Kenta Maeda Has Been A Good Change For The Twins
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsWhen Maeda landed in Minnesota, the organization had him go through the tweaking process. As The Athletic’s Dan Hayes recently detailed, the Twins had him work on some minor mechanics improvements, such as keeping his chest closed longer in order to gain additional depth on that changeup. They also determined that he could stand to fire fewer fastballs. And add a cutter.
The veteran right-handed embraced everything.
Keeping hitters off-balance with a slew of sliders and changeups was a trait from last year but this season he has taken that to the nth degree. He comes at hitters with non-fastballs 72% of the time which is the highest among all qualified starters and well above the league average of 43%.
Beyond just increasing the use of secondary stuff, Maeda also altered the situations he would deploy those pitches.
With the Dodgers Maeda would throw his changeup to lefties and his slider to righties. This year the Twins convinced him to mix in a little bit of both. Now hitters have to anticipate off-speed pitches breaking in either direction. Ultimately Maeda shaved off at least 100 points off of his OPS by inserting one additional option for hitters to consider.
But it is his use of his split-change that has made it such an effective pitch in 2020.
The results on Maeda’s changeup are significantly improved over the previous year. According to ESPN/TruMedia’s data warehouse, hitters whiffed on 27% of their swings -- the highest mark in baseball -- up from 20%. The 41% strikeout rate on his changeup is a big increase over his 2019 rate of 27%. And in 2020 no qualified pitcher struck out a higher percentage of hitters on their changeup than, you guessed it, Kenta Maeda.
Without resorting to throwing more numbers at you, we can all agree that it is indeed a splendidly lethal pitch.
While the Twins have made changes to his macro use of the pitch, there is also an interesting increase in the sequencing.
Maeda likes to double-up on his pitches, frequently throwing two in a row of the same type. No one came at you with two consecutive sliders as much as Maeda did this year. If he threw a slider that wasn’t put into play, 54% of the time he would do it again. Similarly, if he hit you with a change, odds were he would come back with it 42% of the time (5th highest among starters).
The latter has been a game-changer for him and one of the reasons he amassed 38 of his 80 strikeouts on that pitch. He recorded 17 of those strikeouts when going back-to-back with his changeup.
It’s not just that he’s throwing two consecutive changeups and that alone is stifling hitters. It’s the cat-and-mouse bait game that Maeda has perfected.
He will set up the first changeup on an edge or just off the edge of the zone where it could be a called strike or, if the hitter swings, it will either induce soft contact, foul or swinging strike. At two strikes now and firmly in the driver’s seat, Maeda throws his next changeup in a very similar tunnel only to have it dive or dart just a bit further out of the hitter’s reach. The hitter sees what appears to be a borderline pitch just like the last one and is determined to defend the zone -- only this pitch is in the dirt or running the other way from the bat.
Here’s what all those words look like in technicolor form.
What this shows is the location of his change in one-strike and two-strike counts. With one strike, Maeda’s changeups linger over the southern border and with two-strikes it’s now decidedly not there.
In facing Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell, Maeda tries to throw him a 2-strike changeup after a fastball. Maeda leaves this one up a little higher than he wants and Bell fouls it off. But with a 1-2 count still, Maeda has him set-up for a change that tunnels off the one he just was able to make contact with only to fall well below the zone.
In Maeda’s battle with Detroit’s Niko Goodrum, Maeda gives him a changeup that is below the strike zone but then drops the two-strike one even further below that one.
While the sequence has been really good against lefties, Maeda has not been afraid to do the same to right-handed hitters. In his matchup with Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, Maeda goes with a beautiful changeup that lands just inside the corner but gets a swing-and-miss out of Braun. Again, Maeda throws the next changeup along the same path only to have much more depth than the previous one.
In the final example, returning to a left-handed matchup against Chicago’s Yoan Moncada, Maeda throws a changeup just off the plate that Moncada is gracious enough to foul into Ryan Jeffers’ upper thigh. No matter, Maeda dispatches him with another changeup out of reach.
It would be interesting to find out what accounts for this. Is this old-fashion gut pitching from Maeda, aware that he has a hitter on the line and by dangling a sweet morsel just a little bit further out of reach he can get a strikeout? Or is this work of the pitching analysts in the front office who have shrewdly calculate this outcome from billions of terabytes of data? Maybe a little of both?
There are multiple reasons why Maeda has had a career year in 2020, not the least of which is that he is a really good pitcher with amazing feel for his entire arsenal. But he also is now teamed with an organization that has the ability to maximize a pitcher’s ability.
- Nick Nelson, JoshDungan1, MN_ExPat and 2 others like this