PHOENIX -- The biggest wild card of the spring for the Dodgers is starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, who took on a lot of risk in making the leap from Japan to Major League Baseball and is in the early stages of making the necessary adjustments.
The feeling out process comes with a large audience, however, with a few dozen reporters and photographers following his every move, so far every single day of camp.
Maeda is used to the coverage, having been a star in Japan, a two-time winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award, the Central League's equivalent of the Cy Young Award, for the Hiroshima Carp. But now in the U.S., Maeda is more of a middle of the rotation starter than an ace.
But it's not his only adjustment.
"The mound is different, the baseball is different. I don't know too much about the hitters here in the states," Maeda said, through a translator. "I need to study and learn from that."
Maeda pitched with a major league baseball during the World Baseball Classic in 2013, but since then used the smaller and lighter Japanese baseball, which is also more tightly wound than its American counterpart.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has scheduled individual meetings with every player in camp, meeting in the early mornings or afternoons this week for 15 or 20 minutes to discuss everyone's plans for 2016. These sessions are called "Coffee with Doc" (Roberts got the nickname in San Diego, the result of his initials also being an abbreviation for doctor).
Maeda's "Coffee with Doc" session was Sunday, and he presented Roberts an omiyage, a gift or souvenir usually presented to friends or coworkers after the return from a trip or a long journey. The gift was Japanese crackers, ones that Roberts enjoyed as a child.
Roberts, whose mother is Japanese and who was born in Japan, also had an omiyage for Maeda. A major league baseball.
"I kind of wanted him to mess with the baseball away from the ballpark and get familiar with it," Roberts said.
We are only a few days into camp, but so far Maeda has looked quite familiar with a baseball in his hand. He threw his third bullpen session at Camelback Ranch on Sunday, and his first since camp opened, with the aforementioned throng of media watching, plus the coaches and front office as well.
"He had pretty good command. The ball was down, the ball was out well. He threw some curveballs, the slider to both sides of the plate, the late break which plays here in the big leagues," Roberts said. "Talking to him today he said he feels good, so that's encouraging."
To date there have been no reported physical issues of any kind with Maeda, which is noteworthy given that his pre-signing physical — presented to every team in MLB — showed "irregularities" that depressed his market. He got an eight-year contract from the Dodgers but with only a $25 million guarantee in salary, plus loads of incentives that could bring the total value just north of $106 million.
"He feels great. Obviously it's well documented what happened with the physical, but he has maintained from then to now that he feels great," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "He's going to have a normal spring training, and we're going to put him in position to be ready for opening day. Talking to him gives us confidence in how he feels."
That confidence emanates from Maeda, too. Confident enough to sign a contract with that much risk, about which Maeda said, "I'm not too concerned about my contract and what that means for me. The only thing I'm thinking about is doing my best."
Confident enough to try to switch to an American style of training and between-starts work, which among other things means going from pitching once a week in Japan to once every five games in the United States.
"It's certainly something that every pitcher who has come over has had to deal with. We looked into it and had different conversations. I know [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt and Kenta are starting that dialogue," Friedman said. "Kenta, to his credit, wants to do things very similarly to how guys do it here. But it may be a bit of a transition.
"The time between starts is very different, and what you do the day after will change some. We're hoping to educate him as to what our guys do, so he can adopt his own program and figure it out. It will take some time."
Maeda reached out to former Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda as well as current major league pitchers Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka to get up to speed on the different methods used in this country.
Cool Photo : Maeda, Iwakuma and Darvish had a nice meal together in AZ yesterday, and talked about pitching in MLB. pic.twitter.com/8s96Sa5g8c— Joseph Kim (@blackwings2011) February 18, 2016
Maeda has the clubhouse dynamic pretty well understood, especially when asked what he needed to gain acceptance from his teammates and the club.
"The only way to do that is produce, and show good results," he said.
Seems pretty well-adjusted so far.