Maeda looking to add to pitching repertoire

February 20th, 2021

It's not that has anything left to prove to Twins fans this season -- it's just that he's set the bar so darn high.

The veteran right-hander made quite the first impression in his first season with Minnesota following his arrival in a trade from the Dodgers, posting a 2.70 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in 11 starts, finishing as the runner-up in American League Cy Young Award voting to Shane Bieber -- and nearly snapping the club's extended playoff losing streak.

How is he supposed to build on that?

"I don't want Kenta to think he has got to be Superman," pitching coach Wes Johnson said. "I want him to go out and do what he does. I don't want him to change and try to be better than he is."

Still, he'll try. Even Superman sometimes needs new toys.

Maeda noted to Japanese media on Thursday that he's looking to add another primary pitch to his arsenal. He relied on his slider, split changeup and four-seam fastball last season in a unique mix in which he threw the offspeed pitches a combined 68 percent of the time and only turned to the fastball on 18.8 percent of pitches -- the opposite of traditional usage for most.

Maeda may not be like countryman Yu Darvish, who seems to introduce a new pitch every other day, but Johnson said that Maeda has a similar ability to quickly adapt to different offerings. The focus revolves around three possibilities: a cutter, two-seam fastball or curveball.

"Kenta has the ability, he’s one of those guys who you can show one time in a side session and he can throw that pitch and make it move," Johnson said. "He’s just that kind of guy."

They actually experimented with a limited number of those pitches at times in games last season, with Statcast showing that Maeda threw 70 sinkers, 34 curveballs and 26 cutters in 2020. His cutters mostly came at the start of the season, while he more consistently mixed in a limited number of curveballs and sinkers throughout the season.

Maeda threw the curveball and sinker more often earlier in his career with the Dodgers, but the usage of those pitches has been in a steady decline in favor of his slider and changeup since he first moved to the United States in 2016.

If Maeda and Johnson decide to reintroduce more of another offering, the Twins' pitching coach emphasized that it'll only be one of those -- and that Maeda will need to be able to throw it consistently for strikes, control its movement and have it complement his other pitches.

Otherwise, Maeda doesn't like to throw much during the offseason. Instead, he focused on strengthening his body with a weight program with an eye on improving his velocity, he said after tossing a 22-pitch bullpen session on Thursday. Johnson has definitely noticed Maeda's increased muscle this spring and wouldn't say no to some more zip on the fastball, though that isn't the focus.

"His legs are a little bit thicker," Johnson said. "If it equates to velocity, awesome. We're really shooting for carry [on the fastball]. We'll see, though. Yesterday, he looked good."

What's significant for Maeda in his continued work is that he continues to grow comfortable with his new team and his coaching staff, leading to a strong environment in which he can both experiment and thrive.

"I think what’s really important is the trust that I had from the manager, coaches and all the staff and teammates," Maeda said through interpreter Daichi Sekizaki. "I was able to answer to their expectation on the mound and got good results, so I think that really kicked it off."