Tag Archives: Kenta Maeda

Best 10 of the 2010s

I know one’s supposed to do these things before 2020, but Ione of the things about New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is that the trains run all night, and I was on the train, so it seemed like an optimal time. So here are my top 10 Japanese baseball stories of the past 10 years in chronological order.

2013: It’s the ball stupid

Six weeks into the 2013 season and everyone noticed it. Home runs were jumping and the players union, worrying about pitchers failing to collect on their incentives, asked what was going on. Commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “Nothing. The ball is the same uniform ball we introduced in 2011.”

His disloyal lieutenant, Atsushi Ihara, stood there and let his boss tell that knowing full well that he had conspired with the Mizuno Corporation to introduce a livelier ball without the commissioner’s consent or knowledge. Ihara, one of four people involved, came from the Yomiuri Shimbun — owner of Japan’s most influential team and the leading opponent of the commissioner — whose new ball cut home runs and who had introduced a third-party panel to adjudicate player arbitration cases.

So Ihara let his boss hang himself in public. And then later came clean that he and his immediate superior, who was not a Yomiuri guy, had switched out the balls. Ihara’s boss was fired, the commissioner was ousted and Ihara, the fox, was put in charge of the henhouse.

2013: Masahiro Tanaka, Senichi Hoshino and the Eagles

Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and didn’t lose all year until Game 6 of the Japan Series. After that complete game, he earned the save in Game 7 as the city of Sendai — struck by a killer earthquake and tsunami two years earlier — won its first Japan Series.

Manager Senichi Hoshino, who had lost his three previous Japan Series as manager of the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he lost interest after winning the Central League pennant because his mission in life had been to beat the league-rival Giants. But in 2013, as Pacific League champions with NPB’s newest franchise, he faced the Giants and beat them in seven.

2014-2016: Tetsuto Yamada

From July 2014 through July 2016, the Yakult Swallows second baseman may have been the best player on the planet. He wasn’t a very good fielder in 2014 but took steps forward the next year when he was the CL MVP and led the consistently bad Swallows to the pennant.

His 2015 season was the 10th best in NPB history as measured by win shares and adjusted for era. His run came to a screeching halt in August 2016, when he was on his way to an even better season, but was hit in the back by a pitch that threw him off his game for nearly two seasons. Because of his stellar 2016 start, he became the first player in NPB history to record multiple seasons with a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals — even though he was an offensive zero the last two months of the season.

2015-2016: Giants stung by gambling scandal

Toward the end of the 2015 season, three Yomiuri Giants minor league pitchers were found guilty of betting on baseball — including games by their own team, although not in games they played in. The following March, a fourth pitcher, Kyosuke Takagi, revealed he, too, had been betting on games.

The first three players were all given indefinite suspensions and fired. In March 2016, Kyosuke Takagi also admitted to gambling. The only pitcher of the four of any quality, Takagi was let back into the game after a one-year suspension, following a recent pattern in which athletes who break the rules in Japan receive punishment inversely proportionate to how successful they are as competitors.

2016: Shohei Ohtani

If Yamada was the best for a 25-month span, 2016 cemented Ohtani’s place as the most intriguing player in the world. Ohtani had his first “Babe Ruth season” in 2014 with 10-plus wins and 10-plus home runs, but 2016, when he often batted as the pitcher in games when his manager could have used the DH was magical.

That summer, the Tokyo Sports Kisha Club, which organizes the voting for Japan’s postseason awards, made a rule change that allowed writers to cast Best Nine votes for the same player at multiple positions — provided one was a pitcher. The Ohtani rule allowed him to be win two Best Nine Awards, as the Pacific League’s best pitcher and best designated hitter.

His signature game came against the SoftBank Hawks — the team his Fighters came from behind to beat in the pennant race. Ohtani threw eight scoreless innings, opened the game with a leadoff homer and scored Nippon Ham’s other run in a 2-0 victory. Although he rolled his ankle running the bases in the Japan Series, he capped his year batting for Japan by hitting a ball into the ceiling panels at Tokyo Dome in November’s international series.

2016: Hiroshima Carp end their drought

In 2015, Hiroki Kuroda returned from the major leagues and even without Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, the Carp’s young talented core snapped a 24-year drought, winning their first CL title since 1991.

The Carp went on to win three-straight CL championships, the longest streak in club history. When the club failed to win its fourth straight pennant and finished out of the postseason in 2019, manager Koichi Ogata resigned.

2019: Ichiro Suzuki retires in Japan

The only better script would have been for Suzuki to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for another MVP and a World Series championship.

2010-2019: The CL status as a 2nd-class league is confirmed

The PL won nine Japan Series in the decade, the only time either league had ever done that. It equaled the best 10-year stretch by either league—when the Yomiuri Giants won nine straight from 1965 to 1973 bookended by PL titles.

2010-2019: The SoftBank Hawks

Never mind that the Hawks opened the decade by losing the playoffs’ final stage for the 4th time in 7 years to the third-place Lotte Marines. Softbank’s six Japan Series titles from 2011 t0 2019 under two different managers made them the team of the decade.

