Dodgers Starting Rotation: Kenta Maeda Making Early Impact

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(Photo Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

Without a doubt, the hottest topic among Dodgers fans everywhere this spring has been the state of the starting pitching rotation. While several injuries are already preventing numerous starters from being in uniform on Opening Day, the signing of Japanese righty Kenta Maeda this offseason is beginning to appear brilliant.

The rumor around baseball is that the irregularities in his physical examination drove down the price tag of his contract, as made apparent by the Dodgers and Maeda’s representation never officially releasing a statement. Regardless, if he stays healthy and resembles a little of what he’s shown so far this spring, the eight-year deal worth a guaranteed $25 million may begin to pay dividends early.

Upon joining the Dodgers in December, early expectations from team management and scouting pundits were that Maeda had the ceiling of a back end rotation guy — an innings eater type with the potential to fill the four or five slot. Now, with Brett Anderson out three to five months after back surgery, and Hyun-jin Ryu not expected back until at least May, any offerings resembling a No. 2 or even a No. 3 starter would truly be welcomed.

So far in camp, Maeda seems to be adjusting to pitching in his new country nicely. Making his third Cactus League start Tuesday against the White Sox, he tossed 3-2/3 innings, allowing two runs (neither earned) while striking out three and walking two.

Overall this spring, Maeda has thrown 8-2/3 innings over three starts, allowing seven hits, four walks and no earned runs, having struck out eight batters.

His walk and hits total may seem a bit high, but Maeda says he’s still getting a feel for the strike zone.

“There were times when I threw pitches on the corner that I wanted strikes on but were called balls,” Maeda told Kyodo of The Japan Times.

“Had I got them, I would have had more strikeouts. I think I’m going to have to establish my reputation among the umpires as a pitcher with good control,” he added.

“I’m still throwing some fat pitches, but I was able to get some strikeouts, so it was a learning experience. Next time I want to do a good job while increasing my innings and pitch count and not walking batters.”

For those unable to watch Maeda throw on television or video, his pitching motion is almost identical to Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners. It’s almost reminiscent of the delivery of Dodger legend Hideo Nomo, minus the hip twist. Here’s an example of Maeda tossing a breaking pitch:

As for his repertoire of pitches, he’s no Zack Greinke, but he’s shown four different types of pitches this spring. His fastball has been clocked in the 90-91 MPH range, while his slowest curveball came in at 70 MPH. His changeup and slider are almost indistinguishable on the gun at 80-81 MPH, which will play especially well against right-handed batters.

Maeda is also rumored to be working on a “front door” slider, which he learned from fellow countryman Hiroki Kuroda — a pitch designed to break late and tail back inside towards right-handed hitters.

Battery mate A.J. Ellis has been impressed with what he’s seen from Maeda thus far in camp.

“He made big pitches when he had to,” Ellis told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. “He did a great job. He’s fun to catch because he can do so many different things. His fastball up in the zone can really be enticing.”

In terms of culture, the language barrier and trying to live up to the fine careers of the Japanese legends who came before him, manager Dave Roberts said Maeda will have no problem adjusting.

“He’s going to fit in nicely,” Roberts said. “All we want is him to be himself. He can’t be Hideo or Kuroda or Kazuhisa.”

If spring training is any type of indication, Maeda will be just fine.

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