Over the years, taking on pitching projects is something the Toronto Blue Jays have become very accustomed to and it appears their latest one has just arrived in the form of starter Yusei Kikuchi.
Despite missing out on him back in 2019, the Blue Jays wouldn’t be denied this time around and finally landed their guy, signing Kikuchi to a three-year, $36-million contract. A move this organization made official Monday evening.
OFFICIAL: We've signed LHP Yusei Kikuchi to a 3-year contract!
ブルージェイズ ファミリーへようこそ 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/xhmBsZeWBI
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) March 14, 2022
Following this announcement, Toronto has now solidified its starting rotation ahead of Opening Day, which is projected to include Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and Kikuchi. That being said, this signing does involve some level of risk as the 30-year-old is coming off an underwhelming 2021 performance.
During his third and final campaign with the Seattle Mariners, the left-hander compiled 157.0 innings pitched, posting a concerning 4.41 ERA, 5.23 xERA, 4.61 FIP and a measly 1.1 fWAR rating.
Though Kikuchi improved his strikeout rate to a career-best 24.5 per-cent clip, most of those swings and misses were largely overshadowed by his inability to limit hard contact. After his hard-hit rate against sat below 40 per-cent in each of his first two seasons, it spiked dramatically during his most recent one, climbing to 47 per-cent – placing it in the third percentile in the majors.
For the most part, the Japanese-born hurler excelled while facing left-handed hitters last season, but ran into major trouble against right-handers, who slashed .271/.351/.479 and slugged 22 home runs. In comparison, lefties performed to just five home runs and a .147/.205/.272 slashing line.
Sadly, these struggles were a key factor that led to Kikuchi’s inconsistent overall showing. But, now that he’s a part of the Blue Jays’ organization, he’ll be granted the opportunity to collaborate with pitching whisperer Pete Walker and the rest of their incredible coaching staff.
Together, this intelligent group will need to help the 6’0″ starter make some critical adjustments over the course of the season, which will hopefully lead to improved results against righties. For starters, it’ll be vital to fine-tune his accuracy involving three of his four top offerings (four-seamer, cutter, slider).
Last season, Kikuchi primarily relied on his two fastballs and utilized each of them around 35 per-cent of the time. Though, when a right-handed batter stepped to the plate, his four-seamer’s usage averaged 37.4 per-cent, whereas his cutter sat at 33.5 per-cent.
Acting as his two main pitches against righties, both of which struggled to perform effectively at times and allowed an alarming amount of hard contact. In turn, the lefty’s four-seamer soared to a 56.2 per-cent hard-hit rate against and his cutter finished with a 50.7 per-cent clip – both were career-worsts.
Due to these percentages, each of Kikuchi’s fastballs registered an xSLG considerably north of .500, far surpassing their totals from the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
What was the main cause behind these troubling metrics? Inconsistent command. Far too often, these two pitches finished within the heart of the strike zone, making it fairly easy for right-handers to create damage against them.
Even with his four-seamer averaging 95.1 m.p.h., and occasionally reaching the upper 90s, most players at this level won’t encounter much trouble squaring up heaters that are located in easily hittable locations, which is exactly what transpired last season.
In particular, while it’ll be extremely important to improve his four-seamer’s location, it’s also worth noting that focusing on Kikuchi’s cutter should share the same attention. As one of his most-effective pitches at inducing ground balls, with his changeup being the other, chances are he’ll record significantly more outs if this offering allows less hard contact.
But in order to accomplish that feat, the former Mariner will need to keep his cutting fastball away from the middle of the plate, where he struggled mightily in ’21.
Unlike previous seasons, Kikuchi’s cutter largely finished inside the middle of the zone while facing righties, leading to his immensely high amounts of hard contact against. Rather than locating it down and in – an area that’s proved quite effective in the past – more often than not, it remained above hitters’ belts.
Throughout the 60-game campaign, however, the opposite occurred for the veteran lefty as his command was far more accurate, albeit, during a smaller sample size. Still, locating his secondary heater at knee level should translate into dramatically more success moving forward.
Similar to his four-seamer and cutter, Kikuchi also struggled to command his low-80s slider, which was thrown 15.9 per-cent of the time against right-handers. Due to its accuracy issues, opposing hitters demolished his breaking ball, posting the highest AVG (.327) and SLG (.573) amongst his four-pitch arsenal.
Granted, it still generated impressive whiff (30.1 per-cent), chase (43.5 per-cent) and strikeout rates (27.4 per-cent) with a righty at the dish. Although, these three metrics don’t hold nearly as much meaning as they would if this pitch hadn’t surrendered an extensive amount of extra-base damage.
Under the guidance of Toronto’s coaching staff, working towards keeping his slider in the bottom half of the zone will need to be a point of emphasis for Kikuchi this season. After failing to do so in ’21, improving in this department should enhance his ability to limit hard contact against both righties and lefties.
By all accounts, refining Kikuchi’s command won’t be the only adjustment he’ll need to make during his inaugural campaign with the Blue Jays. In addition, it’d likely be extremely beneficial to tweak his pitch usage, particularly involving his mid-80s changeup.
While it remains a work in progress, the 2021 AL All-Star’s underrated off-speed weapon appears developed enough to garner a drastically higher usage, which finished at just 10.5 per-cent last season. Despite acting as his least utilized pitch, this offering blew away the competition in terms of creating swings and misses.
In just limited action, Kikuchi’s changeup produced a stellar 39.6 per-cent whiff rate, a 41.1 per-cent chase rate and a 40.7 per-cent strikeout rate across 86 plate appearances.
Digging deeper, only three other pitchers (Trevor Richards – 50%, Patrick Sandoval – 42.4%, Devin Williams – 41.2%) featured a higher strikeout rate with their respective changeup than Kikuchi in ’21, according to BaseballSavant.com.
If that’s not a clear enough indicator to prove his changeup warrants additional exposure, there might not be a better one out there.
Historically, Kikuchi has almost always utilized his off-speed pitch against righties, as he’s only ever thrown two of them to lefties in his career. Considering how well it performed last season, there’s no question it needs to become a larger facet of his arsenal against both types of hitters – it’s certainly worth attempting.
First and foremost, the Blue Jays will need to become familiar with the newest member of their starting rotation, and vice-versa for Kikuchi. Once that happens, then both sides can come together to determine what changes need to be made first, ideally, that’d include adjusting his pitch usage.
Afterwards, the talented lefty can focus on his command and potentially make any subtle adjustments to his pitching mechanics if deemed necessary. The biggest thing is, though, he doesn’t currently appear to require any substantial changes – just a few minor ones.
If for whatever reason Kikuchi’s first season in Toronto doesn’t work out, keeping him around for two more years wouldn’t be extremely expensive as he’ll only be paid $10 million per season through ’24. Having said that, if he were to thrive under the tutelage of Walker, those remaining two seasons could be seen as a major bargain.
As everyone has come to learn over the years, it’s best not to doubt this franchise’s capability to locate hidden gems and mould them into impact players. They’ve been successful in this field before and aim to do so once again this season.
Perhaps just a little elbow grease can help polish Kikuchi into a two-time All-Star, that’d be a terrific way to begin his tenure north of the border.