The Phillies Should Pass on Kenta Maeda

The Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League will post right-hander Kenta Maeda, as Jason Coskrey pointed out on Twitter on Thursday. Interested teams will have to submit a $20 million posting fee for the right to negotiate with Maeda. Teams which fall short in the bidding war will have their posting fees returned. The $20 million will go to the Carp as compensation; it is not considered part of Maeda’s actual contract.

There has been a run on starting pitching in free agency lately, with Jordan Zimmermann, David Price, Zack Greinke, John Lackey, and Jeff Samardzija all coming off the board. With some salary boundaries now defined and some competition out of the picture, Maeda should draw a fair amount of interest. Some have suggested that the Phillies, firmly in the next phase of their rebuilding process, should pursue Maeda. They should instead stand pat on this particular international talent.

At FanGraphs last month, Eno Sarris looked for a major league pitcher to compare to Maeda. Based on pitch arsenal, it turned out that Aaron Nola was the closest comp. And, hey, we like Nola. The Phillies selected Nola in the first round, seventh overall, in the 2014 draft and he was already polished enough to make his major league debut when play resumed after the All-Star break. Over 13 starts spanning 77 2/3 innings, the 22-year-old right-hander yielded 31 runs (3.59 ERA) on 74 hits and 19 walks with 68 strikeouts.

That’s a pretty solid season, and if Maeda could reliably post a 3.50-ish ERA, the Phillies would be in decent shape. Maeda was dominant in his eight seasons in Japan, owning a 2.39 ERA with 1,233 strikeouts and 319 walks in 1,509 2/3 innings. Solid numbers, but pitching against Japanese hitters is comparatively much easier than facing major league hitters. Using Clay Davenport’s translations, Maeda’s 2014 stats don’t look as elite:

  • Japan, 2014 (Real): 187 innings, 2.60 ERA, 161 strikeouts, 41 walks, 12 home runs
  • Davenport translations: 180 2/3 innings, 4.09 ERA, 110 strikeouts, 51 walks, 14 home runs

The biggest difference, as you can see, is the strikeout rate. For every nine innings, Maeda would average about 5.5 strikeouts according to Davenport as opposed to his 7.7 average in Japan in 2014. His walk rate doesn’t change all that much at 2.5 and 2.0, respectively. Here is a list of pitchers with K/9 and BB/9 plus or minus 0.5 of Maeda’s translated rates in any of the past five seasons:

Player ERA+ SO9 BB9 Year Tm ERA FIP
Matt Harrison 133 5.61 2.49 2012 TEX 3.29 4.03
Jhoulys Chacin 129 5.75 2.78 2013 COL 3.47 3.47
Ross Detwiler 118 5.75 2.85 2012 WSN 3.40 4.04
Mike Leake 112 5.71 2.25 2013 CIN 3.37 4.04
R.A. Dickey 112 5.78 2.33 2011 NYM 3.28 3.77
Tim Hudson 110 5.13 2.41 2012 ATL 3.62 3.78
Kyle Lohse 109 5.30 2.01 2011 STL 3.39 3.67
Randy Wolf 107 5.68 2.80 2011 MIL 3.69 4.29
Mike Leake 106 5.58 2.30 2015 TOT 3.70 4.20
Paul Maholm 102 5.38 2.77 2011 PIT 3.66 3.78
Joe Saunders 101 5.77 2.01 2012 TOT 4.07 4.08
R.A. Dickey 101 5.29 2.56 2015 TOR 3.91 4.48
Brett Anderson 101 5.79 2.30 2015 LAD 3.69 3.94
Jason Vargas 99 5.84 2.28 2012 SEA 3.85 4.69
Jeremy Guthrie 97 5.63 2.86 2011 BAL 4.33 4.48
Jake Westbrook 96 5.46 2.68 2012 STL 3.97 3.80
Jeremy Guthrie 93 5.00 2.48 2012 TOT 4.76 5.10
Rick Porcello 93 5.46 2.25 2012 DET 4.59 3.91
Ricky Nolasco 91 5.89 2.21 2012 MIA 4.48 3.88
Mike Leake 90 5.83 2.06 2012 CIN 4.58 4.42
Jon Niese 89 5.76 2.80 2015 NYM 4.13 4.41
Jason Vargas 88 5.87 2.64 2011 SEA 4.25 4.08
Luke Hochevar 87 5.82 2.82 2011 KCR 4.68 4.29
Rick Porcello 87 5.14 2.27 2011 DET 4.75 4.06
Livan Hernandez 86 5.08 2.36 2011 WSN 4.47 3.95
Player ERA+ SO9 BB9 Year Tm ERA FIP
Jerome Williams 82 5.69 2.92 2013 LAA 4.57 4.60
Aaron Harang 82 5.64 2.66 2015 PHI 4.86 4.83
Kyle Kendrick 80 5.44 2.32 2013 PHI 4.70 4.02
Roberto Hernandez 75 5.20 2.86 2011 CLE 5.25 4.56
Joe Saunders 70 5.26 3.00 2013 SEA 5.26 4.72
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/5/2015.

