The right-hander has also been unable to slow his own personal descent that started after the All-Star break last season, continued on through the playoffs and has persisted into 2017.
Maeda gave up four home runs and six runs total over five innings Friday as the Dodgers lost 11-5, seeing his ERA balloon to 8.05. The four home runs in an outing was a career high, topping the previous high of two. Only one Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher gave up four home runs in a game last season, and that was rookie Brock Stewart, who did so in Colorado.
At this point last season, Maeda was an early-season bright spot, posting an April ERA of 1.41 in five starts, giving up just two home runs and five extra-base hits with 28 strikeouts. This April, he has started four times, giving up a total of seven home runs and 12 extra-base hits with 19 strikeouts.
“I think the difference from Kenta, for me, is that the ball is up,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think that the idea of being stubborn down in the zone, and we are talking about the hollow of the knee, not above the knee — major league down is the hollow of the knee. If you look at the damage he’s given up, it’s above the knee. And also, missing out over the plate.”
Maeda gave the same assessment even before Roberts offered his analysis.
“I think the lefties are hitting off me more than the righties, and I think I have to change my plan,” Maeda said through team interpreter Will Ireton. “Since the results aren’t there, maybe I am rushing a little and trying to be more result-oriented rather than process-oriented.”
When the Dodgers slid Maeda into the No. 2 spot of the rotation this spring, they expected their right-hander to be well rested after his long rookie season of 2016 and ready to shine again. Instead, Maeda has proven to be a huge dropoff from staff ace and No. 1 starter Clayton Kershaw.
Few are in Kershaw’s class, of course, but on days Kershaw starts, Dodgers opponents have scored 10 runs. When Maeda has followed, opponents have scored 25, although not all of those have been his responsibility.
Not included in the numbers is the wear and tear on the bullpen. Maeda has pitched 19 innings this season, while the bullpen has been pressed into service for 17 innings when he starts. By comparison, Kershaw has pitched 28 1/3 innings in his starts, leaving 6 2/3 for the relievers to cover.
“It’s just missed location,” Roberts said. “You get a good fastball-hitting team and fastball location is important for any pitcher, especially Kenta. Tonight, I think he was out over the heart of the plate and up in the zone. I thought the changeup was good at times, the slider good at times, but when you miss out over the plate, there is damage to be had.”
So where do the Dodgers go from here? Julio Urias appears ready to join the Dodgers rotation after a solid 5 2/3-inning outing Friday, but Urias seemed destined for the Rich Hill/Alex Wood spot that lands a game after Maeda pitches.
A move to the bullpen is always a possibility for Maeda. But in 218 games as a professional, between his time in Japan and in the majors, Maeda has made just one relief appearance, which came as a 20-year-old rookie for Hiroshima in the Japan Central League.
Asked about his options, Roberts said he would stick with Maeda as a starter, but said conversations among members of the coaching staff and front office will take place soon. The Dodgers believe Maeda is healthy, otherwise he would not be throwing fastballs in the low-90-mph area, but something is amiss from early last season.
“I don’t know if it’s physical, but he might be trying to create more velocity,” Roberts said. “And so, that is causing him to leak a little bit with his front side, maybe, and keep the ball up a little bit. That’s what happens with pitchers when they try to create too much. My eyes tell me he has given up way more fly balls in the air than he typically does.
The Dodgers have implored Maeda to trust his fastball more, but it is no wonder the right-hander has struggled with the concept. Three of the Diamondbacks’ home runs Saturday were on fastballs, while one was on his slider.
“I do trust my fastball, but I think it’s more a matter of commanding those and making sure that I pitch where I should be pitching,” Maeda said. “As long as I do that, I should be fine.”
If he stays in his rotation spot, Maeda would be scheduled to pitch again Thursday in the road-trip finale at San Francisco. But the Dodgers did give him an extra day of rest before Saturday’s outing, not that it made much of a difference.
The Dodgers could always add Urias to the rotation, while also giving Wood a start next week, pushing Maeda back to Friday. It would give him an extra day of rest yet again and move his outing to Dodger Stadium against the Phillies, instead of on the road against a division rival.
“Kenta is a guy who has great feel and has an ability to locate the baseball,” Roberts said. “But in his starts this year, he hasn’t located that fastball.”