When the Twins acquired Kenta Maeda (the first time) for Brusdar Graterol, there was a section of fans in shock that the team could deal the fireballing phenom for a NL pitcher that was part-starter, part-reliever for the Dodgers. An initial glance at Maeda’s numbers showed that he was a quality pitcher for LA’s high-powered squad, but they didn’t scream that he was the “impact starter” that so many of the Twins faithful desire. It seems that many considered Maeda just another depth piece for the Twins rotation, without the true ace potential of a Madison Bumgarner or Zack Wheeler.
It would be unwise to expect Maeda to make a gigantic leap in performance this year with the Twins, even in a system that has seemed to be able to improve pitchers with tweaks here and there. The Dodgers, in their own right, have been near the top of the ledger in developing pitching, and Maeda probably won’t be learning too many new tricks as an age-32 starter. With consistent ERA’s between 3.48 and 4.22 over four seasons in Dodger blue, it would be reasonable to expect an ERA near four and solid number three numbers from the Japanese starter. However, a deeper glance at Maeda may provide some more reason as to why the Twins acquired him.
When analyzing Maeda’s splits, the first thing that jumps out is his numbers against right-handed batters. Maeda held right-handed batters to a .158 average last season a .535 OPS. His career numbers have been similar, righties have hit just a tick under .200 against him (.199), with a .590 OPS. His career strikeout-to-walk rate against right-handed batters is a pristine 5.77. For reference, a K-BB rate of 5.77 would have ranked ninth in baseball last season -- right behind Jacob deGrom at 5.80.
Maeda’s slider has been his main weapon against righties, and it has been downright filthy. The newest member of the Twins rotation racked up 72 strikeouts against righties on his slider alone, the sixth-highest strikeout total for a slider against righties behind Patrick Corbin, Matthew Boyd, Chris Sale, Calyton Kershaw, and deGrom. And Maeda didn’t even spend the entire season in the rotation.
This profile will play well for the Twins and Maeda, especially against potential playoff and divisional foes. Looking at the Yankees lineup, seven of their nine projected Opening Day starters all bat from the right side, and arguably their five best hitters (Judge, Stanton, LeMahieu, Torres, and Sanchez) are all right-handed. It is a similar situation for the Astros. While Houston has Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley as potent lefties, most of their clout comes from a gang of right-handed bats that include Bregman, Springer, Altuve, Correa, and Gurriel.
It’s a similar situation among batters in the American League Central. Looking at returning AL Central qualified hitters from last season by OPS, almost none (besides those on the Twins) are pure lefties. Save for a few switch hitters, most of the impact bats that Maeda will face throughout the season will be righties.
Returning AL Central Hitters (OPS > .800)
Maeda’s playoff splits also could be huge for the Twins. In 32.2 playoff innings, Maeda has posted a 3.31 ERA with a 10.7 K/9. And while most of those innings were spent as a reliever, pitching in nine different playoff series is quite a bit more experience than anyone on the Twins current roster has (besides Sergio Romo). Maeda even managed to give up just one run in 5.2 innings of work to the trash can band that was the 2017 Astros, and was even better last season in the playoffs with 4.2 scoreless innings (with 7 K’s) against the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals.
Even with just three postseason starts, it was evident that the Dodgers trusted Maeda in big spots in the postseason. Of his 21 reliefs appearances in the playoffs Maeda appeared in the 7th inning or later in 17 of them. While it seems that the Twins seem to be committed to featuring Madea as a starter for now, The former Dodger could be an asset out of the bullpen in October if others step up. Either way, Maeda will bring valuable playoff experience and should be trusted in big spots if the Twins reach the postseason.
A few of the free agents pitchers that Maeda has been compared to by Twins fans include Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, or Dallas Keuchel. Wheeler has similar numbers (slightly better, with more innings) than Maeda over the past couple seasons, and is younger with more upside than Maeda. While Wheeler would likely have a bigger impact on the 2020 Twins, Maeda should be a better fit than both Keuchel and Bumgarner. Keuchel had a similar ERA to Maeda in a little more than half of the season in 2019, though he had a higher FIP (4.72), WHIP (1.37), a lower strikeout rate (7.3), and a sinker that was clocked at career-low 88.3 MPH on average. Keuchel also wasn’t nearly as good against righties, allowing a .794 OPS against them in 2019 with a 2.0 K/BB.
Bumgarner was the more-valued free agent among the two lefties (with the stronger track record), but his similar splits also could also lead to concerns. Bumgarner allowed a .763 OPS last season right-handers, including 26 home runs. His home-road splits are also concerning, pitching 122.0 of his innings at the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in MLB by park factor (SF’s Oracle Park). He recorded a 2.93 ERA with a 0.93 FIP in San Francisco last season, while posting a 5.29 ERA with a 1.41 WHIP on the road. Based on the Twins most common opponents in the AL Central being righties and their most likely playoff foes also featuring a multitude of dangerous right-handed bats (the Astros and Yankees), I believe Maeda would be a preferable choice to Bumgarner or Keuchel to make important division starts or a big playoff start.