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Good Vibes Only: Talking Ourselves Into Yusei Kikuchi Becoming the Bullpen Ace

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Photo credit:© Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Brennan Delaney
5 months ago
Let’s just get this out of the way before we begin. Yusei Kikuchi hasn’t been good at all this season.
In fact, I’d say he’s been pretty awful. Over 83.1 innings pitched, he has a 5.18 ERA and 5.90 FIP with a 13.2 BB%. When you factor in his three-year, $36 million contract (in which he makes $16 million in 2022), things haven’t gone right for him in the slightest.
However, not all hope is lost. Time and time again, I see folks ask how Tampa, Baltimore, and many other teams can find random dudes who become bullpen aces. Well, one of the best ways to find these random dudes is by converting failed starters into relievers.
Let’s look at some of the better relievers in baseball. Edwin Diaz? Started as a starter. Jordan Romano? Started as a starter. Liam Hendricks? You guessed it, started as a starter. Josh Hader was also a starter. Even the best closer in MLB history, the only player to be unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame, Mariano Rivera, was a starter.
When Kikuchi pitches out of the pen, will he be anything like any of these guys? More than likely, no. However, let’s discuss Hader as they have some similarities.
Hader made 95 starts over five years in the Orioles, Astros, and Brewers system, before sticking in the majors as a reliever in 2017. He started 14 games in Triple A in 2016 and posted a 5.22 ERA and 3.81 FIP in 69 (nice) innings pitched. The then 22-year-old had a K% of 29.3 and a BB% of 12.
The next season was even worse, as he posted a 5.37 ERA and 7.05 FIP in 52 innings pitched. His K% sat at just 22.4 while his BB% sat at an elevated 13.6.
What’s interesting to me is their makeup. Both Hader and Kikuchi are left-handed pitchers, but their fastball velocity is also fairly similar. In 449 innings pitched Kikuchi’s four-seam fastball has an average velocity of 94.1. Hader, who’s strictly been in the bullpen, has an average fastball velocity of 95.3 in 319 innings pitched.
It’s very possible that with a move to the pen, Yusei Kikuchi’s average fastball velocity could jump higher than Josh Hader’s.

But Kikuchi will never be as good as Hader:

You’re right, it’s incredibly improbable that Kikuchi will ever be as good as Hader, as the Padres closer converted to a reliever when he was just 23 years old.
Let’s look at Andrew Miller. Drafted sixth overall in the 2006 draft, he didn’t quite live up to expectations. In his first six major league seasons, he posted an ERA of 5.79 and a FIP of 4.77 in 359.1 innings pitched. He had an incredibly low K% of 17, while his BB% sat at 12.65. This was good enough for an ERA+ of 77. Bust, right?
Well his third team, the Boston Red Sox, decided to run him out as a reliever in 2012, his age 27 season. For the next six seasons, he posted a 2.01 ERA and a 2.10 FIP in 332 innings pitched. Furthermore, his K% skyrocketed to 39.66, while his BB% dropped to 7.93.
To back up my theory on Kikuchi’s fastball velocity increasing, we can see on Miller’s Fangraphs page he sat low 90s as a starter, the highest average was 93 mph. Once he moved to the pen, especially in his six years of dominance, his average velocity sat in the mid-90s, never dropping below 94.3 mph, which was his last season of dominance. His highest velocity sat at 95.8 mph in that stretch.

So why do I think Kikuchi could become a pen ace:

Prior to the signing, we all knew Kikuchi has great stuff and velocity, two very important building blocks of a successful pitcher. The biggest part, command, has been an issue throughout his MLB career.
Although he has great stuff, many of Kikuchi’s pitches this season have been uncompetitive. Then when he comes into the zone, he gets hit hard because it’s predictable.
The big issue with this is his confidence. However, being run out there in low leverage could help him regain his confidence and eventually end up becoming an important part of the pen.
Not just that, but despite his glaring issues so far this season, Kikuchi does give you velocity and swings and misses, something we all wanted the Jays’ front office to fix heading into the trade deadline.
It’s too soon to tell what will happen, but Thursday night’s game was a good start. He walked the first batter (was arguably squeezed on pitch #4), then Donaldson hit a ground ball that found a hole. However, Kikuchi got out of it with a strikeout, a softish flyout, and then another strikeout. 
Hopefully, he can continue this stretch. I for one, am rooting for the 31-year-old, as he seems like an awesome guy.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @Brennan_L_D. Will I ever buy a Kikuchi jersey? It’s unlikely, but weirder things have happened.

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