The Dodgers are in Peoria taking on the Padres this afternoon while they continue their Cactus League slate. Japanese right hander Kenta Maeda will be in the dugout mulling over his new pitching approach for the 2018 season. Ken Gurnick’s latest piece described it as Maeda delivering max effort during his outings. I like to call that pounding the strike zone.
That’s just what Maeda did last October during the Dodger’s run to the fall classic as Maeda pitched out of the bullpen. Thanks to pounding that strike zone or whatever you want to call it, Maeda carried a 1.59 ERA across 10.2 postseason frames in 2017. The only run Maeda allowed was in the World Series as he whiffed 10 and walked only two opposing hitters. Maeda was a fierce competitor in last year’s playoffs.
I thought he took a step back though during the regular season as a starter. Maeda finished the 2017 regular season with a 13-6 record and a 4.22 ERA/4.07 FIP over 25 starts. After posting a 3.48 ERA/3.58 FIP in 2016 and making 32 starts, this was a bit of a drop off. Maeda tossed 175.2 innings in 2016 and logged just 134.1 last year.
His strikeout to walk ratios were about the same, but his hits per nine clip increased by a tick. He gave up more hits in 2017 than in 2016, but not by much. So what was the problem in last season’s regular campaign? I’m not exactly sure, although the guys over at fangraphs seemed to think it had something to do with a lack of sinkers, different release point and more reliance on his four-seamers.
It’s true that Maeda nearly stopped throwing his two-seamer in favor of his four-seam fastball and cut down on his sinkers almost entirely. That resulted in more strikeouts and a higher fly ball rate, and more home runs allowed. Not surprising in this new era of home runs and strikeouts dominating the landscape. Everyone is going to this philosophy.
But what if the lack of innings played a part as well? High pitch counts and not being able to go deep into games affected Maeda more than anything else in my opinion. As a matter of fact Maeda only pitched past the fifth inning in 5 of his 25 starts last season. That means he averaged about 5.3 frames per start. In 2016 he pitched into the sixth inning in 16 of his 32 starts.
I noticed that Maeda’s pounding of the strike zone last fall was a great thing. Good things happen when you pound the strike zone. First you get ahead of counts, and second you setup hitters for an out-pitch that will get them out the majority of the time. Pitch sequencing and release points are certainly important, but so are innings and stamina.
Look, if Maeda is unable to give the Dodgers more than three or four innings at a time then he’s not actually a starter, He’s a reliever. Innings count too. He was great as a reliever but the Dodgers need him more in the rotation this year because of the thinner starting pitching depth. I love the aggressive Maeda, but let’s stretch him out a little more this season.