As long as the ball stays in the ballpark, Kenta Maeda’s outings can be really satisfying to watch.
Maeda oozes precision. His preparation -- the pre-game plyo workouts, the stretching, everything -- is performed succinctly. Prior to his warmup pitches, Maeda walked off three or four steps down the mound and marked the dirt where he wants to land. It is almost as if he is a pilot going through a pre-flight checklist.
He can be methodical but Maeda is far from a plodder. For instance, in the third inning during Sunday’s game at JetBlue, after the Twins went down quickly in order, where other pitchers might slow foot it to the mound, Maeda raced out, beating his entire team, and tossed the rosin bag until his catcher was ready. It is his time to pitch.
His delivery is fascinating to observe.
His style doesn’t have fluidity nor would his slow-mo be glamorized on PitchingNinja’s twitter feed -- but Maeda’s mechanics feel deliberate by design. Maeda presets his split-change grip, digging deep before engaging the rubber and looking for his sign. When ready, he will draw his left foot back and wait for a moment. Then he will raise his leg, pause for another beat and pump his hands multiple times at the peak of his balance point. Only then will he kick his front foot and initiate the most electric portion of his mechanics. The lower half just whips at hitters and the arm unfurls in kind.
Slow, slow, slow and explode.
Rocco Baldelli doesn’t want to outright say it but he believes there is some portion of Maeda’s delivery that interferes with a hitter’s timing.
“There are certain aspects of deliveries from some of the players that have come from Japan, some of the hesitations and some of the timing mechanisms and things like that,” Baldelli said. “Do I know if all of them lead to some sort of deception? I can’t tell you that for a fact but I bet there’s something to it.”
There may be a psychological benefit from this approach. Whereas most pitchers flow through their delivery, giving hitters a reliable timing mechanism, Maeda’s sputtering technique encourages opponents to second guess themselves even before the pitch is delivered. It’s hard not to. His fastballs’ velocities -- a four-seamer, two-seam and cutter -- fluctuate like the weather in Minnesota in March. He will show 90 and run it up to 93. He’ll back some off to 89. The two-seamer will run, the four-seam will carry and the cutter will cut. No two fastballs are alike.
“I’m not a pitcher who can throw 100 mile per hour heaters so I try to use all of my pitches to get strikeouts,” Maeda said through his translator. “That’s who I am as a pitcher.”
It was almost a nod to Brusdar Graterol, the player whom the Twins sent to Los Angeles and has been lighting up spring training scoreboards with his triple digits. Maeda knows he doesn’t have the raw stuff that Graterol has and needs to employ other tactics to get swinging strikes.
“All his pitches” includes a darting slider and his falling split-change. It was the latter pitch that Maeda ramped his usage of, which he perfected in 2018 after discovering the new grip. His previous changeup had tunneled well off of his fastball but the split grip effectively killed 300 RPMs of spin and gave him six inches of vertical drop. It now looked like a fastball out of his hand that fell off the face of the earth. The results were a spike in swinging strikes.
The swinging strikes were on display on Sunday for Maeda and how he operated impressed his new manager. On this afternoon against the Red Sox, he was both economical and surgical. In four innings, he needed just 44 pitches to render the Boston lineup scoreless and threw 77 percent for strikes. Red Sox hitters swung wildly at his split-changes and sliders. Any contact would be classified as weak.
“You really get to see a tremendous version of Kenta out there,” said Baldelli following his outing. “You watch how he attacked all hitters but you watch how he attacks some of these really good right-handed hitters and he can really compete against those guys pretty well.”
Maeda was satisfied with his spring performance too. He considered his delivery -- the timing mechanism-messing pauses -- in sync. It was, according to him, the best so far and the fact that he didn’t give up a home run he said with a smile, made it even better