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Kenta Maeda has dialed it up in relief

Kenta Maeda’s Game 2 relief appearance gave us a glimpse of how effective he can be out of the bullpen this postseason.

MLB: NLDS-Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The main criticism thrown at Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after his team’s Game 2 victory on Saturday night was that he was too quick to pull Kenta Maeda from his relief appearance. Maeda was called upon with one out in the top of the fifth inning to dispatch of A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, and J.D. Martinez and hold a one-run lead. He did just that, but in the bottom half the Dodgers added four runs to pad their lead, and the starter-turned-playoff reliever was pulled with seemingly plenty of gas left in the tank.

Roberts’ explanation of the move was simple.

Over-managing? Perhaps. But despite the quick outing, Maeda showed exactly why Roberts feels he’s up to the task of taking on the opponent’s best right-handed hitters in this relief role. Let’s take a closer look at Maeda’s three outs to see what made him so dominant.

First up was Pollock, who took a first-pitch slider down the middle for strike one and then chased two more off the plate. Maeda cleared his first hurdle with ease.

Zone Plot via MLB Gameday

The slider is Maeda’s bread-and-butter against righties. Typically, the time you’re least likely to see it is on the first pitch, where Maeda relies on his fastball or tries to steal a strike with his curveball; the slider, by contrast, is his most used offering with two strikes. While Maeda’s slider had a bit of a home run problem this season — with a 30 percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate — it also collected a 22.2 percent swinging strike rate and an average exit velocity against of 80.9 miles per hour. He left it hanging a little too often, but on the whole, Maeda’s slider is outstanding.

Now relegated to the bullpen for the postseason, it makes sense that Maeda would increase his slider usage against right-handers. He doesn’t have to hold anything back to try and get through five or six innings, so lead with your best stuff. It’s all systems go.

Next up was Goldschmidt, and here’s where things got interesting, as Maeda demonstrated that slider usage wasn’t the only place he no longer had to hold back.

Gif via

The broadcast had that first-pitch, four-seam fastball at 94, but according to Statcast and MLB Gameday it clocked in at 95.1 miles per hour, faster than any pitch Maeda threw as a starter this season. He followed that up with another slider on the black to induce a groundout and end the inning. Five pitches, five strikes, Pollock and Goldschmidt down.

Zone Plot via MLB Gameday

Between innings, the Dodgers scored four runs to pad their lead, which is why many were clamoring for an extended outing from Maeda. But let’s set that debate aside to fully appreciate how devastating he looked in relief. With the lead padded, Maeda came back out in the top of the sixth inning to face destroyer-of-baseballs J.D. Martinez — the type of right-handed slugger who, according to Dave Roberts, is exactly the player Maeda is on the roster to get out. Let’s take this one pitch-by-pitch, it’s really something.

(Again, we’re using Statcast’s velocity readings, not the broadcast speed.)

Pitch 1 — 94.1 MPH two-seam FB

Gif via

While Maeda’s four-seam fastball averaged just over 92 miles per hour on the season, his two-seamer (sinker) came in at 90.6 miles per hour. Martinez seemed to be taking all the way, but Maeda hitting 94 with his two-seamer is notable.

Pitch 2 — 86.4 MPH Slider

Gif via

Back to the bread-and-butter for his second pitch. It was just off the plate, exactly where Austin Barnes wanted it, and Martinez chased all the way. When you’re pairing fastball and slider together, a difference of 8-10 miles per hour is going to be significantly harder to handle than a difference of 4-6 miles per hour.

Pitch 3 — 85.9 MPH Slider

Gif via

Back to the slider, but even further away this time in an effort to get Martinez to chase again. He doesn’t bite, but the count is still in Maeda’s favor at 1-2.

Pitch 4 — 95.5 MPH Four-Seam FB

Gif via

And that’s the one Marv, that’s the silver tuna.

Maeda finishes Martinez off with an elevated 95.5 mile per hour four-seam fastball, nearly 10 miles per hour faster than the previous pitch — and because he has to account for Maeda’s slider, Martinez can’t catch up to the heat. If Maeda is sitting in the lower 90s, perhaps this pitch gets fouled off, but the extra few ticks made all the difference. Look at this still of approximately when the ball crosses the plate; Martinez is extremely late to the party.

Screenshot via

That 95.5 mile-per-hour heater was the second-fastest four-seamer that Maeda has thrown this year. He hit 96 exactly on August 25th, which — not at all coincidentally —was another relief appearance. Including Saturday night, Maeda has only thrown nine innings out of the bullpen this season, but as you’d expect, his velocity has increased in the role.

Kenta Maeda — Four-Seam FB as SP vs. as RP

Role AVG Velocity xMov zMov Spin Rate % of FF > 93 mph
Role AVG Velocity xMov zMov Spin Rate % of FF > 93 mph
as SP 91.9 mph -0.58 1.63 2323 rpm 17.3%
as RP 92.9 mph -0.45 1.73 2327 rpm 42.9%
Data via Baseball Savant

The other characteristics of the pitch are basically unchanged, but Maeda’s average four-seam fastball velocity is up and therefore so is his percentage of four-seamers over 93 miles per hour. Add to the change in roles the potential that playoff adrenaline and pressure cause Maeda to reach back a little bit more, and his effectiveness out of the ‘pen as a righty killer could be a huge boon to the Dodgers’ World Series aspirations.

Maeda faced the heart of Arizona’s order in Game 2 and showed how devastating he could be in relief. That effectiveness earned him another high-leverage appearance in the eighth inning of Game 3, where once again Maeda came in pumping sliders and 95 mile per hour heat to opposing righties. His strikeouts of A.J. Pollock and Chris Iannetta sandwiched a weak groundout from lefty Daniel Descalso — he’s still perfectly capable of getting a lefty out after all — and kept the Dodgers’ lead at two with Kenley Jansen looming to shut the door.

In this small sample of two relief appearances we’ve seen a lot of Maeda’s devastating slider and re-invigorated four-seam fastball; but he’s only thrown one cutter, which is the pitch that led to his second half turnaround this season. It might be that he doesn’t feel the need to break it out in shorter outings, and with the early returns on his two-pitch approach, who could blame him. Whether he breaks out that cutter against either Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon, or Kris Bryant and Wilson Contreras in the NLCS remains to be seen, but for now it looks like his fastball/slider combination is more than enough to be successful in his current role.

It makes sense that with Maeda looking this sharp, fans would clamor for him to eat a couple more innings during his appearances, as they did in Game 2. After all, he’s mostly been a starter during his MLB career; multiple innings are well within his capability. But if we take Roberts’ simple explanation at face value, it seems that the Dodgers feel that Maeda is best served in shorter stints where he’s able to let his fastball eat and play off his already exceptional slider. And after two glimpses, against some of baseball’s best right-handed hitters — they might be right.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.