I’ll admit that it would be better timing to write about Alek Manoah today considering all the rumors around him and the St. Louis Cardinals. I thought it about it too. The problem is that I know nothing about how Manoah went from Cy Young candidate to terrible in just one year.
He’s truly confounding. So I’ll get around to writing about him when I have time to do a deep dive on him and I have time to try to figure out his situation, if that’s even possible.
That’s why today I wanted to focus on someone else - Kenta Maeda - who I’ve been thinking about for a while. And the more I’ve looked into Maeda, the more I’m intrigued by him.
Yes, I know, I know. The Cardinals need to sign top guys this year. I completely agree. They need a Yamamoto, a Nola, a Gray, a Snell. Someone like that. They also need three pitchers and one way to do that is by signing a top guy, trading for a number 2, and then signing a back-end guy to fill out the rotation.
That’s a plan I generally tend to be in favor of (though there are multiple ways to accomplish what the Cardinals need to this offseason), which means we need to look at some of the back end guys to find a potential fit.
Kenta Maeda could be that guy.
The obvious thing to notice at first glance is the lack of innings so I’ll address that up front. Yes I’m concerned about a 35-year-old pitcher who has thrown about as many innings in the past 3 seasons as Miles Mikolas did in 2023.
With that said, it’s important to remember that we are, in fact, talking about pitchers. They break. A lot. This is why having to rebuild a rotation externally isn’t a great situation to be in. Pitchers are risky. They simply are. Sometimes it’s performance fluctuations, sometimes it’s a velocity dip, and other times it’s an inability to stay healthy. Pick your poison.
When we’re looking at back end candidates who can be acquired for a relatively low price, I’ll take effectiveness over health any day of the week. After all, if the Cardinals do go after a back end starter, he will likely be beyond the age of 30 anyways. That’s the nature of free agency. And even a previously healthy pitcher can go down with an injury.
So when we’re looking at a 35-year-old who is consistently effective when healthy, that’s something I’m interested in.
Even better are the Fangraphs’ contract estimates for Maeda which have him around $11-12 million in AAV for 2 years. That’s a low risk contract. It does takes valuable payroll space but it’s not long or particularly expensive and if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be a spectacular failure.
So that addresses the risk consideration of the contract. That means we can now look at the fun stuff, Maeda’s performance.
The first thing to call out is that Maeda has never finished a season with an expected ERA above 4.00, a FIP above 4.10, or an xFIP above 4.04. As I said earlier, he’s an effective pitcher when he’s on the field.
He’s also never had a 3 fWAR season, mainly because of innings limitations. Healthy or not, Maeda doesn’t pitch deep into games, which is yet another concern, but, again, we’re talking about a 4 or 5 starter here (or at least my point is that Maeda shouldn’t be the best or second best starter acquired by the Cardinals this offseason). If he can give 5 good innings per start, that’s a solid back end starter.
What I love about Maeda is his ability to miss bats and to limit walks. In fact, Maeda finished top 15 among all pitchers with 100+ innings pitched in K-BB%. That’s really good for anyone, much less a back end starter.
The 14 names ahead of him are quite impressive too - Spencer Strider, Tyler Glasnow, Joe Ryan, Kevin Gausman, Pablo Lopez, Zach Eflin, Freddy Peralta, Nick Pivetta, Chris Sale, Michael King, Zack Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, Shohei Ohtani, and Hunter Greene.
So what separates Maeda from that group? Why is not quite the pitcher that most of those guys are? The answer is simple - innings and home runs. We already talked about the innings issue (a combination of injuries and an inability to pitch deep into games) but the home run issue is another beast entirely.
The main issue is Maeda’s propensity to allow fly balls. He doesn’t allow home runs on an excessively high rate of his fly balls. The minuscule gap between his career FIP (3.74) and his career xFIP (3.73) tells us that. Recent years support this idea too.
There’s a bit more to the higher than average HR/9 than just being a fly ball heavy pitcher but I’ll get to that in the next section. Here I want to point out that Maeda’s fly ball rate spiked to 47.5% in 2023 which isn’t a great sign if you’re hoping that his home run rate is going to calm down.
That’s where Busch Stadium could help, though. Maeda gave up 17 home runs this past season but that number would have dropped to 14 had Busch Stadium been Maeda’s home park. That may not seem like much of a difference but it has a direct effect on the amount of runs Maeda would have surrendered. That helps turn Maeda’s biggest weakness into less of a weakness.
Between the home runs runs and the potential inning limitations, there is risk with Maeda, but he’s also projected for 2.0 fWAR by Steamer and has a strong strikeout and walk profile. In fact, his strikeout rate actually increased this past season (more on that in a moment). If the Cardinals are looking for a cheap back end option this offseason, they could do a whole lot worse than Maeda.
The interesting thing about Maeda, and the thing that makes him so much fun to watch, is that he’s a primary splitter pitcher. The righty threw the pitch at a 31.9% rate and it was his most effective offering by far, generating a 35% whiff rate and a .222 wOBA. The pitch is just flat out nasty and deserves all the usage it gets.
2023 was actually the first time Maeda used his splitter as his primary pitch (which explains why his strikeout rate ticked up this year) as his slider was his go-to offering in 2020 and 2021 (he missed 2022 with TJS) and it was his fastball before that.
I would say the change was a positive one.
The best part of the pitch is that he doesn’t have to throw it in the zone to be effective. In fact, less than 1⁄3 of the splitters Maeda threw this past season even landed in the zone (32.5%). He survived by inducing chases at a crazy 41% rate which not only allowed him to limit walks but also to get whiffs as hitters whiffed at a 54% rate when they chased the pitch.
That’s great for the success of the pitch but the implications of this are further reaching.
