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Maeda building on masterful season

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Feb 28, 2021

Last spring, Kenta Maeda worked on his spin rate and spin efficiency with Twins coaches and it paid dividends. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

When you do something only one other pitcher has done in the history of baseball, what do you do for an encore?

If you are Twins right-hander Kenta Maeda, who posted the second-lowest walks and hits allowed per inning (WHIP) rate for qualified starters in the history of baseball last season, you work on introducing new pitches into your repertoire.

Maeda, who pitched to Twins hitters Saturday in camp, said he is working on a two-seam fastball and slower curveball this spring.

That would be bad news for big league hitters, who earned the fewest amount of walks and hits per inning against a starting pitcher for a season since Pedro Martinez in his hallowed 2000 season.

Maeda’s WHIP of 0.75 was just a shade off the record of 0.7373 set by Martinez. In posting a 0.75 WHIP last year, Maeda moved ahead of the pitcher who held the mark for 87 years – Baseball Hall of Fame inaugural class member Walter Johnson. Baseball Reference lists Guy Hecker’s 1876 season as third among qualified starters though he played in the second-rate league of the American Association.

Minnesota Twins right-hander Kenta Maeda limited batters to a .168 batting average against in 2020. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Maeda’s hits per nine innings rate (5.4) was the ninth-best among starting pitchers in baseball history though that is taking into account a shortened season where three pitchers posted even stingier hits numbers. One of them, Trevor Bauer, established a new mark for fewest hits allowed per nine innings (5.05). That broke the previous standard set by Nolan Ryan in 1972 (5.26). Bauer also enjoyed the fourth-best WHIP recorded last year by a starter. Dinelson Lamet posted the second-lowest hits per nine innings rate and Shane Bieber put up the eighth-best figure for qualified starters according to Baseball Reference.

In 11 games and 66 2/3 innings, Maeda went 6-1 while striking out 80 batters and allowing just 40 hits and 10 walks. He allowed nine home runs which inflated his ERA relative to his other statistics to 2.70.

Batters hit .168 against Maeda last year, fourth-lowest in the major leagues and second-lowest in the American League to the .167 mark hit against Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. Maeda was toughest on righties, who struggled at a .149 clip against him.

Maeda said last season’s success was a “confidence booster.”

Speaking through a translator, the Japanese native said he wants to throw more types of pitches this year and improve on others. “I would like to build off of what I had last year,” he said.

Twins righty Kenta Maeda (right) has been working on his curveball and two-seam fastball this spring. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Maeda said he has always had some of the pitches he has been trying out, they just “weren’t game ready,” he said on a group Zoom interview on Saturday.

During spring training last season, one of the things Maeda worked on was his cutter, which he had gotten away from in 2019. He also worked on his spin rate and spin efficiency.

Most terrifying to batters in 2020, was Maeda’s use of the split-finger change. In at-bats where his split-change ended the sequence, batters hit .132 against the pitch. When his four-seam fastball ended the at-bat, hitters batted .086.

Of his 80 strikeouts, 38 were on his split-finger changeup and 16 were on his four-seamer.

For balls that actually made it into play against Maeda, batters hit safely at a .208 clip – a testament to how tough it was for hitters to make hard contact.

Last season, if an at-bat ended for a hitter on a four-seam fastball or split-finger changeup it was goodnight, as they struggled to a .086 and .132 average respectively. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Maeda “was dominant” last season. “He was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year, Baldelli said.

This season, Maeda has been working on his pitching grips in the bullpen and the movement on his pitches continues to impress.

“He’s a guy who is never really satisfied with the status quo,” Baldelli said. “He’s always picking up on things. He’s continually trying to be that competitor and learner.”

Kenta Maeda is enjoying this spring after his first season with the Twins, returning to a role exclusively as a starter, after splitting his time between starting and the bullpen with the Dodgers the previous two seasons. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda had the ninth-lowest hits-per-nine-innings rate in the history of baseball, in the shortened season last year. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg