Kenta Maeda’s Slider and the Chase for Valenzuela’s Record

We’re left to wonder how players who have established careers in international leagues will fare when they first reach the major leagues: some never find the same level of production they had overseas, others endure a tough adjustment period, and a precious few immediately take to their new surroundings. From what we’ve seen of Kenta Maeda so far, he appears as if he could be a member of that final group: with only one earned run conceded in 19.0 innings over his first three starts of 2016, Maeda has been every bit of the solid #2/#3 starter the Dodgers envisioned slotting behind Clayton Kershaw. Maeda is also quietly echoing the success of another rookie Dodger starter who came before him, one whose consecutive string of successes to start the season led to the receipt both of the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season — and caused a sea change in Dodgers’ fandom while doing it.

There are a few interesting trends that have been driving Maeda’s success in this young season. While he’s posting a slightly depressed BABIP (.250) compared to league average, his batted-ball profile so far suggests that might not be a fluke: his line-drive rate is in the top 25 of starters with at least 10 innings pitched, and he’s posted above-average ground-ball and infield-fly rates. The 100% strand rate won’t stick, and the 5.9% HR/FB rate likely won’t either, but there’s at least some encouraging signal in this noise. We already had an idea that Maeda’s walk rate was going to be better than average, and he hasn’t disappointed in that respect, issuing free passes to just 5.5% of batters faced.

It’s Maeda’s unique approach that warrants the most attention, however. Last December, our own Eno Sarris tried to find a comp for Maeda, and he included this snippet in his breakdown:

Maeda’s best secondary is a slider, and his next-best is probably also his slider (he varies the velocity and shape). Against righties this year [2015], Maeda was almost 95% fastball/slider according to some observers.

In 2016, Maeda has lived up to that billing. He’s thrown his slider almost 30% of the time overall, and against righties, the mark is 41.2%. He can alternate between a 79 mph offering with increased vertical movement, like this:

To an 84 mph pitch with more horizontal movement — almost like a cutter — that looks like this:

How he uses each variation of his slider is yet another wrinkle: against lefties, he uses his slow slider to surprise hitters and steal strikes when he’s behind in the count, and against righties, the harder slider acts as his main out pitch. I’ve gone through his sliders from this season and logged how many of each type he threw depending on the handedness of the hitter and count. Take a look (data is from Baseball Savant):

Kenta Maeda Slider Usage, 2016
Slider Speed # of Pitches % to LHH % to RHH % in 0-0/Hitter Ahead Counts % in 2-Strike Counts
< 81 mph 21 76% 24% 76% 24%
> 81 mph 63 11% 89% 25% 52%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In general, Maeda uses his harder, cutter-type slider more often than his slower offering (he has faced almost the same number of lefties as righties this season, so it’s not simply proportional to handedness splits), but it’s a pretty tidy division between how he uses each one depending on the handedness of the batter he’s facing. It’s no doubt that the chimeric nature of the slider — and the fact that he throws it so often — also helps his fastball effectiveness. Maeda currently owns the third-best run value per 100 pitches on four-seamers among qualified starters, and his two-seamer is just outside the top 25. With the ability to spot his fastball and the lurking threat of four different types of offspeed/breaking pitches, Maeda has kept hitters off balance, leading to the second-lowest average exit velocity on batted balls of pitchers with at least 40 balls in play (Max Scherzer).

Finally, there’s another storyline here. It’s a fun one, even though in truth it’s probably too early to be excited about it. But we’re going to talk about it anyway, mostly because it involves Fernando Valenzuela. To utter any other Dodgers’ pitcher in the same breath as Valenzuela is to immediately raise the bar of comparison to heights rarely seen. Though there are pitchers who’ve replicated Valenzuela’s success on the mound (though perhaps not in his rookie year of 1981), there are few cultural forces as strong as him — few players who so successfully reenergize communities that have been disenfranchised by major-league baseball, as the Los Angeles Mexican community was by the use of eminent domain to raze an entire neighborhood to build Dodger Stadium in the early 1960s.

While we can’t exactly measure a player’s cultural power — even though we know Valenzuela’s was massive — we can, of course, measure the strength of their on-field performances. And, by many measures, the first seven games of Valenzuela’s 1981 rookie season represent one of the best (if not the best) start to a pitcher’s career in baseball history. Here is a list of the most consecutive games to start a pitcher’s major-league career yielding one earned run or less in each start, courtesy of Baseball Reference, and then sorted by most innings pitched during those starts. (I’ve placed Maeda and his ranking at the end of the list):

