Kenta Maeda Has Changed His Approach Against Lefties and is Off to a Strong Start with the Minnesota Twins

Photo credit: Michael McLoone (USA TODAY Sports)

Kenta Maeda didn’t come into the 2020 season with the most hype among Minnesota Twins starters. Jose Berrios did.

Maeda hasn’t been the biggest surprise among Twins starters, either — that distinction goes to Randy Dobnak for sure.

But Maeda, quite frankly, has simply gotten it done. He’s been absolutely terrific for the Twins — something that could hardly have been more evident than his role in the team’s 12-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday evening.

Maeda pitched into the seventh inning for the first time, fanning five Brewers, walking two and allowing just five hits on 85 pitches. He had the Brewers guessing all night until they scratched across a couple runs just before he hit the showers.

Through four starts, Maeda has been nothing short of brilliant for the Twins. He’s allowed just seven earned runs, and they’ve come in bunches. He’s thrown 23.2 innings and allowed earned runs in only three of them — good for a 2.66 ERA. The strikeouts aren’t quite there yet, but he’s still getting swinging strikes at a rate (14.5 percent) as good as he has at any time in his career (13.2 percent overall).

Maeda isn’t the prototypical modern day pitcher. He won’t blow anyone way; in fact, his fastball has averaged 91.9 mph for his career and never above 92.5 mph in any single season. He doesn’t appear to have big-time raw stuff like a Berrios, but he’s fanned more than a batter per inning over his career.

In fact, maybe he’s a little more like teammate Jake Odorizzi. No, he isn’t a fly-ball pitcher like Odorizzi and nobody would confuse their pitch mixes, but they’re guys who prove there’s more than what meets the eye when making a successful pitcher.

Maeda was plenty good with the Los Angeles Dodgers for four seasons before he was dealt as a chip in the high-profile Mookie Betts deal in the offseason, but his discontent with being moved in and out of the rotation was not a secret. Through four starts with the Twins, he’s proven that he’s deserved that longer look over the past couple seasons — and then some.

But how is he doing it?

First of all, it’s no secret he dominates right-handed hitters. They’ve hit just .156/.156/.344 against him this season, and just .198/.248/.339 against him in his career. In fact, since his MLB debut he ranks fifth in MLB in OPS allowed to right-handed hitters — trailing only Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber.

That’s some pretty elite company.

Lefties have chewed him up a bit, though. They’ve hit him for a slash line of .252/.325/.426 — an OPS split of almost 200 points. His strikeout rate against righties is an astonishing 32.2 percent. Against lefties? It’s exactly 20 percent.

For a comparison, deGrom — who won the NL Cy Young Award last year — fanned batters at a 31.7 percent rate in 2019. Some of the pitchers in the 20 percent range last year were Merrill Kelly, Wade Miley, Jeff Samardzija and Miles Mikolas. It’s a significant difference.

But this season, it’s been a totally different story. Lefties are hitting just .154/.214/.212 against Maeda. They’re only fanning 17.9 percent of the time — it’s early, for what it’s worth — but it’s also worth noting that this is something teams have been keenly aware of. Through four starts, he’s faced 32 right-handed hitters and 56 lefties.

Teams are loading up the lefties against him — to no avail.

A big reason for the improvement? He’s changed up his pitch sequencing against lefties. In 2019, Maeda threw his four-seam fastball 34.6 percent of the time against lefties, according to Brooks Baseball. This year, that’s down to a scant 16.2 percent. In turn, he’s thrown more sliders (from 11.1 percent to 29.3 percent) and kept his changeup in the same stratosphere (slightly down from 41.2 percent to 36.2 percent), and the results seem to be there.

Opposing lefties slugged .681 against Maeda’s four-seam fastball in 2019. They’re slugging .077 against it this season. The reality is it’s most likely a “less is more” thing, coupled with the fact that they’re slugging just .044 against his changeup and .333 against his slider.

Now those are in small samples. However, they slugged just .287 against his changeup and .333 against his slider last season as well. This seems like a pretty rudimentary adjustment to make — and thus far, a really good one.

Another simple thing this season is that Maeda’s fastball has…just been badass. He’s used it a lot less than before — 19 percent this year, 33.9 percent in 2019 and 42.1 percent in 2018 — and it’s resulted in just one hit all season, good (or bad) for a slash line against of .059/.111/.059. For Maeda this season, it appears to be a pitch he can throw rarely, but at the same time for strikes almost at will.

He’s hitting the strike zone 65.1 percent of the time with the heater (60.2 percent career), so while the swing-and-miss isn’t there, it’s resulted in a ton of weak contact — like a 40.0 percent popup rate (again, small sample size). Opposing batters have averaged just an 86.3 mph exit velocity on Maeda’s four-seam fastball this season.

Another thing that seems fairly obvious is that Maeda has strong command. It seemed as though he was painting for most of the evening at Miller Park on Wednesday, as the stats bear that out as well.

Eno Sarris of The Athletic speaks often of a metric called command+ — and it grades Maeda quite well this season. Not only that, but he’s improved from last season, as well. In 2019, Maeda graded out at 108, eight percent above average. This season, through Aug. 12, he’s checked in at 112.

Maeda has always had good control, 1.52 BB/9 this year, 2.67 for his career, but command is a little different than control. Control is throwing strikes when needed; command is putting the ball where a pitcher and/or catcher want it to be on a given offering.

Fortunately for Maeda, he appears to have both.

But where Maeda is really making hay this year is his secondary pitches.

Sarris also posted an article late Thursday evening updating readers on a stuff metric created by Ethan Moore called QOS+ — short for “quality of secondary pitches” but adjusted for context, much like ERA+ and those types of stats.

First of all, Dobnak ranks second in all of baseball behind Shane Bieber. But we’re here to talk about Maeda, and he checks in 15th with a QOS+ of 112.

Now here’s why that’s such a good thing for Maeda: He’s scrapped his fastball(s) largely in favor of junk. According to Fangraphs, Maeda has thrown 115 sliders, 98 changeups and 63 four-seam fastballs.

The slider has always been his best and/or nastiest pitch. His whiff rate on it over his career is a stellar 22.1 percent. His changeup has spiked this year to 20.4 percent, giving him two terrific “secondary” pitches that he’s actually relying quite heavily on.

The changeup has also been especially valuable when it comes to inducing grounders, something he’s doing at nearly a 50 percent rate. As a reminder, the generally accepted league-average rate is about 45 percent.

Maeda’s changeup has always been fairly heavy (57.1 percent career groundball rate) but this year it’s inducing grounders at a stunning 78.3 percent rate.

So far, the numbers on Maeda’s pitch mix have been dizzying. He’s allowed a .669 OPS on his slider, .286 on his changeup, .179 on his four-seam fastball and .600 on his rarely-thrown cutter. He’s thrown only 13 curveballs this year, but only two have been hit — one for a single and one for a homer. He’s largely scrapped the pitch after opposing batters slugged .556 against it last year and .571 the year before.

The long and short of it appears to be this: The Twins identified what Maeda did well and what he didn’t, and went to work on tailoring improvements to what he didn’t do well from what he did in the past. A “less is more” approach has made his fastball a better pitch, and he’s been no worse for the wear throwing his secondary pitches more often.

It’s obviously early, but this has been a very big development win for the Twins — even with Brusdar Graterol throwing 100 MPH sinkers late into the evening on the west coast.

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