Kenta Maeda attracts Dodgers brass to bullpen session at camp
Andrew Friedman slipped behind a fleet of Dodgers coaches and players as he walked toward the far end of a 10-pack of bullpen mounds. He leaned against a chain-link fence, crossed his arms and gazed upon the most curious purchase of the Dodgers’ off-season: Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda.
In Maeda’s third bullpen session of the spring and his first since camp opened Saturday, Friedman traced his eyes from the pitcher to catcher Yasmani Grandal. When it comes to Maeda, each little moment matters while the organization decides upon a strategy to acclimate him to the rigors of the major leagues.
“Before we start putting pen to paper to come up with a plan, we want to spend this time during spring training to be around him, to get to know him, to get a better feel for his work habits,” Friedman said. “To help him come up with a plan between starts. To monitor how much he throws and how he recovers.”
The coming days will serve as an exploratory period for the player and the team. Friedman sipped a bottle of water, chomped sunflower seeds and chatted with his lieutenants while Maeda threw. Nearby stood pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and Manager Dave Roberts. Maeda leaned on his two-seam fastball during the 39-pitch session. He lost a couple sliders in the dirt. He flashed a changeup that impressed observers.
Maeda, 27, looms as a potential balm for the back end of the Dodgers rotation. But his arrival comes fraught with challenges, in addition to the usual ones that confront Japanese pitchers. Concerns about his physical condition add to the uncertainty.
The team honored his request, after it utilized the knowledge during negotiations. Thus the eight-year contract features only a $25-million guarantee. Maeda can receive more than $100 million across the life of the deal if he hits various incentives for games started and innings pitched.
The length of the contract mitigates some risk. The fate of the Dodgers season does not hinge upon Maeda, as the organization has assembled a raft of other arms behind him. But Maeda would add right-handed balance to a rotation that is predominantly left-handed.
“Mechanically, he’s very solid,” Honeycutt said. “Able to move the ball, control the baseball, make the ball do different things. He’s actually a good hitter. He’s an athlete.”
Maeda teamed with Hiroki Kuroda with the Hiroshima Carp last season, a serendipity that aids his current situation. Kuroda blazed a path toward the majors during a seven-year career that began in 2008 with the Dodgers. Maeda sought Kuroda’s counsel before arriving in the United States for this season.
In Japan, pitchers use a smaller baseball and pitch only once a week. When he came to America, Kuroda told Honeycutt he wanted to operate on the big league schedule, without concessions to his previous experience. Maeda has delivered a similar message to the Dodgers.
Maeda has also sought advice from pitchers Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka. Maeda downplayed the difficulty of the transition. Asked the biggest adjustment so far, he answered, “English.”
A few minutes after 10 a.m. Sunday, Maeda toed the rubber. Friedman arrived moments later. About three dozen foreign reporters gathered to document the event. Maeda peered down at Grandal and went to work.
“He starts his bullpen slow,” Grandal said. “He doesn’t seem like he doesn’t want to do too much with the ball, just get a feel for it. And all of a sudden, from pitch to pitch, he’ll just turn it up and get a ridiculous amount of control and movement on his ball.”
When the session ended, Maeda shook hands with Grandal. Together they walked toward Honeycutt, where a translator stood nearby. Maeda made a few suggestions to Grandal about how he likes certain pitches framed.
Grandal said he had never caught a Japanese pitcher. He did not believe basic communication would be an issue, but he admitted the more nuanced avenues of conversation could be closed. He did not worry about calling pitches for Maeda, but did wonder how he might pass along words of encouragement.
Maeda debuted with the Carp in 2008. The season began a few days shy of his 20th birthday. During the next eight seasons, he logged 1,509 2/3 innings. Across that timespan, only 13 pitchers threw that many innings in the majors.
The Japanese baseball system also prizes endurance, with pitchers making countless throws between innings and between games. The system has produced a mechanical marvel in Maeda, a man capable of repeating his delivery with ease and fielding his position with style.
“I know what he’s been through,” Honeycutt said. “But there’s nothing we can do about his past. All we can do is see how he responds to what we’re doing. If we have to make adjustments, we have to make adjustments.”
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