Kenta Maeda’s New Mix

Let’s play a little game. Here’s a table ranking five pitchers in a mystery stat for 2018:

Leaders in Mystery Stat, 2018
Pitcher Team Mystery Stat
Chris Sale Red Sox 8*
Max Scherzer Nationals 5
Max Scherzer Nationals 4
Chris Sale Red Sox 7
Trevor Bauer Indians 4
James Paxton Mariners 4
Kenta Maeda Dodgers 4*

One of these pitchers is not like the others. One of these pitchers didn’t get any All-Star consideration and, barring a miracle, won’t get any Cy Young votes at the end of the year. Obviously, it’s not Sale or Scherzer, who started the All-Star Game, and it’s not Bauer, who was on the AL squad.

That leaves Paxton and Maeda, and you can bet that AL manager A.J. Hinch was thinking about the former much harder, at least before his recent struggles and lower back stiffness, than NL manager Dave Roberts was about the latter — and Maeda is Roberts’ own pitcher!

As for the mystery stat, are you ready for the reveal? To provide a buffer so you don’t accidentally read it while you still ponder that question, here’s a visual break that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, an encore presentation of Bryce Harper’s Home Run Derby-winning torrent from the final minute of the competition:

OK, time’s up. The table shows the season’s longest streaks of starts with at least nine strikeouts, and the asterisk indicates the ones that are still active, namely those of Sale (who, even in a time of rising K rates, last year became just the second pitcher in the past 15 seasons to notch 300 strikeouts) and Maeda. Over his last four starts, the past two of which only lasted 5.2 innings, the latter has struck out exactly nine each time. That’s 36 in 25.1 innings total, and a 37.8% rate, which would top Sale’s 37.2% as the season’s highest among starters if he were able to sustain it.

In part because he’s 12.1 innings short of qualifying for the ERA title — that due to a right hip strain that cost him a couple of turns in early June — Maeda has flown under the radar, but he’s one of many unsung heroes in the Dodgers’ surge from 16-26 (.381) through May 16 to 39-18 (an NL-best .684) since. In the rotation alone, one can point to Ross Stripling, who did make the NL All-Star team, and rookie Walker Buehler, as well. Those two and Maeda helped the rotation weather a seven-week stretch during which they got just one start from Clayton Kershaw due to biceps tendinitis and a lower back strain.

As noted in my look at the Dodgers’ pitching staff in the wake of the Manny Machado trade, Maeda entered Sunday ranked ninth in the NL in WAR (2.3) despite the shortfall of innings. Among NL starters with at least 80 innings, he’s fourth in both strikeout rate (29.7%) and FIP (2.77) and eighth in ERA (3.12). In short, the 30-year-old righty is kicking ass and taking names.

Already, Maeda is within a whisker of meeting his preseason Depth Charts projection of 2.4 WAR; that was based on a workload of 129 innings, which he’ll likely exceed. It’s not that he wasn’t a solid pitcher before, but his 2016-17 work (3.80 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 25.1% strikeout rate, 5.3 WAR in 310 innings) didn’t suggest a big breakout in store. So the question is, what has changed?

A few things stand out. For one, Maeda is getting more swings at pitches outside the zone than before (33.1% this year, 29.9% last year) and a higher swinging-strike rate than ever (14.1%, up from 12.5% last year and 11.6% in 2016). He’s changed his pitch mix relative to his previous years stateside, more or less abandoning his sinker (instead he’s throwing four-seamers) and restoring the usage of the slider he abandoned last year. He’s also using his changeup more often:

Kenta Maeda’s Pitch Mix, 2016-18
Season Team FA% FC% SI% CH% SL% CU%
2016 Dodgers 30.3% 12.7% 10.3% 29.0% 17.9%
2017 Dodgers 32.8% 22.0% 10.6% 9.3% 11.2% 14.1%
2018 Dodgers 42.2% 10.8% 3.1% 13.5% 17.9% 12.1%
SOURCE: Pitch Info

The case of the disappearing slider is worth revisiting. Recall that Maeda was knocked around in early 2017. Through June 4, he carried a 5.16 ERA and 4.46 FIP; homers (1.55 per nine) were a particular problem. Via Pitch Info’s data, he was throwing the slider 25.7% of the time and the mix wasn’t working well. As Dodger Insider’s Cary Osborne pointed out, Maeda ditched the pitch at that point, throwing it less than 2% of the time through the rest of the regular season; his cutter use rose from 13.6% to 27.5%. Note that the two pitches are fairly similar and often present problems when it comes to pitch tagging, but via Pitch Info’s 2017-18 data, Maeda’s slider gets more horizontal movement (an average of 2.7 inches versus 0.4 for the cutter) and less vertical movement (3.4 inches versus 5.1) at a slightly slower speed (83.6 mph versus 86.0).