It’s not an enthusing list, the bottom of which includes some very familiar faces. Those who made multiple appearances on the list include Vargas, Guthrie, Saunders, Leake, Dickey, and Porcello. Leake represents the best of the best on the list, so what the Phillies would be looking for from Maeda would be a Leake-like performance on a consistent basis. Last month, MLB Trade Rumors predicted Leake would command a five-year, $80 million deal. If we use that as a proxy for Maeda, is it really a wise gamble to bet $80 million on a 110 adjusted ERA (ERA+)? That’s essentially the performance of a #3 starter.

The Phillies, as a result of their recent TV deal, are swimming in money and they currently have about $55 million committed to six players with three pending arbitration cases and a plethora of pre-arb players. Their payroll reached as high as $177 million on Opening Day in 2014 and the luxury tax threshold is $189 million. The Phillies don’t have to settle for second-tier free agents. Granted, next year’s free agent class includes Stephen Strasburg and a whole lot of nothing, but it’d be wiser to either go big — which would have meant signing David Price, for instance — or do nothing at all until the front office gets a chance to see how the minor league system pans out once the top prospects reach the majors.

Maeda is an interesting pitcher and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him defy the lukewarm expectations in the majors. It would also be thrilling to see the Phillies make a significant investment in foreign talent. They shouldn’t just toss money at anybody, however.

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10 comments

  1. Bubba0101

    December 06, 2015 08:37 AM

    Bill, I wonder what the comps were with Yu Darvish when he came over? Same with Tanaka? My initial reaction is to think that the phils should take a lot more into consideration other than projected stats to extrapolate overseas production to mlb production. I completely agree that they should pass on him if his true production is going to be that of a 3/4 starters. I think there’s a lot more to it though.

    • Bob

      December 06, 2015 01:04 PM

      And the comps on Iwakuma. Iwakuma has been a bargain as far as I’m concerned. It looks like Iwakuma, Tanaka, and Darvish all increased their k/9 rate when they got to the US. How is the difference in strike zone factored in? Aren’t the balls smaller in Japan? Is Maeda a gb pitcher or fb pitcher? It seems like we don’t have enough info to make a determination.

  2. Andrew R.

    December 06, 2015 10:49 AM

    I feel like Maeda is worth the risk. The rising cost of pitching is insane. Strasburgh will get an enormous paycheck next year and every mediocre pitching free agent will get an undeserved boost because of the lack of supply.

    If all Maeda is going to cost is money, why not? We need the depth. I’m not totally sold on Eickhoff just yet and Morgan is nothing to write home about. If we can get a #3 who will throw 180, quality innings for the next 5 years, I think there is value there.

    Who cares what the cost will be? By saving money by not signing Maeda, will ticket prices go down? Yeah right. And I also believe after the 2016 union contract expires, the luxury tax threshold will rise. Everybody has money to burn. If we can still flex our financial might here and now, I think it’s worth the risk.