2019: The Giants discover the posting system

In November 2019, Shun Yamaguchi was posted by the Yomiuri Giants, who along with the Hawks have been the most critical of NPB’s posting agreement with MLB. When approached for comment about the impending news, the Giants’ official response was “that’s a rumor” and “speculation.”

Eight days later it was a done deal. Then followed the fun stuff as first one executive said it was a “one-off deal” and that the team had not changed its policy, having been obligated by contract to post Yamaguchi, which is pretty dumb, since the Giants agreed to that contract in the first place when they took him on as a free agent three years before.

The move makes it virtually impossible that the club will be able to keep ace and two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano much longer and not post him.

One happy camper

Billy Eppler

It’s been a while since my last post. I just came back from spring training in the Cactus League, the highlight of which was probably my interview with Los Angeles Angels General Manager Billy Eppler.

I listened in as Shohei Ohtani spoke to the media on Saturday, March 2, but it was fairly routine: “How many balls did you hit off the tee today? How many in toss batting?” So when speaking with Eppler I stayed away from the question everybody wants answered, “When is Shohei coming back?” and focused on other things.

Chat with the Angels GM

Below is part of my Q&A with Eppler that didn’t make it into the Kyodo News story HERE.

–Is he unique because he’s unique or because baseball has said it can’t be done?

 “I would think there’s a blending of both of those. However, you have to be blessed with the talent on both sides, the ability to work efficiently because you’re not going to have the same time that everybody else is going to have. So raw athleticism, size, speed, strength, efficiency in your work, discipline, those things are unique to him. So probably the majority goes to his uniqueness, I could arbitrarily throw out something like 70 percent is due to him and 30 percent to the other, but that’s cocktail napkin math. A lot of it is his uniqueness.”

–how much did his work habits play into your approach to acquire him?

     “We were mindful of that. We understood that. We tried to present that Southern California is a good place to be baseball obsessed. The weather cooperates.”

–How many guys are trying to be two-way players now?

“We have four in our organization. We drafted one in the fourth round, we drafted him as a two-way player. He went out and just hit and was doing his bullpen work on the side. He hadn’t done a ton of functional weight training so we wanted to make sure his strength was up.”

“Of those four, five including Shohei, two of those five are starters and three are trying to be relievers.”

Thanks for the help

In addition to Eppler, I want to thank all those people who took time out from their busy schedules to chat: Pitchers Jay Jackson, Matt Carasiti, Tony Barnette, Kenta Maeda, Yoshihisa Hirano, former NPB players Matt Murton, Terrmel Sledge, Jim Marshall, Torey Lovullo, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima. Two Angels players, Kaleb Cowart and Albert Pujols, also shared their time.

I also want to thank the media relations staff of the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Angels and MLB. Because of their help, I was able to make good use of my time. A shoutout also to my Kyodo News colleagues in New York and Arizona for their input and assistance.

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.

Your new pitcher Yusei Kikuchi

Who is Yusei Kikuchi?

The 27-year-old lefty tried to move to the States in 2009, when he was a senior at Hanamaki Higashi High School, in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture–graduating just before Shohei Ohtani entered as a freshman. The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions won his negotiating rights in a draft-day lottery when half of NPB’s 12 teams selected him as their first-round choice.

Kikuchi signed with Seibu, announcing his decision in a tearful press conference. Many in NPB have spoken in whispers about how the Lions strong-armed the youngster into staying in Japan.

“…he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”

The day before his posting, he appeared back in Hanamaki with two of his teammates to participate in an event, where he spoke of his upcoming challenge.

“I’m not going to be on an emotional roller coaster,” Kikuchi said about the posting according to Nikkan Sports. “The negotiating period is 30 days and a lot of unexpected things are likely to happen I suppose, so I’m going to train and prepare so that I can produce next season.”

When he first turned pro, Kikuchi’s first year was more or less wiped out by injury and he had an up-and-down NPB apprenticeship that largely consisted of managing shoulder stiffness and inflammation with one detour for elbow discomfort. Despite all that, he’s become one of NPB’s top pitchers–it just took him a little longer to get there.

What scouts say

In a poll I conducted this past year of major league scouts who cover NPB, Kikuchi was rated the fifth-best prospect of any player in Japan–including those who are not yet eligible to leave.

“He’s a left-handed power arm. What’s not to like about him? He’s developed control of his offspeed pitches and he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”

“Even in Japan, Kenta Maeda threw mostly sliders, and major league teams want to see more confidence in the fastball.”

“He used to always be missing something. He used to have a lot of things going on. He had a reputation as being injury-prone. But his body is a lot larger now (100 kg). He’s now confident in what he does. He appears more mature.”

To a man, the scouts see Kikuchi as a valuable middle-rotation starting pitcher.

Pitches

Overall: Kikuchi is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. He got swinging strikes on 12.2 percent of his pitches this year, fourth-most among pitchers throwing 90-plus innings. Hitters made below-average contact on his pitches in the zone, but he was No. 1 in terms of least contact out of the zone and well above average in getting batters to chase.

Fastball: Averaged 147.3 KPH this year. Kikuchi threw it about 49 percent of the time and got swinging strikes 9.6 percent of the time, the third-highest figure of pitchers throwing 1,000-plus fastballs this year. In 2017, it was arguably the best fastball in NPB.

