Poised on the mound, his face first expressionless, then strained with effort, throwing strike after strike.
That's how Twins fans have come to know Kenta Maeda, who came to the Twins from the Dodgers just before the pandemic delayed and shortened the 2020 season. Maeda made an impression in his first year in Minnesota, and his 6-1 record and 2.70 ERA garnered him second place in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
But to understand Maeda as just a talented baseball player is to see just one tile within a mosaic.
"The more and more you're around him, the more and more you're intrigued by the person he is," catcher Ryan Jeffers said. "You don't really realize how much of a celebrity he is in Japan. He's at levels of actors, actresses in America. … He's such a cool person."
It's hard to equate Maeda's fame in his home country — he was born in Osaka before beginning his Nippon Professional Baseball career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp at age 19 — to anything many Americans would understand. And that's because Maeda, 32, stands apart from other famous Japanese athletes.
While most are private and prefer to keep their public lives strictly focused on their sport, Maeda invites fans behind the scenes — maybe even more so since he came to America to play for the Dodgers in 2016.
He started his own YouTube channel, where more than 336,000 subscribers follow his vlogs where he does everything from playing baseball-themed video games to discussing his pregame routine. That's also where he shared the story of fellow Twins pitcher Taylor Rogers writing him a card with a coupon for a nice bag of Japanese rice — athletic trainer Masa Abe steered Rogers away from alcohol since Maeda doesn't drink — as a way of apologizing for not saving Maeda the victory after he struck out eight batters in a row while carrying a no-hitter into the ninth inning against Milwaukee last August.
"Since coming overseas to the United States, there's less chance of me getting involved with the Japanese media compared to my days back in Japan," Maeda said through an interpreter. "YouTube is a good format to engage with fans, especially young kids growing up to play baseball."
The humor translates
Maeda left Japan before the 2016 season to sign an eight-year, complicated and incentive-based contract with the Dodgers, who paid Hiroshima a $20 million posting fee. He was 47-35 with a 3.87 ERA in four seasons before the Twins acquired him, sending Los Angeles prized pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol.
Used throughout his last two seasons in California more frequently as a reliever, he embraced the Twins' belief that he was a full-time starter and rewarded them with a season in which he finished behind only Cleveland's Shane Bieber in Cy Young voting.
For non-Japanese speaking fans of the Dodgers, Maeda gained some notoriety for his practical jokes that usually involved scaring or tricking his former translator. In a news conference this spring after he took batting practice in preparation for his Opening Day start at Milwaukee, Maeda wanted to make sure everyone knew he "hit one straight, directly to the center field wall."
Or as Randy Dobnak put it: "Kenta rakes."
"He's a goofy guy," Dobnak added. "He likes to joke around a lot and have a good time. … He's a funny guy. Fun to be around."
“It goes beyond the language. He can communicate with Latin guys who don't really speak English [either], so I don't know what language they're using to communicate. But they're getting along, and I think that just has to do with the people side of Kenta”
Anyone in Japan during the MLB offseason has a high probability of turning on the TV and seeing Maeda. And it's usually only tangentially related to baseball.
Like this past winter when MaeKen, as Japanese fans nicknamed him, homered at the Tokyo Dome on a baseball game show. Or when he provided commentary for "Terrace House," a Japanese reality show sort of akin to "The Real World." Or when he appeared on "Ame Talk," a Japanese talk show that gathers comedians to discuss a certain theme, and drew a hilarious rendering of a penguin.
The topic of that episode was "bad art," for which Maeda is infamous. His hand-drawn, childlike sketches printed on T-shirts, caps and sweatshirts often sell out on his online store.
Maeda's also known for his "MaeKen Taisou," a fairly bizarre-looking stretch where he windmills his semi-bent arms around as if he were repeatedly banging a drum.
Dai Sekizaki, Maeda's interpreter, said all of that makes Maeda relatable to his fans.
