(Twinsbaseball.com) Even before the night of Aug. 18, the Twins had quickly learned that Kenta Maeda would be the most important piece of their starting rotation in 2020. He'd been acquired from the Dodgers for his consistency, durability and playoff experience. Minnesota had already gotten more than that baseline.
But that night, Twins Territory found out that they truly had something special on its hands.
In his fifth start of the season, facing the Brewers at his new home park, Maeda's slider darted and his split changeup dove as he carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning before a bloop over the shortstop's glove ended his bid for history. A second dose of history, that is -- earlier in the game, Maeda had struck out eight consecutive batters, setting a franchise record and falling one shy of the American League mark.
That marked one of the most dominant pitching performances in club history, and it was representative of Maeda's first season in Minnesota. The consistency, durability and playoff experience all came as advertised, and it turned out that the upside was also nearly unmatched in the league. That's why Maeda was named one of three AL Cy Young Award finalists, announced live on MLB Network on Monday night joining Cleveland's Shane Bieber and Toronto's Hyun Jin Ryu. The winner will be announced next Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 5 p.m. CT.
Maeda is also a finalist for the gold glove award among AL pitchers. Those results will be announced on Tuesday.
"I think Kenta was everything we asked for and then some," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said after the season. "He was a tremendous teammate. He was a tremendous fit in our clubhouse. He did everything the pitching coaches and [manager] Rocco Baldelli asked of him. He was eager to learn and grow. This guy has now won 150 professional games between pitching in Japan and here. He's been phenomenal for us on so many levels."
The Twins haven't had a Cy Young Award winner since Johan Santana won his second in 2006. They'll likely need to wait a while longer for that to change, as Maeda will almost certainly fall short of Bieber, the Major League Triple Crown winner who also became the fastest pitcher to ever reach 100 strikeouts in a season and punched out at least eight in all 12 of his starts, the second-longest such streak to start a season in MLB history.
Maeda would be a worthy winner in many other seasons with his career-best 2.70 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. He paced the Minnesota rotation in ERA, innings, wins and strikeouts, and his 0.75 WHIP marked the second lowest in MLB history by a pitcher qualified for the ERA title, behind Pedro Martínez's 0.74 mark in 2000 (albeit with a much lower innings threshold).
The 32-year-old did not allow more than three runs or six hits in a start all season. He never failed to pitch five innings and was the only Twins pitcher to complete seven innings in multiple 2020 appearances.
In recognition of those accomplishments, Maeda has become the first Twins pitcher to receive Cy Young votes since Ervin Santana in 2017 and the first to finish in the top three since Johan Santana in '06. Maeda did not receive any Cy Young votes in his four seasons with the Dodgers.
Before Maeda arrived in Minnesota in the offseason trade that sent top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers, Los Angeles had moved him into the bullpen for September and the playoffs in each season since 2017, using him as a high-leverage specialist against right-handed hitters. The narrative that he was less effective against lefty bats initially followed him to Minneapolis.
Instead, Maeda turned that narrative on its head by holding righties to a .484 OPS and lefties to a stingy .525 OPS this season, well below the career .740 OPS that he has allowed to left-handed hitters. He relied on his fastball less than ever and fed batters a much larger diet of his slider and changeup.
"He found ways to adapt and pitch even better against left-handers," Falvey said. "He's always been dominant against righties, but what he did against righties, the ability to pitch deeper in games, to change his mix at times, to use different pitches, I felt like what we got out of Kenta was tremendous."
Most importantly, Maeda was still at his best as a playoff starter, something that the Twins have mostly lacked amid their extended playoff losing streak, which now stands at 18, following the 2020 season. Maeda did his best to pitch the Twins out of that skid with five shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Astros in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series before the Minnesota bullpen gave way.
How's that for a big first impression on a new organization?
With Maeda signed to a team-friendly contract to lead the Minnesota rotation through the 2023 season, Twins leadership is hopeful that the veteran can serve as the foundation for several of those playoff runs yet to come.
"We're excited about his future because he's a part of us now for a number of years ahead," Falvey said. "With he and José [Berríos], both those guys, what they did as starters over the last two days [of the playoffs], that is something exciting to build off of. I think both of those guys showed they could be proven playoff performers and pitch us into a good position. Kenta was tremendous, and we're really happy to have him."