Cactus League play officially kicked off for the Mariners as their second-year pitcher flashed some positives following an offseason of readjustment.
No one is more deserving of a mulligan than Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi for his less-than-stellar rookie season last year. To say the 28-year-old was emotionally overwhelmed on many levels would be a severe understatement.
The rollercoaster began with an unusual MLB debut that took place in Kikuchi’s home country, in the final game of the career of his childhood hero, Ichiro Suzuki. Days later, Kikuchi’s father passed away following a battle with cancer. And, in July, Kikuchi’s wife gave birth to their first child, Leo. All while Kikuchi had to adjust to a foreign league in a foreign country.
It wasn’t all doom-and-gloom last season, however; Kikuchi showed flashes of the potential that earned him a four-year, $56 million contract with the Mariners last January, including a complete game shutout in Toronto. This offseason, Kikuchi has worked on simplifying his delivery in hopes of tapping into more consistent mid 90s velocity and fixing some of the command issues he ran into last year.
The good news in his first start of the spring? Velocity was up for Kikuchi, who reached 95 multiple times on the fastball. He was also able to work from behind against the first two batters he faced, earning strikeouts in a pair of at-bats that started 2-0 and 3-0, respectively.
Some unfortunate BABIP luck set up the Rangers’ first run, scored on a rope down the third base line that Kyle Seager was able to get a glove on, but a tough throw proved to be an ever tougher play for Evan White to snag off the bounce in the dirt, which bounced over the outstretched glove of the rookie first baseman.
No further damage was done by the Rangers’ lineup in the first, but there’d be another crooked number put up in their immediate future as Kikuchi’s command and control went a little wonky in the second. Kikuchi failed to hit his spot on several occasions and wound up hitting Shin-Soo Choo with a pitch, which set up a two-run double for Tim Federowicz and a fairly early exit for the Japanese southpaw who was scheduled to go a full two innings of work for the Mariners today.
Second inning struggles aside, there were still some positives to take away from Kikuchi’s outing. The biggest and most important positive being the uptick in consistent velocity after Kikuchi averaged out at just 92.5 mph last season. If he can get to 94 or 95 from the left side more often via his new delivery, that should go a long way to help boost his strikeout numbers.
The question will be if he can keep that up as the spring moves along and into the regular season. But he needs to locate more efficiently than he did today, which will be monitored closely over the next month.