Maeda will be 36 years old in 2024. He’s well past his prime and isn’t going to get by on pure stuff. That was never his game anyways but age has had an impact on him. By focusing on his best pitch, which happens to be an offspeed pitch, he’s keeping hitters off his other offerings which have started to decline.
Maeda’s fastball velocity is down a full tick since his years with the Dodgers, sitting at 91 mph in 2023 (though that was actually a slight increase from the pitch’s 90.6 mph average in 2021). The more notable development is that his slider velocity has ticked down pretty dramatically. The pitch was sitting 84.1 mph in 2018 but has steadily declined and averaged just 81.6 mph this past season.
That had led to a decline in slider effectiveness.
Kenta Maeda Slider Metrics By Year
There’s a reason that Maeda’s splitter usage overtook his slider usage. It’s because the pitch is simply much more effective.
That doesn’t mean Maeda’s slider is hopeless, though. There are a few things that stand out to me. The first is the wide gap between the pitch’s wOBA and xwOBA suggests that bad fortune may have played somewhat of a role in the pitch struggling this year.
The other obvious issue is that 10 of the 17 home runs hit against Maeda came against his slider. That’s obviously not good but there’s a clear cause - he hangs too many sliders.
To help prove my point, here’s Maeda’s heat map:
You can see clearly where he likes to put his slider - down and glove side.
The problem comes when he misses his spot. Maeda threw 8.8% of his slider middle-middle. That’s obviously not an ideal spot so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that he gave up 5 homers on those pitches.
The other problem spot is when Maeda goes glove side but doesn’t get down enough. He threw 7.7% of his pitches in that middle-glove side location and gave up 2 homers there.
Now lets go to the other side of the plate. In the middle-arm side location, Maeda gave up 1 homer. That’s 8 of his 10 slider homers coming when he leaves the ball in zones 4, 5, and 6 (middle-arm, middle-middle, and middle-glove).
The issue here seems to be two-fold for me. For starters, the pitch just isn’t as good as it used to be. That happens as pitchers age but it means that Maeda can’t get away with mistakes anymore. So the stuff decline hurts but it places more importance on his slider command. Maeda really needs to focus on getting that pitch to the hitter’s knees or below.
While he tries to target zone 14 (glove side down) with his slider, like every other pitcher, he simply puts the ball in the strike zone too much. In fact his 52.2% in zone slider rate is not only abnormally high for a breaking ball but probably the wrong approach too.
I don’t know how Maeda can sharpen up his command but I do think he could change his mentality from throwing the pitch in the zone to simply focusing on keeping it down. If it’s too far down, then it’s a ball. No big deal. But if it’s too far up it gets hit hard. That a big difference.
The good news for Maeda is that he gets a strong 31.5% chase rate with the pitch. That may lag behind his splitter but it’s still a solid figure and it means that Maeda can afford to miss the zone a bit more.
It’s important to point out that I’m not asking for a total overhaul, but rather for a tweak in which Maeda misses the zone more but uses the pitch with the intent of burying it while preferring low misses (balls) to high misses (strikes).
Maeda already pounds the zone with his fastballs, which is a good thing. In fact, both his four-seamer and sinker land in the zone at nearly a 60% rate. That’s great for him because it gives him the flexibility to miss the zone with his secondaries knowing that hitters will chase them or that he can come back with a strike.
Maeda also targets the top of the zone with the pitch which is a great strategy despite the average ride and below average velocity of the pitch because it tunnels well with his low splitters and sliders. That and the fact that he throws so few fastballs (just 33.8% usage between his four-seamer and sinker) means that hitters aren’t sitting on it.
That helps the pitch play beyond it’s pure stuff.
So Maeda can afford to put his slider outside the zone a bit more. It may lead to a a few more walks but that’s a worthy tradeoff if it leads to fewer home runs too. Regardless, Maeda still has enough juice to be effective, even with the home run issues, when he’s on the mound and a 2 WAR season is well within his range of outcomes in 2024.
Kenta Maeda’s arsenal may have declined a bit in the last few years but the righty pitches in exactly the way a veteran needs to in order to stay effective. He leans on his best pitch, limits his free passes, and minimizes his fastball usage.
He has already been effective with that strategy and I think he can continue that success over the life of his next contract.
He is coming off Tommy John surgery in 2022 and a right triceps strain in 2023 that caused him to miss 2 months but his fastball velocity seems to have been unaffected and actually increased slightly from 2021. That does ease my concern a bit even if there is still risk involved with signing Maeda
There’s risk involved with any signing, though. The good thing about Maeda is that his contract is likely to be relatively small and he has a strong history of success as a back end starter with upside for more when healthy.
Another interesting thing worth noting before I close is that Maeda had an absolutely catastrophic start on April 26th in which he surrendered 10 earned runs in just 3 innings. His fastball was down to just 88.5 mph in that outing and he was placed on the injured list with the aforementioned triceps injury 3 days later.
The balky triceps obviously affected him in that outing but his fastball velocity was down in the two prior starts as well, in the first of which he surrendered four runs and the second of which he lasted just two innings.
So, what happens if we remove Maeda’s blowup start from his stats? His ERA drops from 4.23 to 3.46. That looks a whole lot better. And sure, we can’t just remove a player’s worst start from his stats but it is clear that Maeda was not himself in that outing. If we remove the other two starts, that ERA falls to 3.30.
So, again, to emphasize my point, Maeda is effective when he’s healthy. The health concerns are real but so is the talent and that seems like a bet worth taking if the Cardinals do indeed find themselves in the market for a cheaper back end starter.
Finally, before I close, here is another reminder that there’s still time to join VEB’s free agent predictions contest. Click this link to fill out the google form and join the fun as the dominoes start falling.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday.
I’m keeping a list of all my offseason breakdowns below. If you want to read any of them, just click on the name you’re interested in.