Going Deep: The Curious Case of Kenta Maeda

By some measure, Kenta Maeda is one of the most effective pitchers in the game. To what extent are fantasy owners undervaluing him?

(Photo By Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire)

Since moving stateside before the 2016 regular season, Kenta Maeda has been one of the most effective starting pitchers in the game. Among pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched since the start of the 2016 season, Maeda’s 1.15 WHIP ranks 11th, ahead of Zack Greinke (1.16), Jacob deGrom (1.19), Dallas Keuchel (1.21), and Carlos Martinez (1.22). Although a pitcher’s fundamental job is run prevention, the foundation of that is the ability to limit baserunners and record outs, and Maeda’s immaculate WHIP is a testament to his ability to keep runners off the base-paths. By this measure, Maeda has objectively been the 11th best pitcher in baseball over the last 2 seasons.

Of course, for fantasy and real-life purposes, effectiveness, dominance, and value go far beyond a single cherry-picked stat. Kenta Maeda may be 11th in WHIP since the start of 2016, but he sits #53 on The List, because of questions surrounding his durability and his ability to go deep into games (61 games, 57 starts, 310 IP, barely over 5 innings a start). To wit, Maeda finished as the #46 SP on ESPN’s Player Rater last year, indicating a true production level of around a quality SP4 in 12-team leagues, with crisp ratios marred by underwhelming quantity. Maeda has posted a surprisingly high K rate (319 K’s in 310 IP, good for a 9.3 K/9 mark) and he has been a phenomenal asset in WHIP, but the inescapable fact is that Kenta Maeda is currently the most vulnerable starter in the Dodgers rotation, with constant buzz regarding when, not if blue-chip prospect Walker Buehler is going to supplant his rotation spot and relegate him to the bullpen.

The fallout of the buzz is that Maeda’s stock has tumbled in fantasy drafts, as reflected by his 193.3 ESPN ADP. In the late 17th round of the Pitcher List Futures League, I was able to select Maeda with the 201st overall pick. As part of this week’s installment of Going Deep, I’ll be diving into what I actually think of Kenta Maeda’s prospects across the 2018 season.

Los Angeles Dodgers Projected Rotation (stats represent stats accumulated since the start of 2016)

Clayton Kershaw, LHP 324 48 6.75
Alex Wood, LHP 212.2 35 6.08
Kenta Maeda, RHP 310 57 5.44
Rich Hill, LHP 246 45 5.47
Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP 131.1 25 5.25

Although Maeda currently slots as the #3 pitcher heading into the season, his historical inability to pitch deep into games and his dominance in the 2017 postseason works against him, as he has already proven to be a natural fit as a Chad Green/Chris Devenski-type fireman who can pitch multiple elite innings, with just 1 ER allowed in 10 2/3 innings last October.

In the worst-case scenario where Maeda doesn’t collapse or struggle unexpectedly, Walker Buehler supplants Maeda and Maeda becomes an Archie Bradley/Chris Devenski type. The Dodgers (and Major League Baseball in general) are caught up with the penny-pinching, prospect-neutering practice of keeping young players in the minors even when they have basically nothing left to prove at the lower levels. An arbitrary “Super Two” deadline refers to a cutoff date that MLB teams will try to manipulate and work around in an effort to squeeze an extra year of service out of their young players before they hit free agency. After each season, players with anywhere between 2-3 years of service time will be ranked, and the top 22% of players have an extra year of potential salary raises through arbitration. The smart money is on the Dodgers trying to have their cake and eat it too by keeping Maeda in the rotation AT LEAST until they’re confident that Walker Buehler is past the Super Two deadline. The Super Two deadline fluctuates from year to year, which adds to our frustration as fantasy owners. However, through analyzing some historical trends, we can at least take an educated guess at when Maeda is liable to first get the boot.

Super 2 Cutoff Days (2009-2017)

  • 2017: 2 years, 132 days
  • 2016: 2 years, 131 days
  • 2015: 2 years, 130 days
  • 2014: 2 years, 133 days
  • 2013: 2 years, 122 days
  • 2012: 2 years, 140 days
  • 2011: 2 years, 146 days
  • 2010: 2 years, 122 days
  • 2009: 2 years, 139 days

From 2014-2017, the Super 2 cutoff date hasn’t fluctuated much. The Major League Baseball season is typically around 183 days, so going off of historical data, Maeda has as little as 37 days to as many as 61 days before the Super Two deadline has any chance of coming along. Recent history indicates that Maeda has around 50-53 days at the minimum before Buehler will realistically take his place, but to err on the side of caution, major league teams often take it slower, as Yoan Moncada was called up on July 19, a full three-and-a-half months into the season. Moncada was predicted to be up well before then, and June 1 (64 days into the season) is roughly the date when teams begin to worry less about the service time clock. If we predict that Walker Buehler gets the call a whole month earlier (June 19), it gives Maeda approximately 2 1/2 months of time in the rotation.

Short-Term Verdict: At a minimum, expect a capable SP4 with the upside of a SP3. In 2017 drafts, Maeda was going in the middle rounds (early 100s overall), and that represents an attainable ceiling for him for as long as he can hold onto a rotation spot.