  3. Romus

    December 06, 2015 02:19 PM

    My reservation about signing him…he is too small, height and weight.
    Add that to his age28 season next year, with plenty of past mileage on the arm, (1500 IP).
    I pass.

    • Bob

      December 06, 2015 04:19 PM

      I didn’t realize how skinny he is. 155 pounds is light.

    • Peter

      December 06, 2015 08:18 PM

      I would pass too, but Brett Saberhagen, Little Timmy & Greg Maddox were small dudes who also got it done.

      • Romus

        December 07, 2015 08:02 AM

        Peter…that is true, but after 1500 IPed, except for Maddux who more or less adapted and with a very formidable Braves team, BSab and Tim Lincecum’s production started to trend downward.

  4. Gil

    December 06, 2015 10:52 PM

    Agreed about not tossing money at just anybody, but it’s not clear whether signing Maeda is a bad business or baseball decision, neither or both.

    Would we rather see Buchanan, Asher, or Morgan every fifth day instead of another Nola-like pitcher? I am interested in what Morgan and Asher might produce, at least, and figure Buchanan may yet surprise us (or not), but it wouldn’t be tough to jettison any of them for a better quality starter next season.

    Do we hope that Eickoff demonstrates that his late season gutsy performance wasn’t a fluke? As the guy planning to buy an Eickoff tshirt, I sure hope so cause I like his mental toughness and want to see him succeed.

    Does anyone think that Hellickson is going to be better than a 3-4 starter in a best case scenario?

    Point is that they have holes and questions in their rotation. The Phillies need some better and more consistent starting pitching pretty badly, and signing a potential #3 starter who won’t cost a 2nd round draft pick also seems pretty great. Most, if not all of the 2nd and 3rd tier FA starters being discussed don’t seem less risky, and it sure doesn’t seem likely that most FA starting pitcher (or outfielders) would be willing to sign with the Phillies anyway. Maeda is worth a roll of the dice.

    They have money to spend in a business doing extremely well at the moment. There is no reason the Phillies shouldn’t take a chance. If it doesn’t work out, they will either have lost nothing or the $20 million posting fee and whatever contract they negotiate to bring Maeda to Philadelphia. Of course it’s easy to spend other people’s money, but adding an international free agent pitcher who will likely position the team to win more often than not when he starts sure won’t hurt at the gate or the win column if not signing him means we see Buchanan or Asher. Nothing against those guys, but it’s no contest. Nothing against suggesting the Phillies take a flier and possibly lose millions of dollars, but they can afford to, and doing so would demonstrate their earnestness to win quite clearly.

    Do we care whether they overspend with such a low payroll currently over the next few seasons? Nah! As others have pointed out, they are not lowering ticket or concession prices at CBP, so I say take a chance. #3 FA starting pitchers who don’t cost draft picks should be seriously considered by teams with as many starting pitching questions as the Phillies.

    Grandiose talk for a guy who would be happy to see the Phillies sign Ross Detweiler to a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring training.

  5. Steve

    December 07, 2015 06:44 AM

    Bill im not sure i understand what point you are making against Maeda, other than Davenport’s transaltions. The Nola comp is far from discouraging. The Leake contract comp isnt too bad IMO. Most FA pitcher who aren’t reclamtion projects or over the hill are getting 12-15 mil per year it seems. He is definately a gamble, but we do need to start taking calculated risks. In this case we are only risking money, and that is still our biggest asset as an organization. Just last year this site was advocating the use of our financial strength to acquire flipable FA that could be turned into prospects. It seems similar reasoning would apply here.

  6. edwin

    December 08, 2015 02:44 PM

    I think it is a good idea to pass on Maeda: too much risk. I have seen him pitch up close and always wondered what people see in him. It is not like he is a Darvish incarnate. Also, people should bear in mind that in Japan the arm is used much more liberally than in the US. This is the country where some of the younger pitchers in their early 20s are marched out with pitch counts in the 150 range.

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