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2018 Dodgers Player Reviews: Kenta Maeda

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May 29, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Kenta Maeda (18) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2018 was the third year of an eight-year, $25 million contract Kenta Maeda signed with the Dodgers in January 2016.

Regular Season Recap

Despite my insistence in January of this year that Maeda be a reliever all year long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation to start the season. He justified it with a strong first half, piling up strikeouts and managing a winning record by the All-Star break.

However, as I mentioned in my January piece, his slender frame and generally inability to go deep into games were factors that made him better for the bullpen. Sure enough, Maeda wore down as a starter and was shifted to relief work in August after several rough starts.

Given how much he relished his bullpen heroics in 2017, and how much better he does there, one might think Maeda would readily accept a similar transition in 2018. Yet when asked about his shift to the bullpen in August, he was fairly terse in his response. While showing restraint and accepting his new role, he was understandably upset about its impact on the bonus clause in his contract that allocates over $10 million in bonuses based on games started and innings pitched. 

Nevertheless, the bullpen was where he would stay for the remainder of the season. The downright miraculous recovery and August return of Hyun-Jin Ryu made this a certainty. His combined starting and relief efforts brought his regular season totals to an 8-10 record, a 3.81 ERA and 153 K’s in 153.1 innings pitched. He even managed two saves.

How’d He Do in October?

One of my greatest joys of the 2017 postseason was Maeda’s dominant relief — he was almost flawless. His sole hiccup came on a three-run homer to Jose Altuve in game five of the World Series. (As always, it must be reiterated that two of those runs were charged to Clayton Kershaw, upon whose shoulders the entire game truly did fall.) Along with Brandon Morrow, he was indispensable in locking down the late innings, striking out 10 batters across three series.  

Even more electrifying than his ruthless efficiency was the change in his character. Like most Japanese players, Maeda generally carries himself in a stoic, reserved manner. Yet there were quite a few moments where he would let out a triumphant yell and pump his fist after a crucial out. Seeing him break character like that to relish the moment still brings a smile to my face.

The 2018 playoffs saw Maeda used as a key bullpen piece once again. He pitched the game four clincher against Atlanta, nearly surrendering a deficit-cutting home run to Lucas Duda before escaping the inning. He was less sterling in the NLCS, with a 6.75 ERA in four games.

His finest moment in the 2018 postseason was, unsurprisingly, L.A.’s lone victory in game three of the World Series. Taking the mound in the top of the 15th, Maeda quickly allowed the first two batters to reach base. But he swiftly rebounded with a brilliant play, fielding Christian Vazquez’s bunt to get a forceout at third. After striking out Sandy Leon, it was time for a showdown with A.L. MVP Mookie Betts with two on and two out. Maeda was up to the task, striking him out and exulting. He returned for another inning of work in the 16th, striking out the side with ease.

In a game defined by more white-knuckle twists and turns than one could remember, the strikeout of Betts was one of the most crucial. I’ll never forget watching it in a darkened hotel room in El Dorado Hills, high-fiving my father as quietly as possible so my mother could sleep peacefully. Seeing Maeda come through in a high stakes moment and exult with passion rekindled feelings of 2017.

Unfortunately, the follow up effort in the next game was less-than-stellar. He surrendered two hits, a walk and an earned run in only a third of an inning. Granted, he was but the last of a series of relievers to be punished by Boston in game four. Altogether, Maeda’s 2018 postseason was decent, but not on the level of his incredible October dominance one year before.

What Lies Ahead

2019 will mark the halfway point in Maeda’s lengthy contract. His role in 2019 will assuredly be a big question in spring training. For what it’s worth, President of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman recently had this to say,

He was a big part of our success out of the rotation. He pitched well and we anticipate him doing that next year.

Maeda admittedly had good reason to expect a return to the rotation heading into 2018. But now with Buehler firmly entrenched as the new ace, Hyun-Jin Ryu returning and Julio Urias back to form, it’s hard to imagine him being in the rotation from the start in 2019.

I’ve seen suggestions from some that the team rework his contract to be geared more towards relief work. Regardless, it looks like Maeda may have to prepare for more relief duties in 2019.

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Written by Marshall Garvey

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