Like millions of Japanese youngsters, Kenta Maeda grew up idolizing Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners’ 10-time All-Star.
But Maeda is no outfielder.
As the best athlete in his class, Maeda gave up soccer and began playing baseball in the third grade as a middle infielder, until a coach noticed how strong his throwing arm was.
But Maeda is no shortstop.
Since coming to America four seasons ago, only one National League pitcher, former Dodgers teammate Kenley Jansen, has made more postseason appearances out of the bullpen, and only Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, among pitchers with more than 10 postseason games, has outpitched Maeda’s 1.64 bullpen ERA.
But Maeda is no relief pitcher.
Repeat: Maeda is no relief pitcher.
“Being a starting pitcher is important to me. It would be best if I remain a starter,” Maeda, the Twins’ top offseason pitching acquisition, said as he prepares for his American League debut this weekend. “Obviously, I’m much happier when I’m not pitching out of the bullpen.”
It’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old righthander acting much happier than he does these days. Even in a coronavirus mask, his grin is obvious and the laughter is constant. Scan his YouTube channel, and you’ll discover he’s like that away from the ballpark too, beaming as he cuts the hair of friends, makes fun of his worst swings at the plate, or responds to his thousands of fans an ocean away.
“Every time I’ve seen him, he’s either smiling or joking around about something,” said fellow righthander Randy Dobnak. “I can’t really say much [in Japanese], but that dude is always smiling. He loves life, loves being around baseball, and that’s good for everybody.”
He has a history of getting big outs, too, and that, Derek Falvey knows, is good for the Twins.
“Certainly his track record, especially against righthanders, gets your attention. This type of experience and ability, combined with a contract that keeps him here for another four years, you don’t get an opportunity to acquire someone like this very often,” said Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations, who in February dealt pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol and outfielder Luke Raley to the Dodgers to acquire Maeda.
“He’s had to make big pitches in postseason games, and he doesn’t shrink in the moment.”
Maeda was already an established star in 2016 when he decided to eventually test himself in the United States. He had reached Japan’s top league, pitching for Hiroshima in Nippon Professional Baseball, at 22. Maeda added more than 40 pounds to his skinny frame, more than 5 mph to his fastball, and learned to throw a slider that remains his best pitch.
The result was a 2010 season that surprised even him: 15 wins, a 2.21 ERA and 174 strikeouts, leading NPB in all three categories and earning him the Sawamura Award as the best pitcher in the Japanese game. “I really felt in sync with my mechanics. Everything went so well,” Maeda said. “My baseball career took off from that point.”
Maeda posted 10 or more victories in each of the five seasons that followed, and won the Sawamura again in 2015. Even better, he allowed only one run in three starts for Japan during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, convincing him that he could succeed in the U.S.
Hiroshima agreed to allow him to leave via the international posting system in December 2015, and the Dodgers made the biggest offer, which thrilled Maeda. Not only does L.A. have more Japanese immigrants than any other U.S. city, but the Dodgers have a history, dating back to Hideo Nomo in 1995, of helping Japanese players thrive.
But the marriage hit a snag when, in the course of routine physical, doctors found evidence that they believed could lead to a serious injury. Maeda doesn’t specify the problem, but the L.A. Times reported it was believed to be in his elbow. “I told them I didn’t feel any pain, and I was very confident I wasn’t going to get injured,” Maeda said. “It’s been four-plus years and I haven’t had any pain, so that’s that.”
The sides worked out a complicated, incentive-based eight-year contract that guarantees only $25 million but can escalate to nearly $100 million if he stays healthy. Maeda joined the Dodgers, and made quite a first impression.
“The guy was an All-Star in his league. You could tell he was an experienced professional, not some kid coming up, and he had an ability to make adjustments that was so valuable,” said longtime Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. “He got off to a great start for us. … And then, of course, he hit that home run.”
