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Kenta Maeda was one of the great unknowns heading into the 2016 season. That still holds almost entirely true. The pitcher Maeda will become is still largely unknown, and will remain so for some time. But we now have something we didn’t have a few short weeks ago. Maeda has thrown 12 innings across two starts, giving us a tiny glimpse into the pitcher he may ultimately be on this side of the Pacific. The results have been good, and the path to them has been interesting.
Before we get going, allow me a quick disclaimer. Twelve innings is so small a sample, it seems almost ridiculous to even call it a sample. I know this, you know this, I know you know it, and you know I know it. Still, neither you nor I want this column to be littered with, “it’s a small sample, but…” interjections. This is an exploration of Maeda’s repertoire, not a referendum on the pitcher he will be for the Dodgers this season and beyond.
Maeda has yet to allow a run in the majors, holding both the Padres and Diamondbacks scoreless for six frames. He is one of already four starters who have kept the Padres off the scoreboard, so that may not have wowed many, but his shutdown outing against Arizona was impressive. Maeda has surrendered 10 hits, struck out eight and walked just one. He also has a home run to his credit, so to this point of his career, Maeda has scored, and driven in, more runs than he has allowed.
Like so many pitchers who have made the transition from Japan to the majors, Maeda has a diverse repertoire. In his first two starts, he has thrown five different pitches, using all of them at least 15 times, which translates to 8.4% of his total. He has thrown his two-seam and four-seam fastball almost equally, though it should be noted he favored the former by a 14-pitch spread in his first outing, and then threw nine more four-seamers than two-seamers in his second. At 31.3%, his slider has been his most frequent offering, while he has thrown the curve at just a shade less than 14% of the time.
There isn’t much difference in his usage of the two-seamer, four-seamer or curve based on batter handedness. As you would likely expect, however, that is not true of the slider or changeup. Maeda, a righty, has thrown the slider 42% of the time against righties, but just 18% when he lacks the platoon advantage. Lefties have seen the change 18% of the time, while he has thrown all of one changeup to a right-handed hitter. For what it’s worth, righties have hit .240/.269/.240 against Maeda, while lefties have managed a .200/.238/.300 slash.
Maeda’s early-season results speak for themselves, but the most impressive trait he has showed, in addition to limiting walks, is his ability to keep the ball on the ground. Maeda has pitched to a 57.1% ground-ball rate. Hitters have put 35 balls in play against Maeda, with 20 of them going for grounders. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, below is Maeda’s ground-ball rate by pitch.
Let’s now take a look at each of Maeda’s five offerings to see what has made them all so effective.
Here’s the four-seam fastball.
The sliders, one that has more depth and break, and the other that’s tighter and more like a cutter.
What can we learn from that quick jaunt through Maeda’s repertoire? Well, for one thing, he probably won’t have to scrap any of the pitches. The slider is probably his best offering, especially since he can throw two versions of it, but all of them are, at worst, league-average pitches. The change is more than a show pitch to lefties, the curve has strong 12-to-6 break, and the fastballs can work against lefties and righties, so long as he’s commanding them.
Purely from a standpoint of repertoire diversity, Maeda is a little like Carlos Carrasco. The Indians starter obviously throws much harder and generally has better stuff, but he, too, found success last year featuring five pitches, all of which he threw at least 8.6% of the time. When you throw that many pitches—essentially giving hitters on both sides of the plate four pitches to think about—you’re almost entirely protected against becoming too predictable. Maeda will be able to use that to his advantage all season.
We’ll check back in on Maeda sometime this summer after he has more starts under his belt, giving us the opportunity to maybe start saying something a bit more definitive about the pitcher he might become in the majors. The early returns, however, have been great. If he continues throwing all his pitches, keeping the ball down, and missing enough bats to not get BABIP’d to death, it’s going to be a successful rookie season for the 28-year-old.