Tigers will move Kenta Maeda to the bullpen: 'It begins and ends with his command'

DETROIT — Tuesday evening after the latest bludgeoning, Kenta Maeda stood there, lost and frustrated. He had recorded his 1,000th career strikeout that night, a symbol of long-term success at baseball’s highest level. The Cleveland Guardians also thrashed Maeda’s diminished stuff for six earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. His season ERA ballooned to 7.26, a stark signpost of Maeda’s turbulent season in Detroit.

“Reflecting on my baseball career, I don’t think I’ve struggled this bad in my career, and not finding the solution has led to the results of this season,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “It’s not that I’m not trying. I’m doing my best and hardest to bounce back. But things just aren’t happening.”

Maeda’s disastrous performance left the Tigers at a crossroads. He is in the first season of a two-year, $24 million deal. The Tigers are not going to cut ties with him any time soon. As a veteran player, Maeda can not be sent to the minor leagues without consenting to an option. Moving him to the bullpen would mean having to plug a hole in the rotation and perhaps creating multiple voids in the team’s relief unit.

And yet, how could the Tigers keep running Maeda out there every fifth day?

“The break is coming at a good time,” manager A.J. Hinch said that night. “Regardless of anything that we do, we’ve got to get him right and we’ve got to find a way to get him to pitch more clean innings.”

Thursday morning, Hinch announced a decision: The Tigers are moving Maeda to the bullpen “for the foreseeable future.” Rather than start Maeda on Sunday against the Dodgers in the final game before the All-Star break, the Tigers will deploy a bullpen game. Maeda is likely to pitch in relief either Saturday or Sunday.

The All-Star break will give the Tigers time to reset their rotation and evaluate the best path forward. Beau Brieske or Alex Faedo could be candidates to move into a starting role. In Toledo, Matt Manning has been struggling to the tune of a 5.03 ERA but could be an option. The Tigers could also aim to skirt by with bullpen games, though they play 12 consecutive games after the break until the trade deadline.

Regardless of which path the Tigers choose, it will involve Maeda pitching out of the bullpen. Mop-up duty will be his most likely role, but given the Tigers also have Joey Wentz on the roster (with a 6.39 ERA over his past 145 MLB innings) we may see Maeda in a variety of situations.

“We can’t have a pitcher on our team that you’re not gonna pitch,” Hinch said. “I’m gonna use him like a normal reliever. I’ll have to pay attention to how often I use him or how I get him into bullpen mode. But we’ve got to get him a successful outing one way or the other.”

Maeda has pitched in relief before, making 71 starts and 34 relief appearances with the Dodgers from 2017-19. He has a strong record as a reliever in the postseason, including allowing only one run in nine appearances in 2017.

In the bigger picture, it has been difficult to deduce the exact source of Maeda’s issues, even for the pitcher himself.

“It’s hard to narrow down to just one problem,” Maeda said. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing.”

His average fastball velocity of 90.3 mph is a career low, though he has never been a hard thrower. Opponents are hitting only .197 against his trademark splitter. There is little difference in the average shape of his slider, but the pitch has been hit at a .352 clip.

Maeda’s first-pitch strike percentage is a career-low 56.5 percent. Disadvantage counts have limited his ability to throw chase pitches. Poor command and subpar execution have led to Maeda struggling regardless of the situation. And at 36 years old, a general diminishment of his stuff has made him far too hittable.

“At the end of the day this is all gonna come back (to) command,” Hinch said. “I know we talk about velocity. We talk about pitch usage and chase, but it begins and ends with his command. When he’s got it, he’s really good. We’ve seen it even this year. Despite the numbers not being great overall, he’s had some good runs within games.”

The Tigers have lost in each of Maeda’s past eight starts (he left due to injury after only two pitches in one of those outings), so the bullpen should ease the burden on both Maeda and the team. Still, Maeda and the Tigers will have to arrive at solutions in order for this to be a palatable arrangement.

Tuesday night, Maeda reiterated he is fully healthy. He indicated he is open to anything and everything that could help him emerge from these troubled waters.

“There’s definitely frustration,” Maeda said. “Nothing really is going right at this point and I’m causing too much trouble to the team, and I feel sorry about that.”

(Photo: Duane Burleson / Getty Images)

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