Like the rest of the Minnesota Twins heading into the 2021 season, he came into this year with something to prove. And like the rest of the Minnesota Twins in the 2021 season, he stumbled hard in the early going.
While some of his teammates are still falling from grace, Maeda has been gradually finding his footing in recent weeks. Not only that, but he has shown that he still has the stuff that can make men kings.
Now, he doesn’t have his sights set for relevancy.
He has his eyes on the throne.
Last year was a nightmare in many ways, but for Maeda, it was a career season. The Twins acquired him in what has been the current front office regime’s biggest move of their tenure.
And in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, King Kenta made them look genius by absolutely shoving on the mound.
In 11 starts, Maeda had a 2.70 ERA with an 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He failed to reach the sixth inning just three times, and he never allowed more than three earned runs in any start.
He was royalty at his best and solidly above-average at his worst.
So what made him so dominant?
Well, Maeda led all of baseball with a sterling 0.75 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).
To put it simply, no pitcher was better than King Kenta at keeping guys off the basepaths thanks to his ability to get to two-strike counts and knowing what to do once he got there. Maeda was lethal when he got two strikes on an opponent, as they were only able to muster a .087 batting average against him when it got to that point (best in MLB, according to Inside Edge).
Opponents chased 35% of his pitches out of the zone with zero or one strike (also best in MLB), getting him to the point where he could finish them off with the goods.
For righties, that generally meant getting them to chase his breaking pitches away, whether that meant leaning on his plus-slider or burying a rare curveball. For lefties, it meant mixing and matching his fastball with his changeup that features a heavy fade, keeping them off balance.
His plan worked brilliantly, as the competition could only rally a .202 on-base percentage, best among qualified starters in all of baseball.
In his lone start in the 2020 postseason, King Kenta held a dangerous Houston Astros lineup to just two hits and three walks in five scoreless innings. While the Twins didn’t pull through with a win, Maeda gave them the dominant playoff start that fans have been clamoring for. He gave them a legitimate shot to win their first playoff game since 2004.
Sadly, that was the end of Maeda’s extended run of brilliancy, at least for now.
Through his first 12 starts of the 2021 season, Maeda just wasn’t the same. He had an unsightly 5.56 ERA, and his walk rate was more than double what he put up last year (1.5 BB/9 in 2020, 3.4 BB/9 in 2021).
Through June, nearly 40% of batted balls were well-hit (95-plus MPH) against him. That’s almost four times the rate he boasted last year (9.7%), so it’s easy to see why he fell from his throne.
Since the beginning of July, he’s cut his well-hit rate by about a quarter (32.3%), and it would be much lower if you took out a rough outing against the Cincinnati Reds, where he gave up six well-hit balls in 12 events. Maeda boasts a solid 3.43 ERA in that span (again would be much lower if not for the one bad outing). He’s averaging 5.2 innings per start and has an even better strikeout rate than he had last year (11.4 K/9 vs. 10.8 K/9 in 2020).
If he can keep these trends going through the end of the regular season, it will definitely salvage what looked to be a completely lost year back in June. Better yet, it will give the Twins peace of mind knowing that they can write at least one name in pen when they write down their rotation options for 2022.
Face it, tales of kings that keep their throne from beginning to end are almost always boring and heartless. The legends that make their stories last are the ones that deal with trials and tribulations, perseverance, and redemption.
King Simba returned to Pride Rock after being exiled.
King Aragorn claimed his rightful place as the king of Gondor.
Billy Madison earned back the trust of his father by repeating all 12 grades of basic education.
Now, King Kenta hopes to claw his way back from a dreadful first half. If his last six weeks are any indication of what’s to come in 2022 and beyond, then the rest of the league might want to watch the throne.