The Twins executed one of the most immediately beneficial trades in recent years last winter when they dealt Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers for Kenta Maeda as part of a 4 player deal that came directly after the Dodgers plucked Mookie Betts from the Red Sox.
While Graterol eventually went on to help the Dodgers win the Word Series, Maeda transformed the Twins rotation. He finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, behind only Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, and was a big reason why the pitching was not the problem against Houston in the playoffs.
Maeda has always been an effective pitcher, but was relegated to a swing role thanks to Los Angeles’ deep rotation. As a result, he was an extremely effective reliever for the Dodgers, but never much more. In Minnesota, he was asked to start and seized the role.
Not only was he better in terms of results and derived statistics, like ERA, he showed demonstrable improvement in other categories as well. The biggest gain was in his control. Typically, he has walked about 3 per 9 innings, but in 2020, it was less than half that. His strikeout rate was in line with his career average, over 10 per 9 innings pitch, and the net result was a pitcher with pinpoint control.
He also derived weaker contact, with a lower exit velocity, which indicates an elusiveness that he didn’t necessarily have before. Mightn’t this be a result of a smaller sample size? Probably some of it, but he also made fundamental changes to his pitch selection. He’s throwing far fewer of his pedestrian fastballs, and increasing the number of breaking balls, particularly his slider (if you can believe that, Twins fans) and his curveball, which he rarely threw before he joined the Twins.
Maeda’s improvement wasn’t a fluke. Sure, maybe he will wilt with more use in 2021, and his numbers will surely depress somewhat as American League hitters seem him more frequently. Even if he reverts back to the Maeda of old, he will be a very good pitcher for the Twins. But he won’t, because he is even better now than when he arrived.