Maeda and Berrios Are the Next Santana and Liriano

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Minnesota Twins take the field in Milwaukee on Opening Day, they will be led on the mound by Kenta Maeda, the 2020 Cy Young runner-up. The next day, the Twins will hand the ball to Jose Berrios, a young starter with some nasty movement who is about to enter his prime and is no stranger to big-game situations.

Maeda has been nothing short of an ace since coming over in a trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. In the 60-game 2020 season he pitched over 66 innings, racking up 80 strikeouts and owning an ERA of 2.70. He would have taken home the Cy Young had it not been for Shane Bieber’s dominance last year. Maeda’s 2020 season was so good that he earned the Opening Day nod away from Berrios, who’s held that title for the last two seasons.

Berrios had a pretty good case for Opening Day starter himself. The two-time All-Star had another good year in 2020, pitching 63 innings, with a strikeout rate of 25% and a career-low .238 opponent batting average.

There are plenty of teams around the league who would be feeling good about their starting rotations with just one of these guys. Luckily for the Twins, they have both of them. Maeda and Berrios are Minnesota’s best 1-2 punch since Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano in 2006.

Both groups featured a veteran arm complemented by a young pitcher on the rise. Santana had already won a Cy Young in 2004 and would win another that season, leading the league with over 233 innings pitched, 245 strikeouts, and an ERA of 2.77. Liriano broke out in 2006 to become a great No. 2 starter, an All-Star, and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. His numbers that year: 2.16 ERA, 144 strikeouts, and 121 innings pitched in 28 games (16 starts).

All four pitchers had high strikeout rates:

Santana – 26.5%
Liriano – 30.4%
Maeda – 32.3%
Berrios – 25.1%

And for the most part, all four pitchers have a tight pitch arsenal. Santana and Liriano each primarily threw fastballs, sliders, and changeups, and they both used the fastball as their go-to pitch. Maeda uses the fastball sparingly and instead focuses more on his slider.

Below are each pitcher’s pitch-usage numbers, per FanGraphs:

Maeda’s slider was thrown the most out of their off-speed pitches, something that the Twins encouraged him to do more last season. It’s in the dominant philosophies of their eras that their differences start to show.

In the early 2000s, the Twins pitching approach was focused on pitching to contact and relying on the defense to make plays in the field. Even though Santana and Liriano were great strikeout pitchers, they relied more on their ability to get swings-and-misses inside the zone. Today, the more analytically driven Twins team focuses on getting hitters to swing outside (o-swing) than inside the strike zone (z-swing).

Here are their o-swing and z-swing percentages, per FanGraphs:

Santana – 29.9%, 71.6%
Liriano – 27%, 64.5%
Maeda – 40.8%, 70.5%
Berrios – 34.4%, 63.3%

But the biggest difference between the pairs is that we never got to see Santana and Liriano pitch together in the postseason. Shoulder injuries ended Liriano’s 2006 season early. The Twins could have used him in the ALDS, where the Oakland A’s swept them in three games.

It’s both frustrating and disappointing that the Twins never had a postseason run with Santana and Liriano as their one-two punch. After the Twins missed the playoffs in 2007, they traded Santana to the New York Mets in exchange for a boatload of prospects who never panned out, save the two seasons they got from Carlos Gomez.

The Twins have reached the playoffs without high-caliber pitching, but as everyone knows, they’ve failed to win in the postseason without it. Rotations that featured Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn at the top didn’t cut it. Maeda and Berrios might.

In their first postseason action together last season, Maeda and Berrios showed just how great a combination they can be when the season is on the line. The Twins lost both games, but it wasn’t because of pitching. In Game 1 Maeda pitched five scoreless innings, allowing two hits while striking out five. Berrios followed Maeda’s performance with a gem of his own, giving up just one run on two hits and four strikeouts.

While we only got a limited amount of time with Santana and Liriano together, Maeda and Berrios should remain in Minnesota until 2023, when both are scheduled to hit free agency.

After years of seeing players like Scott Diamond, Jeff Manship, and Sam Deduno take the mound, Maeda and Berrios look like playoff-caliber starters. The Twins aren’t starting Vance Worley on Opening Day anymore.

Nobody wants to return to the pitching woes of the previous era. Maeda and Berrios’ dominance helps take fans back to the days of Santana and Liriano. Hopefully, they will get more playoff runs together, and maybe, just maybe, the Twins will win a playoff game. God forbid, maybe even a series.

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