That one man, of course, is Kenta Maeda, Japan's ace pitcher, who toed the rubber during game one of the Japan All-Star Series on Wednesday. The reasoning is obvious; Maeda is thought to be the next big thing from Japan, and could be posted at some point this off-season in an attempt to come stateside and follow in the footsteps of Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka as starting pitchers who have successfully transitioned to Major League Baseball.
Wednesday's game one was Maeda's first chance to show off his stuff to scouts and fans, facing MLB hitters, since it was reported earlier in the year that he wanted to be posted; during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, his intentions were not yet known. All eyes were on him as he squared off against the Angels' Rookie of the Year candidate Kyle Shoemaker.
On just the second batter of the game, what would become a trend was first apparent:
Already seeing heaters, changes and curves from Maeda. Cano helplessly flails at curve but pounds fastball for a single.— Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110) November 12, 2014
Maeda got a GB out from Zobrist and swings from Cano and Longo with curve. Legit-looking pitch.— Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110) November 12, 2014
Off-line throw from SS saves MLB from an inning-ending double play. Maeda not super sharp so far but getting grounders.— Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110) November 12, 2014
Puig punches out on a nice change. Wobbly command and mediocre heat the only concerns for Maeda; secondary stuff will play at MLB level.— Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110) November 12, 2014
From the get-go, Maeda's curveball looked like a high-class pitch; the break was consistent, and ranged from medium to large. His location seemed good as well, placing it just right to get a good number of swings and misses. When trying to throw it for called strikes he found less success, but the umpire's strike zone was, in my estimation, very hitter-friendly; several balls could have been called strikes, and others that were less borderline were very close nonetheless.
Maeda's changeup (he might refer to it as a "shuuto," but the grip was basically a straight change grip, as was the action on it. Just a difference in nomenclature, if anything) was used sparingly at first, but he started mixing it in more frequently, especially to the lefties, as they began to get second and third looks at him. While he occasionally missed with it down (especially) and to the arm side (a bit), it was largely an effective-looking offering, eliciting helpless swings from several lefties, and even a couple of the righties as well; he showed little hesitation to pitch inside to righties with it, burying it down around their feet.
Here's a look at him from the stretch. Pitch 10 is a curve and pitch 51 is a change up.
The concern that kept cropping up in my mind for him was the fastball; if there's something that's going to hold him back from succeeding in the Majors, it will be his fastball, or more specifically his usage of it. It's not elite; though there are no radar gun readings available to the US broadcast (for some reason), it didn't look like anything more than the 91-94 that has been reported. Worse, it was quite flat and lifeless. While you can get by with that kind of heater, especially with off-speed stuff as nice as Maeda has, you have to be very careful with it.
Therein lies the concern; Maeda wasn't quite pinpoint with his fastball location most of the night. At one point, this happened:
Broadcasters throwing Roy Oswalt comps out for Maeda. I can see the reasoning, but Maeda doesn't see to have the fearlessness.— Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110) November 12, 2014
This was very interesting to me, because, of course, I've watched a great deal of Oswalt. And, while I do see the reasoning behind it, Oswalt was a bulldog; there was a cocky fearlessness about him. Even during his later years when the mid-to-upper-90's heat had cooled off to 92-94, he spotted that fastball with stunning consistency, and once that reputation had been established, he was able to work in and out, up and down, and right in the middle of the plate at times. He, of coursed, missed with fastballs on occasion; everyone does. But can you remember it? Is there even a hint in your mind of it?
While I wouldn't say that Maeda was pitching scared or anything hyperbolic like that, there was a lack of aggressiveness that I picked up on. I'm not going to go Jason Parks on you and talk about fire in the belly and slamming your hand into your glove and all that, but he seemed to be relying on his off-speed stuff, rather than using his fastball to set it up.
When he did throw the heater, it was often hittable, in terms of velocity, movement and, at times, location. Maeda collected eight of his 15 outs either on the ground or via strikeout, but most of the fly outs and hits came on fastballs. Few of them were spotted on the edges, or elevated past comfortable hitting position. Again, it should be noted that the strike zone did him no favors, and there's also the question of how much his catcher's calls played a role in the issue.
Now that I've had a couple of hours to consider it, I honestly love him as a fit for this team. Now, financially, he may end up not being a fit, but in terms of his profile, he reminds me of Collin McHugh; excellent breaking ball, solid changeup, and the mediocre fastball. His command of the breaking ball leads me to believe that he'll be able to command the heater more often than not; again, this was just one game and with a tight zone and the unknown of a catcher's preference.
When you think of this profile, and then what Brent Strom can do with guys like that, using pitch tunneling, effective velocity and the other things this organization is teaching it's pitchers, as well as the great receivers of Jason Castro and Hank Conger, Maeda seems like a guy who could meet, or even exceed, his scouting report in an Astros uniform.
It's important to note that the concerns of him not being an ace are legitimate; if you're expecting Darvish, or even Tanaka, you'll likely be disappointed. But if you're okay with Hiroki Kuroda (career 3.45 ERA, 3.38 K/BB), then Maeda has a chance to make you happy. A 1-2-3 of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Kenta Maeda would be nothing to sneeze at.
Price is the question. I wonder (or perhaps wishfully hope) that the concerns about his not-so-hot heater might be enough to drive down the price. But I really believe in his potential after seeing him in action, against a very good collection of MLB bats that included Dexter Fowler (who got one of the three hits Maeda allowed, by the way), Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Robinson Cano and Yasiel Puig. Maeda, though imperfect, shut that lineup down for five innings. Make no mistake; there's considerable Major League ability in him.
And this is an Astros' site, so I'd better finish off with an actual Astros highlight, right? Here's Fowler's hustle double for your viewing pleasure.