Yes, in his first MLB game, Maeda shut out the Padres at Petco Park on five hits in six innings. And in the fourth inning, facing Padres righthander Andrew Cashner, he punctuated his great night with a home run, his first and still only one.
“I always try to hit homers in every at-bat. That was just an off-speed pitch and I got lucky,” Maeda said. “I don’t think it could have [come at] any better time.”
His pitching was even better. Maeda set a Dodgers record by starting his career with 14 consecutive scoreless innings and allowed only one run in his first four starts. “I don’t think opponents had much data on me, so that helped,” he said. “But it boosted my confidence for sure.”
Honeycutt noticed a habit he tried to get Maeda to break, however. Coming from a league in which it’s common for a starter to throw 125 pitches or more, Maeda paced himself on the mound. “He can throw 94 mph, but he would frequently throw his fastball 88 to 91, to save his energy,” Honeycutt said. “We had to convince him, you’re more effective at full effort. Let us worry about the pitch count.”
He remained a hit in his home country. After his first year with the Dodgers, he appeared on a Japanese game show in disguise as an elderly man with a cane who shows up to a youth game. He eventually takes the mound and throws fastballs past a kid before the big reveal.
In 2017, after a rough series of starts that pushed Maeda’s ERA above 5.00, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided to give Maeda a relief assignment in hopes of getting him back in rhythm. Maeda responded by pitching four quick innings, striking out six and earning a save.
“He just went out and dominated. Fastball touched 95, the at-bats were much quicker,” said Honeycutt, who retired last winter after 14 seasons in the Dodgers’ dugout. “We were like, ‘That’s the mentality we want you to take. Don’t conserve yourself, go as hard as you can.’ ”
The adjustment wasn’t easy, but Maeda saw results. Trouble was, the outing put the notion of Maeda-as-reliever in Roberts’ and Honeycutt’s minds — and for good reason. “He was the setup guy we were looking for. He could strike out the side in 10 pitches,” Honeycutt said. “In the pen, we saved him for some good matchups, especially righthanders, but it wasn’t like it was the bottom of the order. He faced down some of the best righthanders in the league.”
In each of the past three seasons, the Dodgers moved Maeda to the bullpen late in the year and during the playoffs. They were rewarded for it, too: Righthanders went 0-for-14 against Maeda during the first two rounds of the 2017 NL playoffs. They were 1-for-13 in the 2019 postseason.
“He was blowing guys away,” Honeycutt said. “When his mechanics are right and his confidence is high, that’s the pitcher he can be.”
Maeda didn’t complain publicly, or even in the clubhouse according to Honeycutt, even though it cost him millions of bonus dollars in his incentive-heavy contract. “Everyone wants to win the World Series. If me being in the bullpen helps the team, I’m more than willing to do it,” Maeda said. “Pitching in those situations was a great experience for my career.”
It’s not the career he wants, though. Maeda is so intent upon being a starting pitcher, he even had it written to his contract that he wears No. 18 — the traditional number for the ace of the rotation in Japan. So though he never asked the Dodgers to trade him, he made it clear that he was frustrated with the annual transfers to the bullpen.
And that explains why he smiles so much today, now that he has a new baseball home (even though his wife, son and daughter have remained in Santa Monica because of the pandemic). No guarantees, he has to pitch well enough to keep his job, but Falvey told Maeda he was coming to Minnesota to shore up the starting rotation.
No more bullpen, in other words.
“That was good to hear,” Maeda said with a smile.
“He seems to have a lot of fun. [Checking out] a little bit of Twitter and a little bit of interacting with teammates, he always seems to have a smile on his face, enjoying those interactions,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You get a feel from his Twitter account that he likes to have a good time, and that means he’s going to fit in very, very well with this group, because we like to have a good time.”
Along those lines, Maeda became known in Los Angeles for pulling pranks on the interpreter the Dodgers provided. But he hasn’t tried anything yet with his interpreter in Minnesota, Daichi Sekizaki, has he?
“Coming soon,” Maeda said — through Sekizaki. And then he laughed again.