Most Consec. Gs w/ <=1 ER to Start Career, SPs, 1913-2016
Rk Name Tm Strk Start End Games CG SHO IP ERA WHIP SO/9
1 Fernando Valenzuela LAD 4/9/1981 5/8/1981 7 6 5 63.0 0.29 0.89 8.7
2 Walter Johnson WSH 4/10/1913 5/18/1913 7 6 4 60.0 0.30 0.65 6.0
3 Ray Keating NYY 4/15/1913 5/17/1913 6 3 2 48.0 0.56 0.92 5.1
4 Milo Candini WSH 6/2/1943 6/23/1943 5 4 2 44.0 0.61 1.00 3.5
5 Frank Shellenback CHW 5/11/1918 6/14/1918 5 4 0 42.0 0.86 1.00 3.6
6 Bruce Howard CHW 9/22/1964 4/24/1965 5 1 1 37.1 0.72 0.75 8.0
7 Oscar Tuero STL 8/12/1918 5/24/1919 5 3 0 36.1 0.50 0.78 2.7
8 Bob Shawkey PHA 7/16/1913 8/9/1913 6 3 1 36.0 0.75 1.06 3.5
9 Randy Niemann HOU 5/20/1979 6/25/1979 5 3 2 36.0 0.75 1.03 2.8
10 Jeff Fassero MON 7/10/1993 8/3/1993 5 0 0 29.2 0.91 1.23 8.3
45 Kenta Maeda LAD 4/6/2016 4/17/2016 3 0 0 19.0 0.47 0.95 7.1
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

The top two names immediately stand out. Walter Johnson is a legend; he holds — and has held — too many records to mention here. Then there’s Valenzuela matching him at seven games, with a few more innings pitched, one more shutout, and a only slightly higher WHIP. They’re followed by a succession of names mostly from about a century ago (which might not be a surprise, given it was the deadball era). Then, 45 spots down the list, there’s Maeda! Though he has a reasonably impressive 19.0 innings to his name, he still has a long way to go to match Valenzuela’s record. Like 44.0 innings long.

The calculation changes a little if we narrow our sample to pitchers born outside the United States. Take a look at the updated chart, this time with starters only born overseas:

Most Consec. Gs w/ <=1 ER to Start Career, SPs, 1913-2016*
Rk Name Tm Strk Start End Games CG SHO IP ERA WHIP SO/9 Birthplace
1 Fernando Valenzuela LAD 4/9/1981 5/8/1981 7 6 5 63.0 0.29 0.89 8.7 Mexico
2 Oscar Tuero STL 8/12/1918 5/24/1919 5 3 0 36.1 0.5 0.78 2.7 Cuba
3 Jesse Flores PHA 4/22/1943 5/4/1943 3 1 0 32.2 0.83 0.71 2.8 Mexico
4 John Hiller DET 8/20/1967 8/29/1967 3 2 2 26.0 0.35 0.73 4.5 Canada
5 Moe Drabowsky CHC 8/18/1956 8/28/1956 3 1 0 23.0 1.17 1.30 5.9 Poland
6 Felix Hernandez SEA 8/4/2005 8/15/2005 3 0 0 21.0 0.86 0.67 9.0 Venezuela
7 Rich Harden OAK 7/21/2003 7/31/2003 3 0 0 21.0 0.86 1.00 6.9 Canada
8 Eduardo Rodriguez BOS 5/28/2015 6/9/2015 3 0 0 20.2 0.44 0.74 9.4 Venezuela
9 Vicente Padilla PHI 4/3/2002 4/14/2002 3 0 0 20.0 0.9 1.00 9.5 Nicaragua
10 Odrisamer Despaigne SDP 6/23/2014 7/5/2014 3 0 0 19.2 0.92 0.99 2.3 Cuba
12 Kenta Maeda LAD 4/6/2016 4/17/2016 3 0 0 19.0 0.47 0.95 7.1 Japan
SOURCE: Baseball Reference
*Only players born outside the United States

Maeda obviously moves up quite a bit, but he’s still outside the top 10. However, the most important point to all of this is that his streak is still active. Until he makes his next start, Maeda’s chasing Valenzuela with an eye toward closing the gap. It’s probably an impossible gap, and might be for another few decades. The game has changed since Valenzuela’s time, and this might be one of those streaks that is never broken simply due to the luck and dominance involved. Bloop hits happen. Balls get lost in the lights. Errors are ruled hits. The idea of giving up only two or three earned runs over 60+ consecutive innings is ridiculous. That’s the only word for it.

Valenzuela did it, though. And now, to start his major-league career, Maeda has given up just one earned run in 19. He’s still a ways away. He’s still forever away. But sometimes it’s fun to talk about Fernando, and remember just how incredible his 1981 season was, and remind ourselves that crazy things can (and do) happen in every single baseball season.

We hoped you liked reading Kenta Maeda’s Slider and the Chase for Valenzuela’s Record by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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My favourite fun fact about Valenzuela’s 1981 season is that, in addition to the Cy Young and NL Rookie of the Year awards, he also won NL Silver Slugger for Pitcher (slash line of .250/.262/.281). He really was the best pitcher that year.