The Kenta Maeda Guide to Soft Contact

The scouting report on Kenta Maeda never suggested he was overpowering. He was never expected to post extreme strikeout totals, and while his above-average 24% strikeout rate is somewhat surprising, it’s only part of the reason the 28-year-old Japanese rookie has been one of the 20 or 25 best pitchers in baseball this season.

The other part is the part that makes more sense for Maeda and less sense to the rest of us. It’s still difficult to suss out what exactly goes into the skill of generating soft contact, or how much of it is a skill at all, but thus far, Maeda’s been among the best at it. Given how little we’ve seen him work, Maeda’s a relatively mysterious pitcher. Soft contact is a mysterious skill. That’s two mysteries, and playing detective is fun.

So as not to bury the statistical lede, our starting point comes from BaseballSavant via Statcast:

Lowest average exit velocity allowed, min. 150 balls in play

  1. Scott Kazmir, 85.5 miles per hour
  2. CC Sabathia, 85.7
  3. Kenta Maeda, 86.0
  4. Johnny Cueto, 86.4
  5. Kyle Hendricks, 86.8

Maeda is consistently getting batters to make weak contact. He’s doing that better than almost anyone. When our own Tony Blengino took a look at Maeda a month ago, one month into Maeda’s career, he spent some time on Maeda’s contact management, noting that he’d posted soundly better-than-average contact scores on every type of ball in play. The grounders were weak, the fly balls were weak, even the line drives, relatively speaking, were weak.

Blengino wagered some guesses as to what was behind this ability, invoking the fact that Maeda utilizes a five-pitch repertoire, including a slider of which he varies the shape and speed, effectively giving him six pitches. Maeda throws his fastball less than half the time, a unique approach with which hitters are largely unfamiliar, adding in a layer of deception. There’s also some deception to be found in his start-and-stop delivery from the wind-up, and from the near 20-mph gap to be found between his fastball and curveball, with his changeup and slider sitting at the midpoint between the two. Any time Maeda’s changing speeds, he’s adding or subtracting 10 mph, and sometimes 20. Maeda keeps batters off balance, and perhaps that helps explain how he has a top-five infield-fly rate without relying on a high-spin four-seamer.

Couple the above-average number of punchouts with the above-average number of pop outs and Maeda’s earned himself his fair share of guaranteed outs. There’s the guaranteed outs, and then there’s the easy outs, and regarding the latter of the two, there’s another thing about the way Maeda works that’s not as easy to spot, but has had my attention for a while. It’s a dedication to an approach, one of the most extreme approaches in baseball, and it’s shaped by Maeda’s command.

See, Maeda throws his slider more than any other pitch, and when a righty throws a slider to another righty, we expect it to go outside. And that’s true! Nearly three-quarters of all pitches Maeda’s thrown to right-handed batters this season have been on the outer-half or beyond, the second-highest rate of any qualified starter in the league. But guys have their spots, and most don’t alter them based on handedness. Sliders typically go glove-side, regardless of batter handedness. Changeups the same on the arm-side. That’s where Maeda is different. Maeda couldn’t be more committed to the outer-half approach.

Most Reliant Outer-Half Pitchers
Name RHB_Outside% LHB_Outside% DIF_Outside% Total_Outside%
Kyle Hendricks 76.1% 66.6% 9.5% 72.1%
Jake Odorizzi 69.5% 75.2% 5.6% 72.1%
Kenta Maeda 73.1% 69.0% 4.0% 71.1%
Bartolo Colon 69.5% 70.3% 0.8% 69.9%
Chris Tillman 59.2% 78.7% 19.4% 68.5%
SOURCE: BaseballSavant

The DIF_Outside% column is just the difference between the first two columns, an indicator of how committed the pitcher actually is to working the outer-half of the plate. Tillman is like our hypothetical example from above — he leans heavily on his curveball and changeup, with each of which he likes to stick to the arm-side half of the plate. As a result, his high Outside% has more to do with his preferred location than a commitment to the outer-half. Maeda, and his peers Hendricks, Odorizzi and Colon, work the outer-half equally to hitters who stand on both sides, showing true commitment to the approach.

Maeda

Applying our same methodology from above to Maeda’s individual pitch types, we find the slider is the pitch to which Maeda is most committed with throwing outside, a very unique usage of a pitch that’s typically pounded to one spot in the zone. Maeda’s heat map with the slider against left-handed batters is highly unusual for a right-handed pitcher:

newplot(2)

Maeda throws his slider 20% of the time to lefties, and it remains his go-to two-strike pitch, indicating a supreme level of trust in a pitch from which many shy away against opposite-handed hitters. The heat map above is a strong indicator for Maeda’s confidence in the offering — it appears he can throw it with impeccable command, moving it around the zone at will and executing pitches on the outer edge no matter on which side of the plate the batter is standing.

Located on the outer edge against a lefty and hit off the end of the bat for weak contact:

Located on the outer edge against a righty and hit off the end of the bat for weak contact:

The average exit velocity against Maeda’s slider is just 83 mph, the lowest among all pitchers who’ve allowed at least 50 balls in play against the pitch this season. But it’s not just the slider that Maeda moves around for soft contact. The fastball gets moved to the outer-half of both sides of the plate and is in the upper-25% of average exit velocity allowed. Same for the changeup.

That’s just the way Kenta Maeda works. There’s no one way to generate soft contact; when I looked at this with Dallas Keuchel last year, I found the exact opposite — he knew his best spots, and stuck to just one side of the plate with his pitches. But that’s not Maeda. He’s got his own approach, and it’s unlike nearly any other. Maeda is outer-half, always. And thus far, that’s led to Maeda getting soft contact, always.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

In terms of Hard% (since we don’t have exit velocity data before 2015), the lowest numbers of any pitchers since 2010 with 250+ IP (365 pitchers) are Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla (both 21.4%). Lopez throws generally low with all pitches to both lefties and righties, but particularly to lefties he throws a lot of sliders low and away (like Maeda). Casilla also generally throws his slider and curve low and away to righties, but he throws the two-seam fastball in to them and the four-seamer pretty much down the middle (neither low nor high), and to lefties (who he’s less effective against) everything is generally away but not particularly low. So sliders low and away do seem to be a common theme, but there’s a lot of variation in the other pitches.