FORT MYERS — That Kenta Maeda showed up in Twins spring training on Thursday was no accident. He was not the secondary inclusion in a larger deal that tilted the balance of power in MLB from the east toward the west coast.
Well, technically speaking, he was. But that’s not how the Minnesota Twins are viewing it.
Minnesota asked the Dodgers early in the winter about Maeda. L.A. didn’t want to move him at the time. But then when the chance came to replace some of those quality innings in their rotation, the N.L. Favorites were more open to the idea.
Fast forward a few weeks, through some trade awkwardness, and here was Maeda, smiling for cameras and media in two languages, inside the Twins’ spring-training complex in Fort Myers, Florida. One of Japan’s biggest stars in the Majors is transitioning from spring training in Arizona to Florida, and from spending summers in southern California to spending them far away from America’s salty coasts.
From the perspective of the Twins, they’re adding an accomplished pitcher that they believe will help elevate their pitching staff to a new level.
As they began to get traction in the past few weeks in trade talks, they recruited an important advanced scout: Rich Hill.
The Twins called the veteran pitcher, whom they had signed on New Years Eve, and asked for his input on his former teammate. Competitor. Calm and cool. But when he’s on the mound in a baseball game, he’s in a battle, Hill told his new bosses.
“He has an incredible ability and feel for all of his pitches,” Hill said in a recent interview with Twins Radio Network. “He has a great changeup, kind of like a split-change. He’s got one of the best sliders in baseball. … And he’s got an incredible fastball. So as long as he’s using the three-pitch mix that he has, then it’s really, really tough to have any success off of Kenta,” Hill said. “Extremely talented pitcher, and he has a great intensity about him when he’s out there on the mound.”
Roughly one-third of Maeda’s pitches are four-seam fastballs, and one-third are sliders. He also relied on that split-change that Hill describes for 23% of his pitches last year with the Dodgers. Maeda also has a curveball, but if he throws 100 pitches in a night, fewer than 10, on average, would be curves.
Derek Falvey, the guy who ultimately got the deal done to bring Maeda to Minnesota, lights up when talking about it.
“We did a great deal of work on his makeup and his background and who he is [before the trade],” Falvey explained in a radio interview with SKOR North. “But what people don’t realize about this guy is he’s a tremendous athlete. … Has a really good feel for pitching. He was utilized in a mostly starting role there but at times, because of how good that Dodger team was, became the guy they could use on back-to-back days in the playoffs. Or for two innings at a stint and came right back with one day off and come back into a game. That speaks to his versatility and athleticism.”
“We see him as a starter, a guy who really dominates right-handed hitters,” Falvey continued. “He’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball against right-handed hitters. He’s learned to attack lefties in different ways over time. I think getting him in a normal routine of a 5-man rotation will help him in the long run.”
Manager Rocco Baldelli noted that Maeda’s “ability to make adjustments is through the roof.”
OK, time for the dirt. Falvey wouldn’t resent being called a pitching wonk. It’s how he came up in the game, made a name for himself early on, and truthfully it’s part of the reason he has the title that he does today. What would the Twins’ President of Baseball Ops put on a Kenta Maeda scouting report?
“He’s got really good feel and command of his fastball, start with that. He can pitch to all four quadrants [of the strike zone], he can dial it up and get a little more velocity when he needs to, but he’ll pitch in that 90-94 [mph] range and add and subtract when necessary,” Falvey said. “The slider is one of the better sliders in the game. It’s definitely one of the best sliders in our system here, right now, and one of the better sliders in the game, which has allowed him to dominate right-handed hitters as effectively as he has. Changeup and curveball, those are kind of mix, third and fourth pitches for him. And that’s where I think he’s learned to figure out ways to adapt those pitches to help get lefties out.”
“For opposite-handed hitters, you want something that has a little bit more vertical movement, a little bit more depth to it. So I think that’s where he’s really worked to try and address ways that he can attack lefties even better.”