How Good is Kenta Maeda?

Originally, I intended on identifying pitchers who are worth buying based on their SwStr% for this article. And then I got hung up on Kenta Maeda’s work this year and couldn’t pull myself away. Alas, as the title of this article suggests, you won’t be getting a piece about trade/free agent targets based on SwStr%, but you will get a full-blown endorsement of acquiring the services of Maeda.

The 28-year-old pitcher has scuffled lately. Before his start against the Mets, he’d allowed 12 earned runs on 15 hits and five walks with 13 strikeouts in three starts that spanned 14.0 innings. He’s allowed four earned runs in four of his last six starts while failing to pitch seven or more innings in any of those turns. The excitement he generated during his first four starts — 25.1 innings of one earned run baseball on 17 hits with five walks and 23 strikeouts — has worn off, and it’s possible his owners are a bit panicked by his recent run of starts. He’s also possibly been kicked to the curb in shallower leagues as his ownership rate has dipped to under 90% in ESPN and Yahoo! leagues. If you’re in one of the leagues he has been made available, go ahead and take a break from reading this to add him. He should be owned in even the shallowest (think 10-team mixed leagues) of leagues.

Maeda is in the perfect buying window. He hasn’t been so bad that his owners are on the defensive and feeling as if they’re selling low, but he’s also not in the midst of a string of great starts, either. His season ERA (3.00) ranks 30th among qualified starters, his 22.9% strikeout rate ranks tied with Johnny Cueto for 35th best among qualified starters and his 1.08 WHIP is helping in fantasy leagues, too. Those who roster Maeda aren’t going to give him away, but what looks like a fair deal judging by his current surface stats could turn out to be a steal. Digging into his underlying stats and PITCHf/x data provides me optimism that Maeda’s better than his already strong full-season numbers.

When I began digging into Maeda’s numbers, I almost immediately looked at his PITCHf/x data over the last five games to make sure there weren’t any obvious red flags that would prompt me to stop my research in the tracks. There aren’t. Not that Maeda relies on a premium fastball, but his fourseam fastball’s average velocity has oscillated between 89.84 mph and 91.80 mph in his starts this year, per Brooks Baseball. The righty’s sinker typically sits a tick below the fourseamer. And his average velocity on the fourseam fastball was actually on the high end in his last two turns, so there’s nothing in the velocity that suggests a hidden injury or fatigue being to blame for his struggles of late. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at his data for the full year.

In his first season in MLB, Maeda is leaning heavily on his secondary offerings (curve, slider and changeup) and throwing his fouseam fastball and sinker only 42% of the time. His secondary-heavy pitch mix has resulted in a 12.2% SwStr% that’s tied for the 13th-highest among qualified starters. Among pitchers in the top 15 in SwStr%, only Nicholas Tropeano has a lower strikeout rate than Maeda, and the other eight starters have no lower than the 24.7% strikeout rate Michael Pineda is responsible for. There could be more strikeouts on the horizon for Maeda.

Maeda’s pitch mix involves the change just 7.3% of the time and the slider a whopping 34.5% of the time, but he’s not exhibiting an alarming platoon split with a .263 wOBA allowed to lefties and a .261 wOBA allowed to righties. He bumps his changeup usage to 16% when facing a lefty, and the pitch has tallied a 14% whiff rate, 56% ground ball rate on balls put in play and a .048 ISO. He also kicks his curve usage up to 20% versus lefties (compared to 14% usage versus righties). The curveball isn’t a bat misser against opposite handed foes with only a 5.3% whiff rate, and a .455 average against it might suggest it isn’t good, but it has utility thanks to a 50.0% ground ball rate induced on balls put in play by lefties with zero extra base hits (.000 ISO) recorded against it. Maeda has the goods to keep lefties in check, and his 7.5% walk rate and 20.0% strikeout rate facing them so far looks reasonable.

Things get really exciting when considering how tough he can be on righties. So far, he has a 4.2% walk rate and 24.2% strikeout rate against right-handed batters, and I’m optimistic about more punch outs against them in the future. His slider is his best pitch, and it’s death on righties with a 29.82% whiff rate and a .082 ISO allowed. Its excellence isn’t lost on Maeda, and he’s throwing it 45.51% of the time to right-handed batters. He’s basically abandoned throwing the change to righties (0.63% usage), and his second most frequently used pitch against same handed counterparts (his fourseam fastball at 22.96% usage) can also miss wood at a 10.0% whiff rate.

In addition to looking at his PITCHf/x data broken down by handedness, I also looked at the data for his pitches used to all batters and came away encouraged by some of his ranks on Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards going into the weekend. Maeda’s fourseam fastball isn’t an overpowering offering, but among the 103 thrown a minimum of 200 times by starting pitchers this year, his ranked 31st in whiff/swing (20.79%), sandwiched between Jacob deGrom and Gio Gonzalez. The righty’s sinker had the third lowest whiff/swing mark among the 92 thrown a minimum of 100 times, but that’s not its purpose. Maeda’s 88% ground ball rate on balls in play against the sinker was by far the highest (13% higher than the next highest mark of 75% on Cole Hamels‘ sinker) on a sinker thrown a minimum of 100 times by a starter this year. Finally, I obviously have to highlight the slider I’ve already gushed about. Among the 74 thrown a minimum of 100 times by a starter, his ranked 19th with a 41.48% whiff/swing rate.

The 28-year-old pitcher has the repertoire needed to get lefties and righties out, coax grounders when he needs them and miss bats at a high rate as well. I believe his upside is that of a top-30 starting pitcher, but I’d hazard a guess that he’s valued by most as more of a fringe top-50 starting pitcher. He doesn’t come without some risk since this is his first year in MLB, but if he’s acquired at the cost of a fringe top-50 starting pitcher, then that’s adequately baked into the cost of acquisition. Since these type of articles always spur questions about who I would rather own going forward, for the rest of the season, I would rather have Maeda than Marcus Stroman, Jordan Zimmermann, Jaime Garcia, Julio Teheran, Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Martinez and Hisashi Iwakuma¬†among a host of other pitchers.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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Great piece. Here’s the link to the leaderboard for SwStr%.,d&page=1_50

I am interested to see that Lackey is #7 overall–any guesses as to why?