Kenta Maeda: 6 Charts to Explain His Dominance
Image courtesy of © Michael McLoone-USA TODAY SportsWhen the Twins traded for Kenta Maeda in February, he looked like an immediate candidate to become the ace of their rotation. Just a handful of starts into his Minnesota career, that seems to have come to fruition. His near-no-hitter on Tuesday night was just another chapter in a fascinating reinvention, by a pitcher who manifestly did not need to reinvent himself.
As I chronicled in February, Maeda was a stud for the Dodgers over the four seasons prior to this trade. His contract and the Los Angeles depth chart dictated annual mid-stream role changes, as he would slide from the starting rotation to the bullpen, but he flashed the ability to be a dominant, front-of-the-rotation starter throughout that period.
Yet, it’s clear that the Twins saw some things Maeda could still do to take another step forward, and that Maeda was eager to explore his full potential, rather than operating within the framework of the Dodgers’ needs and preferences. As I said on last night’s Postgame Pint, there were adjustments of which Maeda was obviously capable, but which the Dodgers just never needed him to make. He threw a cutter in 2016 and 2017 that Los Angeles encouraged him to abandon thereafter, because it was only eating into his effectiveness as a two- or three-pitch short reliever and semi-starter.
Let’s talk about how the Twins and Maeda worked together to unlock the potential for dominance that the Dodgers left untapped, out of a lack of necessity for it. Here’s Maeda’s horizontal movement profile, over time—in other words, the amount of lateral movement on each of his pitches.
Notice that Maeda’s curveball, this year, has lost the big lateral sweep it had in previous seasons, until it fits into the same lane as his slider. In fact, the curve has also been an average of about two miles per hour harder this year. What’s really happened is, Maeda has stopped throwing a pure curveball. The pitch now occasionally registering as a curve is really one of his many sliders (more on that shortly), thrown from a higher arm slot, giving the pitch a more vertical shape than its fellows. Notice, too, that there’s considerable lateral separation between Maeda’s cutter (again, we’ll come back to that pitch) and his four-seamer (accentuated by slightly more armside run on the four-seamer this year), between the four-seamer and the changeup, between the four-seamer and the sinker, and even between the changeup and the sinker.
Few pitchers enjoy that last characteristic. In fact, if a guy’s sinker and changeup don’t have virtually identical horizontal movement, the changeup will usually be the one with more run. We’ll talk more about why the reversal there is helpful to Maeda, in a bit.
Here’s his vertical movement profile, over time.
The cutter’s ability to consistently ride higher than the slider, of which it is just a modified version itself, is crucial. It gives Maeda two pitches (the sinker and the cutter) that move in disparate lateral directions, but work on the same plane, making them hard to read for left-handed hitters. If they read the spin on the cutter, they’re still not getting much help, because they have the unenviable job of distinguishing that pitch from the true slider.
Maeda’s changeup has significantly more depth than it’s had in the past, which is a game-changing development, as we’ve seen. His split-fingered grip on the pitch is the kind that generates more depth and less lateral movement, but he’s used that grip in the past, so the improvement isn’t attributable to that kind of change. Rather, it seems as though Maeda is throwing the pitch with more conviction, using the same arm speed but getting on top of the ball a hair better, and that’s giving it some extra tumble, without steering it out of the horizontal lane in which he wants it or giving it away to the hitter out of his hand.
With all of these unique things going for him, Maeda can be more adventurous and aggressive with his pitch mixing than he ever was in LA. Here’s how his pitch usage has changed, against right-handed batters, over time.
Right away, the Twins (while keeping his excellent slider at the head of his repertoire) helped Maeda expand his usage of his lesser weapons. Good horizontal movement can fool same-handed batters very effectively, and Maeda has that, with the sinker having enough separation from the fastball to work as a distinct offering. Because Maeda also throws the slider and changeup at similar speeds, he can use them off of one another as well, just on a movement basis. Batters have to beware of both changing speeds and changing locations, and when Maeda is willing to go to all four of these pitches, his opponents end up in a very defensive mindset at the plate.
Here’s how Maeda’s usage has changed over time, against lefties.
This makes for the most dramatic visual yet. Against left-handed batters, Maeda is now a full-fledged six-pitch pitcher, and opponents have no chance to sit on anything truly hittable. By ramping up his slider usage against lefties, Maeda has forced them to look inside more often, and it’s gotten him called strikes and bad swings with fastballs and changeups on the outer edge.
When a lefty does start to look away, the cutter comes in and breaks his bat or forces a pop-up. (Maeda is throwing the cutter at the same average height as his four-seamer, against lefties, so whether they’re seeing a fat, hanging slider or an elevated fastball over the middle of the plate, they’re ending up with a pitch they can’t handle.) As recently as 2017, he was using all six of these pitches, but lefties hit him well that year, and the Dodgers encouraged him to shelve the sinker and cutter. That, as it turns out, wasn’t why he was struggling against lefties. The key has been becoming primarily a changeup-and-slider pitcher against them.
To see some of the granular ways in which Maeda’s changed his approach, let’s look at last year’s pitch usage against each species of batter, broken down by count.
Against lefties, Maeda mainly threw four-seamers and curves on the first pitch, trying to steal strikes and get into a count where he could throw them a changeup. Breaking pitches were mostly backdoored, with the idea of getting a called strike to set up the change. It’s fair to say that, in 2019, Maeda felt he had just one out pitch against lefties.
Against righties, he was even simpler in his approach, though harder to hit. He still went to the changeup occasionally when well ahead in the count, but for the most part, he fed right-handers a steady, balanced diet of fastballs and sliders, with the blend shifting toward sliders as he got ahead in the count. Hitters still had to deal with two pretty impressive pitches, especially when Maeda was working in relief and boasted high-spin, mid-90s heat, but they didn’t have to have many intricacies in mind.
Here’s the same chart for 2020.
On the first pitch, batters still tend to see something hard, but they can no longer count on it being the relatively straight four-seamer. Maeda’s comfort sinking the ball, especially early in counts, makes it hard even for hitters who decide to sit dead-red to square anything up. If they don’t make early contact, however, they’re unlikely to see anything straight late in the at-bat. Maeda’s comfort using his slider to get himself out of trouble stands out, as does the roughly mirrored ratio of sliders and changeups in two-strike counts, based on handedness. Lefties are more likely to get changeups. Righties are more likely to get sliders. Yet, neither type of batter can bank on getting either type of pitch. Maeda’s utterly unpredictable.
Execution has also been a huge part of his success so far, and Maeda will certainly have stretches (be it this season, in the playoffs, or next year) during which he’s much less able to consistently command all of his offerings. By no means is he solely a product of these tweaks, as his success in Los Angeles attests. However, he’s found another gear, and it’s largely because he and the Twins have been brave enough to take something that wasn’t broken, and fix it.
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