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Dodgers: Kenta Maeda is a Reliever Until Proven Otherwise

So far, the off-season for the Dodgers is shaping up to be a tumultuous one, for better and worse. The continued unraveling of the Astros scandal is opening up 2017 wounds for many, yet also providing a weird chance at closure at the same time. This on top of rumors linking Los Angeles to Mookie Betts, Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Francisco Lindor. 

In the midst of this all has reemerged an often overlooked, but still fickle, episode that’s plagued the team the past two seasons. That’s regarding Kenta Maeda’s no longer concealed frustration with being moved to a reliever role, worsened by recent failure to restructure his contract to suit that switch. 

It’s a hard situation to reconcile, given Maeda’s contract contains substantial incentives that are triggered by innings pitched. Yet Andrew Friedman’s response to Maeda’s frustration was terse:

“Pitch better.” 

When I started here at DN in early 2018, one of my first ever articles was one that passionately made the case for strictly keeping him in the bullpen. I have to confess I wasn’t aware of the specific situation with his contract at the time and was still flying high off the memories of his relief heroics in the 2017 postseason (which I cherish to this day). 

Almost two whole years after writing that article, my points remain unchanged. Much as he may hate it, Kenta Maeda being a reliever is as much a fact of life for Dodger success as Cody Bellinger making spectacular defensive plays in the outfield and Max Muncy bat-drop homers. 

By The Numbers

First, let’s start with the numbers. In the regular season, Maeda has 103 games as a starter in his career, and another 34 outings coming out of the bullpen. While there is a disparity in those sample sizes, they’re still enough to go off of. 

As a starter, he’s 42-32 with a 3.92 ERA in 546.2 IP. More in-depth, he was a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.43, 1.163 WHIP, 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and has held batters to a .227 cumulative average with a 3.76 FIP.  Meanwhile, his relief splits indicate far greater efficiency: 3.19 ERA (3.13 FIP), 7.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .219 opposing average, 0.992 WHIP, and 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings. 

The postseason, of course, is where the gap becomes all the more apparent. Postseason comparisons can be errant due to small sample sizes, but since the bulk of his October work has been in relief, it’s big enough to come to a conclusion.

The high level October numbers are 8 earned runs in 10.2 innings pitched (6.75 ERA) as a starter, and 4 earned runs in 22 innings pitched (1.64 ERA) in relief.

Digging deeper, his first effort in this capacity was, of course, an incredible run during the 2017 postseason. In the NLDS and NLCS, he didn’t surrender a single run, striking out 7 across just 5 innings and earning a win in each round. 

He was almost as perfect in the World Series, his only veritable blemish being the game-tying home run to Jose Altuve in game 5. (Not that I ever blamed him, given he was burned in game 3 and game 5 seemed to be entirely the result of Kershaw’s rough, short outing. In light of recent news, however, all of that doesn’t seem to matter…) He wasn’t quite as dominant in the 2018 run, but still had a supreme moment in game 3 of the World Series. Working the 15th and 16th innings, he struck out five batters, including a clutch looking K of AL MVP Mookie Betts. 

His most recent outing in the 2019 NLDS was equally supreme, allowing one hit with no walks and no runs in 4.2 IP across all four games, striking out 7. Of course, three of those infamously came after the Nationals had tied game 5 off Clayton Kershaw, quickly calling Dave Roberts’ managing of the contest into greater question

Weirdly enough, it’s his sample size as a starting pitcher in the playoffs that’s the really small one. And it’s…not good. In 2016, his first year pitching in the U.S., he lost his only start of the NLDS against Washington in game 3, lasting just 3 innings and surrendering 4 earned runs and a homer. His two NLCS starts against the Cubs weren’t that big of an improvement, with just 7.2 IP in 2 starts and 4 earned runs. 

Past Examples of Success

Second, Maeda should embrace his reinvention as but another instance of a starter finding new success as a reliever. Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Lee Smith are the most eminent examples. Wade Davis, Joe Nathan and John Franco are other examples of pitchers who hit their elite stride in smaller capacities.

Maeda might not join the elite status of these names in terms of individual accolades, but his case so far seems awfully similar to them. 

Team First?

Third, and most important, is the principle of doing what’s best for the team as a whole. It is so easy for me to sit here and pontificate when I’m sure that if I were in Maeda’s position of missing out on potential millions, I’d assuredly feel the same way. But given how troubled the bullpen has often been in this era’s pursuit of a championship, Maeda’s stubbornness is more than frustrating. It ultimately reeks of selfishness, as his increasing refusal to stay in the bullpen deprives that oft-troubled part of the team one of its best weapons. 

If Maeda can dial up his game as a starter this season, then everyone can truly be happy, and he’ll have earned his spot. Otherwise, it is time for him to put team first and accept his true calling. His relief heroics in October have been indispensable to recent years, and we will certainly need more of them. Ultimately, the lasting glory of a championship is of far, far greater importance than extra millions in his bank account.

Written by Marshall Garvey

6 Comments

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  1. Give Maeda away to any team that wants him, but in return they have to take Dave Roberts too! Dodgers World Series Champs! Let’s do this

  2. Seems a bit shady for management to offer a contract the value of which depends on number of innings pitched and then delegate him to the bullpen, where the potential number of innings pitched drops dramatically. You’re (Garvey) asking him to suck it up and be a good teammate; how about asking management to suck it up and redo his contract to reflect his true value in the pen. IMO, Maeda has a legitimate argument here, one that should be resolved before it creates discontent in the locker room.

  3. You had me until your last sentence. How much food can you put in your family’s mouth with a championship legacy? “Millions” will buy a lot of food. You are assuming a championship will be achieved if he chooses to give up millions. I think you are delusional Mr. Garvey!

  4. Rob is correct in his assessment. You signed Maeda with a contract to give him value as a starter. That’s fine. If you now want him to be a reliever the team should rework his contract instead of Friedman saying pitch better. Maybe Friedman should do his job better and the Dodgers would win a World Series. Blame starts at the top.

  5. Maeda should have been brought in after Buehler ran out of gas in Game 5 of the NLDS. In all probability, he would have pitched through the game and allowed the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS.

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