Slider: Since the start of his pro career, the slider has gradually become Kikuchi’s big pitch, and is easily the best slider thrown by an NPB starting pitcher. This past year, 35 percent of Kikuchi’s pitches were sliders, the highest figure for anyone who threw 2,000-plus pitches. He locates it extremely well and got swinging strikes on 17.0 percent of his sliders – a shade behind the 17.1 posted by four-time PL strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who lacks Kikuchi’s location.

Curve: Kikuchi’s No. 2 secondary pitch, thrown about 10 percent of the time. It’s not a great pitch, but like a lot of Japanese pitchers, he’ll throw it for strikes to get ahead in counts a few times in a game.

Change: Used about 5 percent of the time and it has been effective in limited applications. It’s a chase pitch, generally not thrown for strikes.

Others: A few of his pitches in 2017 were labeled splitters, and a few this past season were designated as two-seamers–depending on who you ask. It’s not unusual in Japan for MLB-bound players to play around with two-seamers. Kikuchi might also have tried it in 2017 when Seibu’s mound was reportedly made harder.

Where is he now?

In 2017, everything came together for Kikuchi. He was healthy the entire year, and was dominating the league, umpires flagged Kikuchi for his double-leg-pump pitching motion in August. It didn’t seem to bother him though, as he allowed just three runs over his last six starts of the season, (including one in the postseason) striking out 57 batters in 49 innings. He was named the PL’s pitcher of the month for September and October.

“I hated it that anyone might say I was getting people out because of that (illegal) delivery,” he said after winning the monthly honor.

This past May, Kikuchi dealt with a shoulder issue diagnosed as “degradation” of the shoulder that delayed recovery after his starts. He was deactivated from May 6 to June 1.

“It’s a concern of course,” one scout said about Kikuchi’s health and less-dominant results this year. “That’s where we scouts come in to see what he actually is doing.”

Another scout said, “Let’s see, he’s a lefty with great command of his slider who throws 92 miles per hour and throws strikes. I think somebody will be interested.”

Expectations

The injury issue is a question mark because he will be throwing a different ball from harder mounds that put more stress on the knees than the somewhat softer NPB mounds he’s used to. He’s been hurt in the spring, and he’s going to go through a spring training that is quite different from what he’s used to.

The less-intense but everyday workouts force new Japanese players to question whether they are getting enough work in or whether they will be ready when preseason games start a week after the start of camp instead of having a month before they start.

Kikuchi has become a strike-thrower and is more confident and mature than the pitcher who started a game after feeling a tinge from an old shoulder injury and didn’t tell anyone until it began to hurt during the game.

History

His first pro season was limited to two minor league games due to pain in his left shoulder. He was sent back to the farm after 11 days when he couldn’t crack the starting rotation. He was brought up for spot starts throughout the 2011 season, spending the last 1-1/2 months on the first team.

2012 was a big step forward despite not making his first start until July 1. He started all 17 of his games, going 9-4 with three shutouts over 108 innings, but shoulder inflammation caused him to miss two weeks from July 13 only to be deactivated seven days later when the problem was diagnosed. He finished the season on the farm, pitching as part of his rehab. His 2013 season was a similar story, going back to the farm to deal with shoulder discomfort on Aug. 8 and finishing the season in the minors pitching in rehab games.

Kikuchi didn’t start the 2015 season with the first team after suffering left elbow inflammation in camp as he was trying to iron out his mechanics.

On June 23, 2016, Kikuchi felt pain when he threw hard in his right oblique muscles. He returned on Aug. 5 and finished the year with the first team for just the second time in five seasons and with the exception of some shoulder fatigue, this spring has been fairly fit.

Activation / deactivation history

Figures in green represent Opening Day.

Activated Deactivated Reason
  3/18/2010 Shoulder pain
9/23/2010 End of 2010 season  
4/10/2011 4/21/2011  
6/12/2011 6/13/2011  
6/30/2011 7/1/2011  
8/11/2011 8/19/2011  
8/31/2011 10/19/2011 Postseason
10/29/2011 End of 2011 season  
  3/28/2012 Poor form
7/1/2012 7/27/2012 All-Star break
8/8/2012  End of 2012 season  
3/27/2013 7/13/2013  
7/30/2013 8/7/2013 Shoulder inflammation
3/26/2014 7/24/2014  
8/6/2014  End of 2014 season  
  3/25/2015 Elbow discomfort
4/28/2015  End of 2015 season  
3/23/2016 6/23/2016 Right oblique muscle
8/5/2016  End of 2016 season  
3/29/2017 7/8/2017 All-Star break
7/21/2017 10/4/2017 Postseason
10/14/2017  End of 2017 season  
3/29/2018 5/6/2018 Shoulder stiffness
6/1/2018 7/9/2018 All-Star break
7/29/2018 10/3/2018 Postseason
10/17/2018  End of 2018 season  

Notes: NPB teams often deactivate starting pitchers around the all-star break and prior to the postseason, since there are no limits on roster moves other than the 10-day period it takes to reactivate a player.