Cy Young runner-up Maeda eager to grow

Falvey: Right-hander 'everything we asked for and then some'

November 12th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- 's bid for the American League Cy Young Award fell short on Wednesday night, but that won't take away from a debut season to remember in Minnesota.

To no surprise, Cleveland ace Shane Bieber unanimously won the award, claiming all 30 first-place votes after he became the first pitcher to win a Major League Triple Crown since Johan Santana in 2006. Maeda finished second with 18 second-place votes and was listed on 28 of 30 ballots. Blue Jays left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu finished third.

Maeda is the first Twins pitcher to claim a top-three finish in AL Cy Young Award voting since Santana won his second award in 2006 during that Triple Crown season. He and National League runner-up Yu Darvish are the first Japanese pitchers to earn Cy Young Award votes since Masahiro Tanaka in '16, and are the nation's highest finishers since Darvish also finished second in '13.

The link between Maeda and Santana is rather apt because Maeda gave the Twins a consistency and dominance from the mound rarely seen in Minneapolis since the days of Santana fronting the rotation -- especially come the playoffs.

The Twins haven't won a playoff game since Santana pitched them to an AL Division Series victory against the Yankees in 2004, but Maeda gave them a pitching performance good enough to snap that streak when he threw five shutout innings as Minnesota's starter in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Astros at Target Field in September before his bullpen gave way.

That effective outing was a continuation of his consistency in the regular season, during which he posted a 2.70 ERA (fifth in the AL), 80 strikeouts (seventh) and a 3.00 FIP (fifth). He particularly excelled at keeping hitters off base, as his 0.75 WHIP ranked second among qualifying pitchers in MLB's Modern Era (since 1900), trailing only Pedro Martínez's 0.74 WHIP in 2000 and placing him one spot ahead of Walter Johnson's 0.78 in 1913.

Much of that success -- far outshining his performance with the Dodgers -- came from decreased reliance on his fastball and more emphasis on his slider and split changeup. Maeda threw breaking and offspeed pitches on 71.5 percent of his offerings during the regular season, the highest such percentage among pitchers with at least 500 pitches in 2020.

At times thought to be less effective against left-handed hitters during his time with the Dodgers, Maeda held lefties to a stingy .525 OPS this season (compared to .484 against right-handed hitters), both well below his career .659 OPS allowed to all hitters.

"I think Kenta was everything we asked for and then some," Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said after the season. "He was a tremendous teammate. He was a tremendous fit in our clubhouse. He did everything the pitching coaches and Rocco [Baldelli] asked of him. He was eager to learn and grow. This guy has now won 150 professional games between pitching in Japan and here. He's been phenomenal for us on so many levels this year."

In addition to his exemplary pitching, Maeda also showed off a more complete skillset with the fielding ability that also led to his becoming a finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award at pitcher.

Maeda fell short of the Cy Young Award this year due to Bieber's historic effort, but he'd have been a worthy winner in many other seasons. If Maeda will keep pitching well enough to be mentioned alongside the likes of Santana, Martínez and Johnson in the remaining three years of his contract, he'll have plenty more chances at the honor.

"I would say our group has tremendous, supreme confidence when he has the ball in his hand," Baldelli said earlier this year. "It's hard not to feel really, really good about our chances anytime Kenta's taking the mound. From day one, he's been dominant. He's gone out there and done it no matter which way you slice it up, no matter which way you want to look at it. Objective, emotional, subjective, the way it's felt, it's all at the top of the scale."