought the good news that his strikeouts overall were on the rise. The bad news was that the circle change he brought with him from Japan had become a non-factor in the majors and left-handed-hitters were killing him.

“The problem was left-handed hitters,” he said. “My old changeup was a circle change. It was a pitch to get contact, off-balance swings for easy outs. It worked in Japan because a lot of batters have big leg kicks. It was easy for me to get them to flail at pitches out in front. There are few batters in the majors who have that. They have better balance, and that pitch wasn’t working.”

He said he turned to split-fingered fastball grip that allowed the ball to drop a lot more and get misses from left-handed hitters trying to drive the ball — a huge adjustment every Japanese pitcher faces in America, where the Japanese slap-hitting subclass of (largely) left-handed hitters doesn’t really exist.

“In Japan, so many guys aren’t trying to drive the ball. They’re trying to slap it through a hole, hit it on the ground. But those kinds of hits are no big deal. It takes four to score a run. Here pretty much everyone is trying to hurt you from No. 1 to No. 8,” said Maeda, omitting the fact that he once surrendered two home runs in a game to Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

No country for slow fastballs

Like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka, Maeda was a pitcher in danger of not really having a four-seam fastball after he moved to the majors. He said a lot of his countrymen have to come to grips with the fact that no matter how slow their best fastball is, it is better than no fastball at all.

“I think that’s because the guys who come here are fast by Japanese standards, but (their velocities are) just average here, throwing 93 to 94 miles (150 to 151 kilometers) per hour, and they think therefore that those pitches are going to get hit,” Maeda said. “They think that especially before they come.”

“But once they get here, we eventually learn that no one is going to hit them just because their fastball is not as fast as other pitchers’.”

He said he also fell into the new trap among Japanese pitchers, who believe that in order to succeed in America one needs to have a two-seam fastball.

“We have an exaggerated belief that American pitching equals throwing that (two-seam) moving fastball. I thought I would have to have one, so I tried and tried, but could never throw it well enough.”

Climate change

And though his slider has proven to be a quality pitch for him in the States as much as it had been in Japan. Maeda had to learn how to trust himself and ignore the evidence when he first arrived in Arizona.

“Everyone told me before I got here, ‘You won’t be able to make your slider move in Arizona, so don’t worry about it,” he said. “And I couldn’t and that was the one thing that really puzzled me in my first spring training.”

“But I was really confident in the quality of my slider and since they weren’t getting away from me, and they were breaking a bit, I was able to move forward. When I got to Los Angeles it was normal. Since then, I don’t let that bother me.”

Not ready for prime time

He also came in supremely confident he could get batters out with the major league ball and pitch well here based on his experience in the World Baseball Classic in 2013, when he was named to the all-tournament team.

“That was false confidence on my part,” he said. “I felt really good coming here, because of the WBC. I’d used the ball, I’d gotten batters out. But what I didn’t realize was that the WBC is an anomaly. The opposing hitters were not ready for baseball to the degree we were in Japan (where spring camp starts on Feb. 1). That was kind of a shock.”

Read my Kyodo News interview HERE.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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