Kenta Maeda Needs to Bring Back the Sinker

Yesterday, we examined pitcher in Los Angeles who’d switched from a pretty ordinary four-seam fastball to a more dynamic two-seamer and found success in the process. JC Ramirez does throw in the high 90s, but his was the story you want to tell.

What we might be seeing with Kenta Maeda is the opposite, or close to it. Because, right now, despite a strikeout minus walk rate that looks familiar, Maeda’s ERA is more than twice his 2016 version. The difference between the two years? Home runs, seven of them already. The fastball might be the key to avoiding those going forward.

Before we rush to a diagnosis regarding pitch types, we should probably establish that the problem facing Maeda isn’t simply a loss of stuff or velocity. Confirming that sort of thing isn’t actually such an easy feat these days, with park-to-park calibrations a little off right now. So it’s more difficult, but it’s also not impossible. Because consider: Clayton Kershaw shares a home park with Maeda and, like Maeda, he’s also recorded a start at Colorado. Comparing their numbers between the parks, we can get a sense of Maeda’s stuff so far.

Kenta Maeda Changes vs Clayton Kershaw Changes
Pitch Horizontal Move Vertical Move Velocity
Fourseamer -1.0 (-0.8) -0.2 (-0.4) +1.2 (-0.3)
Sinker -1.9 -0.7 +0.6
Change -2.6 (-0.9) +0.2 (+1.7) +0.9 (-1.9)
Slider -0.6 (+0.3) +0.5 (+2.2) +1.5 (+1.5)
Curve +1.4 (+0.1) +1.4 (+0.5) +1.3 (+0.2)
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Vertical movement plus means more ride, negative means more drop
Horizontal movement plus means more fade, negative means less fade
Clayton Kershaw’s changes in parentheses

It’s hard to use the horizontal numbers much because you want different things from different pitches, but just look at the magnitude of each. There’s only one thing that stands out a bit — namely, that Maeda has lost 2.6 inches of fade on the changeup and Kershaw’s deltas don’t feature a similar magnitude. Let’s store that away.

When it comes to velocity, Maeda actually seems to be up. When it comes to drop, he’s lost only a little. Doesn’t look like enough to sound the alarm bells. Given the amount of change Kershaw has seen, I’d say only the changeup stands out.

So, about the changeup. When Maeda came to America, he was surprised to find the different ball here led to more movement on the changeup. That was something that Hisashi Iwakuma had pointed out before, so it wasn’t the first time we’d heard this. Has Maeda lost that extra movement in his second year? Maybe.

Here’s why we can’t blame the changeup, though: it has a higher whiff rate and a higher ground-ball rate this year — and has once again not been responsible for a single home run. It’s the other pitches that have given up all the homers.

What if those modest changes to his breaking pitches are a big deal? It’s possible that a slightly higher release point has changed the movement on his breaking pitches and that’s been a big deal. He’s certainly hung a few curveballs this year.

Eh. Let’s not worry too much about the vertical differences on Maeda’s breaking pitches. 538’s Rob Arthur just showed today that the new system is having a rougher time transitioning when it comes to vertical movement numbers. And those changes are relatively small, and within that new band of error.

Those changes also pale when you consider this simple, radical change that Maeda has undergone since last year. Changes that happened in a bigger sample.

Kenta Maeda Fastball Mix over Time
2016 2017
Four-Seam 30% 43%
Two-Seam 12% 5%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Last year, Maeda threw two four-seamers for every two-seamer. This year, he’s throwing eight four-seamers for every two-seamer. This isn’t quite the reverse Ramirez, since Maeda gets three times the whiffs from his four-seamer than his two-seamer, but there is something to this: his four-seamer has given up five times the homers as his two-seamer over his career. In very related news, Maeda’s whiffs are up and his fly balls and homers are up too.

Maeda has been significantly worse against lefties this year, and those added four-seamers have not been located in ideal spots.

The up and away is not as up and away, and the up and in not as up and in. And then there’s the matter of those pitches down Broadway. Those should probably be sinkers. In the past, they were sinkers. Why aren’t they sinkers now?

Well, it’s possible they are sinkers — that they’ve just flattened out and are being recorded as four-seamers. If that were the case, you might expect the movements on his fastballs to move towards each other, meshing as the systems fail to separate them well. That isn’t the case, though, on average. The difference between his four-seam and two-seam last year was a little over three inches; this year, it’s a little less than three inches. Still different pitches.

More likely, it seems that, for whatever reason (hopefully not injury), Maeda is throwing his four-seamer too much and his sinker too little. Maybe he thinks he needs the whiffs. Throwing that pitch too much has led to putting it in bad places, though. Places he should put his two-seamer. The good news is, that seems like a somewhat simple fix.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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I was hoping for something like this, Maeda didn’t seem to be having control or velocity issues but has been wrecked. This makes a lot of sense.

Kershaws place on the contact rate list has a lot to do with his start at coors, his first in at couple years, where a bunch of curves acted like normal human curveball instead of kershaw curveballs and got belted so hard fangraphs pitch values still think his curve is a negative value pitch this year.