Kenta Maeda Should Do A Bullpen Stint Before Starting Again

Photo Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Kenta Maeda excelled both as a starter and reliever when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His five pitch mix held up exceptionally well in the rotation. Maeda posted sub-3.50 expected ERAs each of his four years with the team. But the Dodgers’ love of six-man rotations and usage of spot starts make it difficult to stick in their rotation.

Maeda’s grasp of his spot loosened as time went on, but his yearning to be a starter remained strong. He ensured this by agreeing to a contract with bonuses for games started. Maeda receives $1 million each for starting 15 games and 20 games in a season. The number jumps up to $1.5 million each for starting 25 games, 30 games, and 32 games. He was a natural fit with the Minnesota Twins, who needed him to fill a spot in the rotation.

The Twins were practically begging for starters when he arrived. Martín Pérez, Kyle Gibson, and Michael Pineda had all either performed relatively poorly, were aging, or were headed elsewhere. Perez had a hot start to 2019, but cooled off significantly. Jake Odorizzi was bound to regress after a strong 2019, and he did so in 2020. Randy Dobnak and Rich Hill ended up making 18 combined starts. Although they performed admirably, they were not expected to. Kenta dominated batters in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, and his underlying numbers weren’t too shabby in 2021. He had an expected ERA of 3.73 kept all of his other expected stats low (.232 batting average, .382 slugging, .298 weighted on-base).

Since then, well, things have been rough. First, there was the Tommy John surgery, the ensuing lengthy IL stay, and a rocky start to 2023. As if Maeda needed another hurdle, he recently suffered a triceps injury. The injury is hopefully nothing serious, though there is no timetable for his return. His early struggles (9.00 ERA with a 1.63 WHIP) have raised questions about his role when he eventually returns. The argument for it is clear; this version of Kenta is not right, and he needs time to make corrections. Some of his pitches have been stellar, but his fastball has bitten him hard this year. It’d be better to rack up innings from the bullpen than as a starter, especially if Bailey Ober excites in his spot.

Evaluating Maeda’s pitches is both exciting and concerning, sometimes simultaneously when looking at the same pitch. His favorite two-strike pitch, the splitter, isn’t generating whiffs like it used to. He’s also giving up loads of hard contact with it (40% hard contact rate compared to the MLB average of 26% on splitters), yet he’s been throwing it exactly how he should. Factoring in the speed, movement, and location, Kenta’s splitter has been just fine.

The PLV of his splitter (a statistic that only focuses on the quality of the pitch, not the outcome) is 5.27. Though PLV is based on a scale of zero to 10, a 5.50 is considered excellent. The story is the same for his slider, but worse. While it’s garnering as many whiffs as it always has, batters have been crushing it. Batters are hitting it for a .367 batting average and .800 slugging percentage. Oddly, its PLV is 5.37.

A statistic based on PLV called PLA showcases these disappointments more intuitively. PLA is just expected ERA, except that it ignores everything except for the quality of the pitch. Paint a fastball on the corner for a strike, and you should expect to see a good PLA to match. Maeda’s PLAs on those two pitches are 2.87 and 2.60, respectively. The splitter and slider are not the cause of Kenta’s poor start, but his fastball is looking a little suspicious. His fastball PLV and PLA are both 4.64.

Maeda has had trouble with his fastball before. In 2021 he upped its usage both overall and in hitter’s counts from the year prior. That change explained most of the shortfalls of his 2021 season, but that’s not the same issue he has in 2023. Kenta’s fastball is slow and with low spin, so it’s best located low in the zone where it would excel at inducing ground balls. He’s done exactly that for his whole career, while throwing high concentrations of his fastball low.

His fastball’s hiLoc% (location high in the zone) is 50.8 this year, with typical numbers for him being in the mid-30s. Once again, he’s seeing far too much hard contact (36% compared to 31% MLB average) on it. This almost certainly has not been intentional, and it’s possible Maeda is suffering from some issues in his delivery, causing his fastball to miss high. He may be rotating his trunk too early, causing his throwing arm to lag behind. Whether or not that’s the case will be determined by Minnesota’s pitching coaches.

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