Can Kenta Maeda Sustain His 2020 Success?

Photo Credit: David Banks (USA TODAY Sports)

Over four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kenta Maeda developed into a strong starter but wasn’t at the top of their rotation. Still, the Minnesota Twins sent Brusdar Graterol to L.A. in exchange for Maeda, a gamble that paid off last season.

Maeda had a career year in 2020. The 32-year-old right went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts and had the second-lowest WHIP in MLB history at 0.75. Maeda finished second in American League Cy Young Voting behind Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and raised Minnesota’s expectations heading into 2021.

Rocco Baldelli named Maeda as the Opening Day starter last weekend. But last season was only 60 games. Can the Twins trust Maeda to be their ace over a full season?

That answer was “no” during Maeda’s time in Los Angeles. He started each season strong, but the Dodgers always relegated him to bullpen duty by the end of the season. He had 29 relief appearances over the final two months of the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

In each season, Maeda’s effectiveness didn’t regress to the point of making his move to the bullpen necessary. But it could have been the Dodgers trying to protect Maeda after a huge workload in Japan.

Maeda logged 1,550 innings over eight seasons before coming to America. With Maeda’s average of 193 innings per season, the Dodgers could have been worried about his workload. Things took another turn when they found “irregularities” in Maeda’s physical upon his signing.

The Dodgers benefitted by signing Maeda for $25 million (much cheaper than the $155 million that Masahiro Tanaka received from the New York Yankees), but they still felt a need to protect their investment. They were validated with Maeda’s three trips to the disabled list, but those injuries were minor.

The Twins have historically found ways to protect their pitchers, but it wasn’t a big deal in a shortened season. With a 60-game schedule, Maeda let it fly, and the result was an All-Star-caliber season.

However, there was more that went into Maeda’s performance than a shortened schedule. One of the most significant differences was his control. Last season, Maeda walked 1.4 batters per nine innings. According to Statcast, that number resulted in a career-low 4% walk rate. Those numbers were nearly half of his career rates, including 2.6 walks per nine innings and a seven% walk rate.

Maeda’s newfound control was fueled by a change in his pitch selection. The right-hander used more sliders and changeups in 2020 while decreasing the usage of his four-seam fastball. While he used the fastball less, he used it as a more effective put-away pitch.

Maeda’s swinging strike rate had increased each of his four previous seasons in the major leagues, but his 17.2% rate in 2020 was a significant improvement from the 14.6% he logged in 2019.

Hitters also had trouble adjusting to Maeda’s tendencies. Maeda forced a 40.8% chase rate last season, which was well over his career rate of 33.5%. With a career-low 39.1% of his pitches in the zone, hitters were helping Maeda cut his walk rate in half.

While these tendencies manifested in a shortened season, it’s fair to wonder if some of the other factors helped Maeda continue his performance. Hitters were unable to look at video during games due to COVID restrictions, and an entire offseason of tape could help uncover what Maeda was doing differently.

Maeda will also see different hitters. Last year’s schedule was made strictly of the American and National League Central divisions. This means that Maeda will face the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Los Angeles Angels, all teams that scored more runs than the Twins did last season.

That puts pressure on Maeda to adapt heading into 2021. If Maeda can continue to get hitters to chase, he should have another strong season. If not, the Twins could be in the market for a true ace at July’s trade deadline.

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