Kenta Maeda is not right. Or, at the very least, the 2016 version of Maeda has yet to show up this season. Even if you haven’t watched him throw a pitch this year, you can tell that from looking at his stats. Maeda has an 8.05 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 19 innings. He has surrendered 17 runs on 24 hits, including seven homers. Maeda has yet to pitch in the sixth inning this season, and has allowed at least four earned runs in three of his four starts. This is not the same guy who finished third in one of the most crowded Rookie of the Year chases in recent memory one year ago. What gives?
First, the what. Maeda is allowing a lot more fly balls this season, and a larger share of those are ending up in the seats. Specifically, his fly-ball rate is up to 53.4% this season after sitting at 35.7% last year. A season-long fly-ball rate north of 50% is guaranteed to be among the league leaders, if not the highest in the majors. Starting with the 2010 season, there have been five instances of a pitcher posting a fly-ball rate of 50% or higher. And yes, that is an arbitrary endpoint, but the sample is large enough for us to say with certainty that Maeda is allowing fly balls at a rate that typically leads the league.
An increase in fly balls invariably means an increase in homers allowed but the bigger issue is that a greater percentage of those are leaving the yard. Maeda’s HR/FB ratio this season is 22.6%, which, again, would easily lead the league in a typical season. Last year, Maeda posted an 11.8% HR/FB ratio, which was tied for 47th in the majors.
Turns out the what was pretty easy to find. More than half of the balls hitters have put in play against Maeda have been in the air, and more than one-fifth of those have turned into souvenirs. That’s no way to get by as a pitcher. Now, to be fair, a 22.6% HR/FB ratio is unsustainable, even for the most homer-friendly pitcher in the league. Over the league-wide home-run surge of the last two seasons, just two pitchers—Jaime Garcia and Francisco Liriano—put up an HR/FB ratio higher than 18%. Maeda could be terrible the rest of the season, and his HR/FB ratio would still likely fall a few percentage points. Still, this isn’t just dumb luck. Maeda is creating this problem for himself.
Now that we have the what, we can turn to the why. Maeda is up in the zone much more often than he was last year. The following zone profiles from Brooks Baseball show how location has been an issue for Maeda this season. The first chart is from 2016, while the second represents what he has done this year.
Maeda has inside the upper third of the strike zone on 11.9% of his pitches this season. Last year, that rate was at 7.5%. Add in the middle of the zone, where every hitter crushes basically everything, and the difference becomes even more stark. This season 29.4% of Maeda’s pitches have been in the zone at the belt or higher. In his banner rookie campaign, he was in those two hitter-friendly parts of the zone on 19.6% of his pitches. Five of the seven of the homers Maeda has allowed this season have been either at the belt or higher in the strike zone. From his overall pitch heatmap, we can observe the move up and back toward the middle of the plate this season from last year.
Let’s take a look at some of those homers, with the understanding that there is a silver lining for Maeda involved. His velocity is identical to what it was last season, across the board. He’s throwing the four-seamer far more than he did last year, but the sinker is still part of the mix. Those two, along with his slider, curveball and changeup all check in at the same speeds that they did last season, with certain negligible differences. The problem, though, is that no pitcher can live up and out over the zone with a 91 mph four-seamer. That’s where Maeda continues to run into trouble.
He got into trouble against Chris Herrmann with such a pitch.
And he got into trouble against Jake Lamb.
And he got into trouble against Yasmany Tomas.
You’ll notice that Maeda missed his east-west location on each of these pitches, and he just doesn’t have the type of fastball that can afford to be in the spots these three were. Few pitchers can. That, more than anything, has hurt Maeda this year. He has been up in the zone too frequently, and hitters haven’t missed when he has served them a cookie.
Maeda’s problem is entirely one of command. When he has driven the ball down and below the zone, he has produced good results. Thanks to Statcast, we can highlight plate appearance results by location. Here’s what Maeda’s chart looks like this season.
Notice all the blues, pinks and purples at the bottom of the strike zone? Those are all outs. There are a couple of hard-hit balls mixed in, including two homers, but this is the sort of breakdown that can carry a pitcher to the level of success Maeda enjoyed last season, so long as he lives at the bottom of the zone. We can also see that Maeda has induced the sort of exit velocities a pitcher likes to see when he has kept the ball down.
Again, there are a few hard-hit balls among his low strikes, but the majority of those will be put in play on the ground. Even if they do go for hits, they’re likely singles. You can pitch around a single, but I’ve yet to hear of an instance of someone pitching around a home run.
It has been an ugly start to the season for Maeda, but given the root of his struggles, there's good reason to believe he’ll turn things around. No one should be giving up on Maeda just yet. If he can correct his command issues, he’ll resemble the pitcher who stabilized the Dodgers rotation amidst all its injuries a season ago while turning in a top-25 fantasy season.