Kenta Maeda, Then and Now

In 2012, Kenta Maeda threw a curveball or two a game. He threw three or four four-seam fastballs for every sinker. He was a four-seam/slider guy with the occasional changeup, is what he was. And that’s what I had to work with when I tried to find a comp for him and settled on pitchers like Aaron Nola and a young Kenshin Kawakami.

I was probably wrong, but it’s also possible that what we’re seeing now is a different Maeda. He allows that it’s possible, too.

First, here’s his pitching mix in 2012 in Japan, the last year for which NPBTracker carries data. People who saw him some in Japan in 2015 thought it was about the same mix with maybe even fewer curveballs.

Kenta Maeda’s Pitching Mix, Then & Now
Pitch 2012 NPB 2016 MLB
Four-Seam 34% 30%
Two-Seam 9% 13%
Slider 38% 30%
Curve 6% 18%
Change 12% 10%

He’s throwing more two-seamers and curves here in America, but it turns out he’s doing so for different reasons.

The first of those reasons is something I’ve heard before: the ball is different in America. Hisashi Iwakuma says that’s the case, explaining to me that it helps him get more movement on the splitter here. “Seams are higher,” Maeda himself told me this past June. “More movement on the two-seamer and the break on my changeup is a little bit more than it was in Japan.”

We can watch his two-seamer then and now, thanks to this video of his work in Japan. The arm-side pitches at 144 kilometers per hour (kph) are the two-seamers.

It’s tough to see the difference with the naked eye, but here’s an American two-seamer.

The added movement has only given him average movement on the sinker, but another pitch, even another average pitch, is still a boon. He gets fewer whiffs than usual on the pitch, but his ground-ball rate on the pitch is plus (64% by Brooks, 56% by PITCHf/x). By PITCHf/x, his sinker ground-ball rate is actually in the top 15, and “sinkerballer” was never part of the scouting report.

In the same way, his changeup has gotten better than we thought it might be; its 15% whiff rate and a ground-ball percentage over 50% makes it a good pitch. Only 13 changeups in baseball have a ground-ball rate over 45% and a whiff rate over 14% (minimum 150 thrown, 158 pitchers in the sample). Only seven of those pitchers are starters! You probably wouldn’t have called Maeda’s changeup a plus in Japan.

Maeda is throwing more curveballs here in America, but it’s not because of the seams. Or maybe it is, but only indirectly. “With the slider, I’ve had a little bit harder time with the break,” Maeda admits. “But the curveball is the same.”

The curve doesn’t come with fancy numbers. It has a poor whiff rate, one that’s over 50% worse than league average. It gets a bad ground-ball rate. It’s not an awesome pitch. But here’s the thing: nobody swings at it. Only five pitchers who throw a curveball get fewer swings with it than Maeda. So this next leaderboard might not surprise you.

Top Curves By Zone Percentage
Name Zone% Total Curves
Jered Weaver 55.6% 563
Rich Hill 54.4% 867
Clay Buchholz 52.2% 383
Steven Matz 51.7% 360
Kenta Maeda 49.8% 484
Edinson Volquez 48.1% 767
Carlos Martinez 46.8% 630
Taylor Rogers 46.8% 376
Stephen Strasburg 46.5% 301
A.J. Griffin 46.4% 377

Perhaps the swing percentage in Japan on curves is higher and Maeda, seeing that nobody was swinging at his curve, started throwing it in the zone to steal called strikes. That’s merely a theory, though. What we know is just that it’s working for him. “I’ve been able to use my curveball more effectively here,” he related through a translator.

Maeda echoed Hyun Soo Kim’s thoughts about the strike zone — “In Japan, they really take the inside fastball for strikes; here, not so much,” the righty said — but that adjustment wasn’t a big deal for him. “The strike zone is a little bit different here, so it has changed where I aim,” he shrugged. He’s still throwing inside, he’s just had to move that target a bit.

maedainside

There’s been change to his schedule, of course, since the Japanese version of the sport takes games off and schedules more rest for its starters. But that’s just “when to go to the bullpen” and the like. Game day is about the same. “My post-game cooling-down phase hasn’t really changed,” says the Dodger.

But that wild pre-game windmill ritual?

“Just part of my warmup and preparation.” And that’s one part of his game that hasn’t changed.

We hoped you liked reading Kenta Maeda, Then and Now by Eno Sarris!

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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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Do you think Japanese pitchers get more action on their offspeed stuff because they have had to make it work with lower seams in the NPB and now benefit with higher seams in the MLB?