However, even once Buehler arrives (assuming all goes according to plan and he pitches well enough to a) warrant a call-up, b) represent a clear upgrade over Maeda, and c) retain his spot in the rotation IF he secures it, which is hardly a given), Maeda’s still likely to find his way into some starts. A look at the Dodgers’ injury report from 2017 reveals these following DL stints among the rotation:

Pitcher Date Nature of Injury Days Missed
Alex Wood 5/27 Left SC joint inflammation 14 (14 total among rotation)
Hyun-Jin Ryu 6/29 Left foot contusion 25 (39)
Clayton Kershaw 7/24 Lower back strain 39 (78)
Yu Darvish 8/17 Lower back tightness 10 (88)
Alex Wood 8/22 Left SC joint inflammation 12 (100)

From the end of May onward, Dodgers starters spent 100 days on the disabled list, which undersells the extent of their injury woes, as it excludes starters being pushed back, injuries that were not severe enough to warrant a DL trip, and September roster expansions. Though it’s a bit pessimistic to say that the Dodgers are going to have 5 DL stints and 100 injury days over the last 4 months of the season once more, it is a legitimate risk that needs to be accounted for. Even within the insular world of 2017 itself, Alex Wood has displayed chronic issues with the same part of his pitching arm, and Kershaw’s back issues the past two seasons have been the only factor separating him from 5 career Cy Young awards. Although last year was better, Ryu has basically lived on the DL since the start of 2015, with just 26 games pitched across the last 3 seasons. Even if Buehler pushes Maeda out, there’s an unfortunately strong probability that the Dodgers will need to call on Maeda.

Of course, with the Dodgers’ championship aspirations and the departure of Yu Darvish lingering, it’s not as simple as just saying that Maeda’s going to keep a rotation spot whether Buehler makes good or not. Objectively, the Dodgers are a weaker team with a weaker pitching staff than when they pushed the Astros to Game 7 last season. Since then, the Astros have only gotten better by comparison, adding Gerrit Cole as the Dodgers lost Yu Darvish to Chicago. Management believed that Yu Darvish was the missing link for a championship run last season, and on an instinctive level, I just don’t believe that the front office will allow the Dodgers to go to war in October without making an in-season addition, not when the bitter aftertaste of a Game 7 defeat continues to linger. Only time will tell what exactly the market will bear as one team after another falls out of playoff contention, but Chris Archer already stands out as an attainable piece, if the Dodgers ever decide to bite the bullet and pay the prospect ransom necessary to secure his services. If we assume that that happens, then the outlook for Maeda grows admittedly bleaker. Last season, Jose Quintana was the first pitching domino to fall, coming to Chicago on July 13, with Darvish following suit right at the deadline (July 31), and Verlander coming to Houston at the end of August.

In the event that the Dodgers somehow don’t make a midseason pitching addition, I doubt you’re getting anything playable out of Maeda come September/H2H playoffs. Maeda’s 2017 game logs reveals that although he began September in the rotation, he threw 5 innings just once (on 9/6, vs. ARI) before his usage was dramatically scaled back, with just 9 innings pitched the rest of the regular season and no stint longer than 3 innings. Maeda’s diminished usage facilitated a late-season adjustment toward the role he assumed in the playoffs, and it’s highly likely that the Dodgers’ emphasis on priming his postseason value castrates the remainder of his fantasy viability.

I have basically no confidence that Maeda spends anywhere close to 6 months as a starter. The best-case scenario for Maeda once he gets pushed out of the rotation is that he becomes a fairly valuable source of ERA and WHIP along the lines of Archie Bradley, who had a 1.73 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 9.7 K/9 across 73 innings last season). In H2H, he becomes essentially worthless, with the roster spot better allocated for streaming hitters on Mondays/Thursdays or SP with favorable matchups. However, in innings-capped roto leagues, he could still be usable as a back-end roster piece. Either way, he’s a good player for 3-4 months with only a faint chance of providing much more.

Verdict: Despite the multiple factors indicating that Maeda is going to lose significant fantasy value by mid-season, it seems reasonable to count on him for close to 4 months of quality production. It’s overly optimistic to assume that Buehler immediately supplants him AND the Dodgers’ rotation stays healthy enough to not require Maeda’s services. Although I was initially taken in by Maeda’s shiny WHIP, his lack of quantity and job security have him priced as ESPN’s #48 starting pitcher, which seems more than fair given his standing of SP46 last season WITHOUT an additional SP or a recent history of bullpen dominance conspiring against him. If anything, he might be a bit overvalued, which could play to your advantage if you already drafted him and he has a strong start. He’s a good player and can be an effective contributor to any fantasy team, but as hard as I tried to find otherwise, I don’t think there’s much hidden value or upside to be found in The Curious Case of Kenta Maeda.

Ben Chang

Ben studied at UC Davis, where he wrote for The California Aggie. As a diehard Dodger fan, he's used to habitual heartbreak. All of his dreams will finally come true when Clayton Kershaw puts the team on his uninjured back with a Game 7 shutout in the 2018 World Series.

2 responses to “Going Deep: The Curious Case of Kenta Maeda”

  1. Steve says:

    Why wouldn’t Buehler displace Ryu instead? If Maeda stays healthy and pitches well (which you seem to agree he should), I see no good reason for him not to remain in rotation. Every pitcher in that starting 5 is an injury risk so he’s as good a bet to stay in the rotation as any.

    • Ben Chang says:

      I’d imagine Ryu either starts or stays on the DL. Ryu has just 1 career relief appearance and probably has more value to the Dodgers as a back-end starter soaking up 5 innings than as someone you’d trust in high leverage situations. If the Dodgers don’t run away with the division, Maeda might stay in the rotation, because it won’t make sense to take him out of the rotation to prime him for a playoff run that might not necessarily come. However, if the Dodgers surge to a commanding lead again (which I think they will), it’s hard to see Maeda keeping his role all year, in part because he was so vital to the Dodgers as a reliever last season.

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