Which Pitch Should Kenta Maeda Add in 2021?
Image courtesy of Ken Blaze - USA Today SportsFirst, let’s make one thing clear: Maeda actually already has all three of the offerings he mentioned Tuesday. Each are pitches he’s deemphasized or eliminated at certain points in his big-league career, but he threw all three even in the truncated 2020 season.
Still, it’s fair to say that his three main pitches in 2020 are the three on which he’s relied for most of his career: the four-seam fastball, the slider, and the split-change. The question, then, is which of these candidate pitches best complement what Maeda is already doing—since that formula made him a Cy Young Award candidate last year.
That’s the apparent question, anyway. I’ll argue that it’s hardly a question at all, and is really a settled issue already. Here’s why: in the exquisite feel he shows for reshaping and modifying his slider, he’s already enjoying the benefits of the cutter and the curve.
Looking at average movement and velocity data split up only by pitch type can be deceiving. Sometimes, it’s important to subdivide that data, and doing so with Maeda’s slider reveals what made that pitch so effective for him last year, against both righties and lefties.
Against righties, Maeda threw his slider about 1.5 miles per hour harder, and with more lateral movement, than when throwing (nominally) the same pitch to lefties.
Lefties got a slower version of the pitch, with considerably more vertical depth.
In general, this is exactly what you want. Sharp, lateral break is more effective against same-handed batters; vertical movement and velocity differential help more against opposite-handed ones. Maeda could benefit from refining his true cutter, perhaps, in order to get in under the hands of lefties, rather than aiming the slider at their back foot, but he already does that fairly effectively with his four-seamer. There’d be no discernible benefit to using a cutter against righties, above what he already gets from his slider, unless he could learn to throw it at the front hip of righties and sneak it over the inside corner for called strikes. That’s difficult to do, though, and the benefits are dependent on delicate sequencing and context. They also tend to be quite fleeting.
That depth he achieves on the slider when throwing it to lefties also makes the curveball basically unnecessary. It works fine as a more dramatic change of speed and eye level than his primary weapons, but he already uses it in that capacity, and expanding his reliance on it any further would probably yield diminishing returns.
Moreover, Maeda’s key mechanical improvement in 2020 only steered him further from being positioned to use the cutter or the curveball to maximum effect. Both of those pitches best tunnel with other pitches, most deceive batters, and permit their wielders to command them best when thrown from high arm angles. Maeda found a more stable, efficient mechanical signature last season, and it lowered his arm angle. That only accentuated the fact that he throws his curve from a higher release point than his other stuff.
Happily, though, a low three-quarter slot is ideally suited to the sinker. That arm angle invites the ball to run to the arm side and to sink. Notably, Maeda actually increased his sinker usage even last season. He could do so even more, though, and if he’s going to flesh out his arsenal for 2021, that’s the natural way to do it.
Against righties, Maeda’s sinker allows him to work inside and elevate a bit. That can induce weak contact, or set up the slider away, which (in turn) sets up the splitter down and in. Against lefties, the sinker has limited utility right now, but if Maeda learned to start it at their front hips and run it back to the inside corner, that could change. (Generally speaking, and especially in the case of Maeda’s mechanical signature, it’s easier to consistently execute the front-hip sinker to opposite-handed batters than the front-hip cutter to same-handed ones.)
The powerful revelation of last season, for Maeda, was that his splitter is a weapon even against righties, and his slider is devastating even against lefties, so that he doesn’t need to venture beyond his top three pitches very often to dominate opponents. Still, he’s going to see the AL Central for a second time this year, and surely, the Twins will try to get him deep into games to save the rest of the staff, as they did so successfully in 2020. To do that and sustain what he showed, he needs to continue to manipulate his slider the way he did last year, and he could benefit from continuing to refine his sinker. It may not be a wholly new pitch, but it could add extra dimension to an already-impressive repertoire.
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