"When they think of athletes, they're on another level," Sekizaki said. "But the fact that Kenta, he is a human after all. He laughs. He jokes around. He draws, which isn't very good. But he gained his popularity outside of baseball."
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has even noticed Maeda's many talents, and is the proud owner of a sweatshirt with one of Maeda's drawings.
"He's not afraid to get out there and have fun," Baldelli said. "… Other people could do things away from the field, and it becomes too much for them, and they get distracted. That's not Kenta. Kenta remains focused on his objectives, and he's excellent at carrying through on a plan, whether that be in the season or the offseason.
"I've kind of found him to be a pretty fun guy. When you engage him and kind of get him talking, I think he likes when those things get brought up."
Price of fame
But for all the entertainment and comfort being in Japan brings, there are a few drawbacks. Even in the United States, there are a fair number of Japanese media members who report on Maeda and his countrymen in MLB, but that contingent grows exponentially in Japan. Maeda also likely wouldn't be able to go out to dinner there without meeting many eager fans wanting photos or autographs.
In the U.S., he can move about fairly unbothered. He could eat at a restaurant pre-pandemic, for example, without the owner having to shut down the whole establishment to other guests.
Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey even went as far as to call Maeda "a little underrated" in American baseball compared to his densely decorated Japanese career, which included five All-Star berths.
"He's a much better athlete then people even realize. His feel and ability to adapt and adjust and make changes … that's pretty unique and pretty special," Falvey said. "… We think he's one of the best pitchers in the game."
Making Minnesota memories
Twins pitcher Matt Shoemaker first met Maeda back in 2014 through the MLB vs. Japan All-Star Series. Now teammates, Shoemaker has picked Maeda's brain on useful Japanese phrases — "ohayo" for good morning, "arigato gozaimasu" for thank you — as well as where to find the best Japanese food on every road trip.
For the latter, Maeda keeps a list. In some cities, owners keep their restaurants open late so Maeda can dine after a game. Unless the Twins are in Detroit or Kansas City, Maeda probably has a go-to.
Unfortunately for Shoemaker, though, not all of those restaurants will have the quintessential Japanese food: sushi. While Maeda is a "big fan" of rice and eats it nearly every day, he's not of sushi.
"I just can't eat anything raw, especially raw fish," Maeda said. "Whenever I tell everyone here in the States, they look surprised, and they're like, 'Oh, you're not real Japanese.'"
Maeda prefers Japanese barbecue, yakiniku, and took some of his Dodgers teammates to try it for the first time in Los Angeles. In the Twin Cities so far, he likes takeout from Kado no Mise and grocery store United Noodles when the pandemic forced him to cook for himself more than usual, including omurice — essentially an omelet over rice — and stir-fired vegetables with butter and soy sauce.
Even in Fort Myers, Fla., Maeda has become a hotel room chef, setting up a rice cooker and an electric hot pot for making nabe, a dish of broth-simmered vegetables and meat. When he is with his family, though, Maeda can only pour hot water for Cup Noodles, since his wife, Saho, is the better cook.
The Maedas — including their 7-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son and toy poodle — split time between Japan, Minnesota and Los Angeles, where the kids attend school.
Maeda said that while transitioning to a new country and language was difficult at first, now it feels more homey.
"It's just a good opportunity for myself and my family to learn and adapt, especially with the kids," Maeda said. "Instead of enrolling them in a Japanese school here, I'd rather have them immersed in American schools and educate themselves with the culture here and build relationships."
Maeda's been able to achieve that as well within the Twins clubhouse.
"It goes beyond the language," Sekizaki said. "He can communicate with Latin guys who don't really speak English [either], so I don't know what language they're using to communicate. But they're getting along, and I think that just has to do with the people side of Kenta, his personality."
At least the limited number of fans at Target Field this season will see that themselves. Because while Maeda might take the mound serious, concentrating, he will leave it the opposite.