The new mix worked much better, as Maeda tamped down to a 3.63 ERA and 3.82 FIP the rest of the way. When he moved to the bullpen for the Dodgers’ postseason run, he threw the cutter 55.0% of the time and the four-seamer 31.7%. The results were revelatory, as he joined Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen in stifling the opposition: 10.2 innings, five hits, one run, 10 strikeouts. Alas, the run he allowed was ill-timed, a game-tying three-run homer to Jose Altuve in the fifth inning of Game Five, right after relieving Kershaw. Can’t win ’em all.

Maeda began the 2018 season still shunning the slider, not using it at all in his first three appearances — a 10-strikeout showing in five shutout innings against the Giants, followed by a single-inning relief stint, and then a shortened pounding — and only sparingly over his next three turns. In all, he threw it only about 4% of the time in April, with the cutter featured 25.2%. He finished the month with a 3.76 ERA and 2.80 FIP.

There’s no Statcast or Pitch Info data from Maeda’s May 5 start against the Padres, as Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey wasn’t outfitted accordingly, but by his May 11 turn — a five-run, 4.2 inning drubbing by the Reds — the slider was back and the cutter absent. A mechanical tweak before his May 17 start, made in order to improve his timing, made a huge difference, as he threw eight innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Marlins, then followed that with 6.2 innings of scoreless work against the Rockies with a season-high 12 strikeouts. Via the Los Angeles Times‘ Andy McCulloch, after the May 17 start Maeda said via his interpreter, “I felt like I was just rushing my delivery, in terms of not staying still and taking my time when I deliver. So I slowed everything down.”

While Maeda left his May 29 start in the second inning due to his hip injury and had another abbreviated turn on June 19, that Marlins start appears to have been a turning point: he’s delivered a 1.95 ERA, 2.45 FIP and 30.9% K rate since then while throwing the slider — which has had slightly more horizontal and less vertical break than before (3.2 inches horizontal, 2.4 inches vertical) — a substantial 25.8% of the time and the cutter just 3.3%.

Overall, batters are hitting .186/.269/.357 for an 81 wRC+ in the 70 plate appearances against him that have ended with a slider, up slightly from a 74 wRC+ last year, albeit in a larger footprint than last year’s 62 PA. They’re chasing the pitch outside the zone a hefty 53.4% of the time (up from 41.5%) and whiffing 28.3% of the time (up from 20.6%).

To quote Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, “But that is not all. Oh no. That is not all.”

Maeda is also getting much improved results with his changeup, which (as noted above) he’s utilizing more often. Like, phenomenal results:

Kenta Maeda’s Changeup, 2017-18
Season Reach% SwStr% EV LA xwOBA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2017 33.1% 13.9% 88.6 9 .353 .275 .288 .471 107
2018 49.6% 29.1% 83.1 1 .139 .167 .182 .241 21
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Maeda is getting batters to chase the changeup about 50% more often, and his whiff rate on the pitch has more than doubled. When opponents manage to make contact, they’ve gone from drilling it to dribbling it. His average spin rate on the pitch has dropped from 1,819 rpm to 1,471, and he’s actually getting less sink than in 2017, with a drop of 2.6 inches compared to 5.9 inches, but the pitch — and the whole arsenal — is working nonetheless.

It will be interesting to see how the Dodgers handle Maeda over the rest of the regular season. The Machado deal has reduced their margin with respect to the competitive-balance tax threshold of $197 million by $6,365,591 according to Cot’s Contracts, and they also have to account for whatever bonuses Maeda will reach in his incentive heavy contract. On top of a $3 million base salary, a $150,000 Opening Day roster bonus, and $1 million already earned for reaching 15 starts, Maeda has another $1 million he can earn for reaching 20 starts, and an additional $1.5 million for reaching 25, 30, and 32 starts, the last of which is almost certainly unattainable due to his DL stint. He also has $250,000 bonuses for every 10-inning increment from 90 to 190 and another $750,000 for reaching 200 innings. Those upper tiers won’t be reached either, but so far, his running tally is $4.15 million. Making one of every five turns from Game 101 (Tuesday night) through the end of the season would mean reaching 29 starts, and, at his current rate (excluding the injury-shortened start) 162 innings, which would add another $3.45 million in salary.

The quarter-million that the Dodgers could save by pulling him a bit earlier here and there wouldn’t have much impact on their tax status, but it does seem rather convenient that his best chance at 30 starts has disappeared, and if his performance regresses, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the Dodgers handle his approach towards 25 starts. In the long run, it would behoove Maeda to ask his agent and the Dodgers to rework his deal — whose structure arose in the wake of a pre-signing MRI that showed irregularities in his right elbow — to remove the potential for impropriety.

By our playoff odds, the Dodgers now have an 84.3% chance of winning the NL West, but even so, they have just a 1.5-game lead over the Diamondbacks, two games over the Rockies, and five games over the Giants, all of whom still figure to make upgrades that will boost their odds. Quite simply, the Dodgers can’t be too picky about Maeda’s innings and role so long as his performance is this good.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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3 years ago

Great point on the Dodgers and having to use Maeda pretty much full out until they have the division at hand.

As far as redoing the deal to get rid of the incentives- you wonder if the Dodgers weren’t going to redo it before this year when they were trying to reset the tax clock if they ever would do it.