Now that we (roughly) know the scheduled/expected rotations for both sides of the upcoming NLCS, it’s time to dig a bit deeper into the individual pitchers the Chicago Cubs will face.
First up – because each of Rich Hill and Clayton Kershaw started two games in the NLDS – is former NPB (Japan’s highest professional league) starter, right-hander Kenta Maeda.
Maeda, you’ll recall, came to the Dodgers over the past offseason, signing an eight-year, $25 million contract (which included up to $10 million per season in incentives).
Advertised as a mid-rotation starter (with upside), Maeda has delivered on that promise in full (we’ll get into his numbers in a bit). And at just 28 years old, you have to believe the Dodgers are thrilled with the contract they gave him so far.
Maeda started Game 3 of the NLDS, following Kershaw and Hill, but he’ll get the ball in game one tonight. Because we don’t know much about him yet, let’s dig in, see where his bread is buttered, and try to learn how the Cubs can get an early lead in the NLCS.
So, circling back to being a “mid-rotation starter (with upside).” After an influx of highly-effective, top-of-the-rotation-hyped arms from both Japan and Korea, MLB was forewarned that Maeda was not exactly cut from the same cloth. Many assumed he would find a good deal of success in the states, but an ace starter in MLB he would not be.
Indeed, the numbers bore that out:
Kenta Maeda, by the Numbers (2016):
- 3.48 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 3.70 xFIP
- 25.0% strikeout rate, 7.0% walk rate
- .283 BABIP, 75.6% strand rate, 43.9% ground ball rate, 11.8% HR/FB ratio
Of the 73 starting pitchers with enough innings to qualify in 2016, Maeda ranks 39th in walk rate, 36th in ground ball rate, 26th in ERA, 16th in FIP, 14th in strikeout rate. That might be the definition of a “mid-rotation starter (with upside).”
His peripherals are strong, thanks to an excellent strikeout rate and a solid walk rate. Maeda doesn’t quite get a ton of ground balls, but manageable BABIP, strand, and HR/FB rates have kept his results in a solid range. All in all, his 3.3 fWAR ranked 20th in MLB (so maybe that upside is a bit more obvious than we think).
But if you’re already itching to claim he’s much more than a mid-rotation starter, there’s a few things I’d like to point out.
First, that’s a pretty subjective, semantics-laden statement. Maeda is a good pitcher, and the difference between a “high 3” and a “low 2” is essentially meaningless. I don’t want us to get caught up on that. He’s been good – not the best, but good – and deserves credit. But second (and more importantly), he’s not been able to last too deep into ballgames.
Despite making a full 32 starts this season, Maeda has amassed just 175.2 innings pitched. Indeed, his longest outing of the season was 7.0 innings (a feat he accomplished just twice), and he lasted fewer than 6.0 full innings a whopping 17 times. You won’t be surprised, then, to see that batters hit .338/.387/.500 this year against Maeda when seeing him for the third time in a game.
That’s a notable issue and cuts deeply into his upside. That monster of an issue reared its head near the end of his season (2.2 IP and 4.0 IP in his last two starts), as well as in the NLDS.
In his Game Three start against the Nationals, Maeda was pulled after just 3.0 innings pitched. Ultimately, he allowed four earned runs on five hits (including a homer and a double) and two walks in that brief appearance. The Dodgers bullpen has been one of the very best in baseball this season (collective 6.5 fWAR tied for second in MLB), but that’s disproportionately thanks to the performance of stud closer Kenley Jansen (3.2 fWAR). Jansen threw 51(!) pitches in Game Five of the NLDS, by the way.
If the Cubs can get Maeda out of the game early in Game One of a seven game series, they can do damage against the rest of the Dodgers bullpen in that game, sure, but perhaps more importantly, they can tire out an already tired pitching staff (who just went through five long, stressful games in the NLDS) for the rest of the series.
So what should we expect out of Maeda?
Well, Maeda mixes in the classic fastball, slider, curveball, changeup repertoire, to varying degrees of success. Below, you can find each pitch’s frequency and overall value this season:
Kenta Maeda Pitch Mix/Value (via FanGraphs):
- Fastball (42.9%): 4.8
- Slider (28.8%): 18.8
- Curveball (17.9%): -6.3
- Change-up (10.4%): 4.4
As you can see, he does the majority of his damage with his slider (which he throws at 81.4 MPH), but does well with his fastball (90.0 MPH) and change-up (82.4 MPH), as well. His curveball has hurt him the most, but he does continue to use it a rather significant chunk of the time. But I don’t want to brush past his slider too quickly. That’s been the fourth most valuable slider in all of baseball this year (and one of the most valuable pitches in all of baseball) behind only John Lackey (25.1), the late Jose Fernandez (24.3), and Chris Archer (20.6). Expect him to rely on it when he gets into trouble.
At the conclusion of my Matt Moore article, I suggested that he was good, but beatable, and the same holds true for Maeda*. While he has an impressive strikeout rate, a put-away slider, and solid peripherals, he does struggle to last deep into ballgames. He doesn’t give up a ton of hard contact (13th best in MLB) and induces a lot of weak contact (16th best in MLB), but teams have still been able to hit him a good bit at times.
The Cubs goal should be to work that pitch count and get him out of the game as early as possible. The NLCS can be a long series, and the more worked over the Dodgers top heavy bullpen is the better. In that way, Maeda could have been a lucky first draw.
*[Brett: Let’s, uh, hope that the Cubs have more success against Maeda, though. Well, unless they just want to set up another dramatic 9th inning win.]