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Kenta Maeda is a different pitcher out of the bullpen

It’s not just the added velocity. His pitch selection changes, too.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One of the reasons the Dodgers have been so successful is because of their versatility. They have players like Cody Bellinger who can fill the roles of power-hitting first baseman and speedy center fielder. They have players like Kiké Hernández who can play all over the diamond. Rich Hill can throw over-the-top curves and drop down to the side to sweep it across the strike zone. They’re seemingly prepared for every contingency as their players can seemingly morph into different people, and Kenta Maeda’s transition to the bullpen is emblematic of that feature.

In last year’s postseason, we marveled at Maeda’s ability to add three to four mph to his fastball as the Dodgers came out of the bullpen. Pitchers tend to gain velocity when used out of relief, but Maeda went from throwing 90-92 to averaging 95. He underwent a similar transformation as he transitioned to the bullpen this year. Maeda had mostly been a starter until August when the Dodgers started having trouble with their bullpen and Kenley Jansen’s health concerns reemerged.

The jump was less extreme, but still pronounced. When he moved to the bullpen he added an extra mile to his fastball.

FanGraphs

His velocity has been on the rise since 2016, but it’s even higher when he pitches in relief. It appears that Maeda can add velocity seemingly at will. Just as Mike Trout’s defense improved when he decided to improve it, Maeda’s velocity went up because he decided it should.

It’s not just the added velocity that makes him a different pitcher when he comes out of the bullpen either. His pitch selection changes as well. Because he doesn’t have to face batters two or three times, he doesn’t have to throw the kitchen sink at a batter. Since becoming a reliever in August, Maeda has largely moved away from his curveball.

Brooks Baseball

From April through July, Maeda threw his curveball between 12 and 14 percent of the time. He threw as many as 18 in an outing against the Texas Rangers. Since the beginning of September, he’s thrown just four. That includes his three postseason outings prior to Game Three of the NLCS.

What’s weird is that Maeda’s increased velocity appears to be a conscious choice while his sudden abandonment of his curve may have been coincidence. Maeda throws a plurality of his curves for first pitches and he usually reserves it for the second time through the order.

The first time through the order, Maeda prefers to begin the at-bat with a fastball. In 2018, Maeda threw fastballs on 61 percent of first pitches to lefties and 56 percent of first pitches to righties. The second time through the order, Maeda changes his approach.

Second time through the order, he threw fastballs for the first pitch just 38 percent of the time to lefties and 43 percent of the time to righties. Meanwhile, he started out left-handed hitters with a curve 34 percent of the time and righties 27 percent of the time.

Third time through the order, his odds of beginning with a curve grew even more.

Percentage of First Pitches Against LHH

Time Through Order Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
Time Through Order Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
1st 61 7 0 5 21 7
2nd 38 4 1 12 34 9
3rd+ 29 4 4 4 42 17
Brooks Baseball

Percentage of First Pitches Against RHH

Time Through Order Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
Time Through Order Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
1st 56 1 5 21 17 0
2nd 43 4 10 17 27 0
3rd+ 34 6 8 34 19 0
Brooks Baseball

Whether it was a conscious choice to move away from his curve or just a result of not facing batters a second time, it’s still remarkable how Maeda transforms from a traditional starter to a power reliever. He’s just another example of how the Dodgers have maximized their roster space.