What we learned from Mariners LHP Yusei Kikuchi’s rookie season
The biggest and most surprising free agent move made by Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners last off-season was the signing of Japanese left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.
The signing came as a surprise to many, as the Mariners were well into their “fire sale” and it appeared to anybody not really paying attention, that the franchise was just drifting in the wind. The signing of Kikuchi was a bit of a surprise to man and was one of the few moves that excited the casual fan.
Billed as #3 starter with upside, Kikuchi came to the states with a reputation of having a hard slider, a mid-90’s fastball, and excellent deception. He threw strikes and knew how to get outs. He got plenty of strikeouts in Japan and was one of the premier players in the NPL.
After an initial rejection to the Mariners by Kikuchi’s agent, and thanks to relentless efforts by Dipoto, Kikuchi became fond of Seattle, having a fondness their plan to integrate him into the American baseball schedule and the contract structure to boot.
Unfortunately for Kikuchi, the results from his first year in MLB didn’t go as well as anybody hoped. He finished the year with 161.2 IP, the third-highest mark of his career and also set a new personal best of 32 starts made. So, he was able to navigate the drastic change in pitchers schedules relatively well.
But the final numbers like his 5.46 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 1.52 WHIP, and 81 ERA+, all seem to point to a pitcher who just couldn’t make an impact this season. Of course, we can point to a number of personal challenges for the young, 28-year-old whose entire world changed in 6 months, but let’s ignore those and just look at what we learned.
First, we learned that the transition from the NPL to MLB isn’t an easy one. This is something we probably already knew, but thanks to the immediate success of Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and Shohei Ohtani, we may have forgotten. But the scheduling is different, the ball is different, the style is different, the strike zone is different, the ballparks are different, and that takes some getting used to.
Second, we learned that Kikuchi can be successful in this league. There were enough excellent starts from the lefty this year to showcase the possibility he posses. The complete game shut out in Toronto, the 7 innings, 10 strikeout game in Cleveland, followed by the 7.2 innings of 1 run ball in Yankee Stadium, and even this final start against Houston.
Third, the stuff isn’t an issue. He doesn’t have number 1 stuff, but we already knew that. What he does have is good, MLB quality stuff. A fastball that sits between 91-94, a good slider and curveball, and a changeup he needs to throw a bit more, are all above-average offerings.
Fourth, the command isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be. He doesn’t have good enough stuff to miss his spot, and when he did, he got into trouble. He needs to throw more strikes and more quality strikes to boot.
Fifth and perhaps the most important, Kikuchi is willing and eager to make changes to be the best he can. We have already watched it happen. From changing the way he prepares between starts and eliminating the hesitation in his windup, Kikuchi wants to be great and is willing to try anything to make it happen.
Now, with an off-season to train his body and mind, as well as the muscle memory and psychological adjustment of playing in the states already baked in, Kikuchi should be better in 2020.