Yusei Kikuchi has a good case for Comeback Player of the Year
Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
Sometimes it’s hard to find topics about the Blue Jays that aren’t talked about to death. Should I write about Alek Manoah’s rocky road with the team? Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s unusual unproductive year despite great underlying numbers? Or maybe even a revisit of some trade?
I wanted to point out that even in a sea of negativity surrounding the team, there were still some great stories that I think get overlooked in the everyday discussions or maybe just get passed over. Among the best stories this season was Yusei Kikuchi’s comeback year, and how/why it happened this way.
This is something that has lingered in my head all year about how a pitcher goes from losing their job and accepting a demotion with honour, just to come back, win his spot in spring training, and never look back and pitch more innings this year than he ever has in Majors Leagues.
I’ll admit it, I, like many other fans and writers was wrong about Kikuchi. While he earned criticism based on his performance last year, it’s only fair to write about him when he is doing well. I’m not above admitting if I have something wrong, and who knows what next year will bring. However, this year he has definitely quieted the haters and it deserves to be acknowledged.
What Went Wrong Last Year and What Changed This Year
Last season, Kikuchi seemed all out of sorts, and it was difficult to watch. One of the main criticisms that reoccurred was the location of his pitches, specifically his fastball, which was thrown all over and hitters could really dial in on it. Here is a screenshot of his 2023 vs. 2022 location for his fastball.
Part of the reason for his comeback was due to his newly revamped slider, which was a massive issue this year for hitters, more so right-handed batters. With an average of about 89 mph, it has improved greatly from last season which only averaged around 86 mph. Interestingly, this pitch had a lot of success outside the zone, throwing it in a 1-2 count around 34% of the time.
Kikuchi still clearly prefers the fastball in a situation to get a strikeout, however looking at the numbers when he throws his slider outside of the zone it has a K% of 52.9%! Again, control is big here since you definitely don’t want it going over the heart of the plate. However, it is impressive considering last year it had a 43% strikeout rate. Kikuchi only threw it 26% of the time so I think with a bit of refinement this offseason that could be a devastating pitch. The ball looks so much better coming out of his hand with increased spin, that perhaps next year, the slider becomes an even bigger part of his arsenal.
Kikuchi has managed to look like a completely different pitcher, and you can tell when he took the mound every 5 days. He had cut down on his walks per 9 by a factor of 3. Even more impressive, that 2.06 HR/9 of 2022 which is one of the highest in the league, fell to 1.52. These fundamental improvements have transformed Kikuchi from one of the worst starting pitchers, which ended with him being a bullpen arm, to a guy who will take the ball every 5 days and is someone who some fans even want to take to the mound during a playoff game (how can anyone hate this guy). Hard work should be appreciated and Kikuchi’s enormous improvement should be applauded.
I think the most obvious improvement from Kikuchi’s first season until now is how much his slider and 4-Seamer have changed. A run value improvement of +16 and +14 respectively is a testament to his hard work over the offseason to fully understand the foundations of what kind of pitcher he is. One of those factors has to do with where he is releasing the ball. In fact, his horizontal release changes are quite dramatic.
As for his slider, the difference in release point might have added tunnelling benefits with a K% of nearly 30% according to Baseball Savant. It was by far his best pitch this year and considering it has never been his calling card, perhaps this is a new foundation for Yusei to build on into the future. A bump of nearly 2 mph also helps his slider’s cause, and it’s something that can be built upon for next season.
One of the most glaring issues in Kikuchi’s 2022 season was he was incapable of finding the zone with any sort of level of consistency, as seen here in this image.
Not only this, but we can also see that this season, he was able to dramatically reduce the barrel rate in a two-strike count, meaning that Kikuchi was able to limit hard contact whilst being able to attack hitters more often due to newfound command and improved stuff indicated by improved spin rate on all his pitches.
We can give props to his improved decision-making on the mound, his new and improved beard, or maybe even his sleep schedule. Whatever the case is, a reduction in his 4-seam fastball barrel rate of around 15% is utterly ridiculous and as fans, we should give praise to players who improve year over year as dramatically as this. I wonder if he will be able to keep up this trend in the future, as there at times on the mound when he would be shaken but be able to bounce back.
Another thought for pause would be his tempo this year working much faster with the bases empty than in years prior because of the pitch clock however that might be a thought for another day.
In fact, one could argue that as long as his slider keeps performing, this could be sustainable. I’m not arguing Kikuchi is a middle-of-the-order pitcher, however, you could do a lot worse as a fourth starter on what should have been a World Series-caliber pitching staff.
While Kikuchi’s FIP could use some work, FIP is not predictive of year-over-year production and has always been unkind to him partly because of his large home run totals year over year. However this should be considered a career year for him and as someone as skeptical as I am about everything I hear and see, I don’t expect Kikuchi to be as lights out as he was for the majority of this year in 2024.
Keeping an eye on his innings for this upcoming year should be noted as this is the most he’s pitched in years (2021: 157, 2022: 100, 2023: 167). However, if he even pitches to what his expected stats were this year for next, that is completely acceptable. Since the squad will look to replace a handful of contributing free agents this off-season.
What this means for the Jays is that they don’t have to worry about adding another starting pitcher to the roster. Kikuchi will look to steward the back of the rotation again in 2024, and being in a contract year, he will have the utmost urgency to keep up this level of performance. What looked like an awful contract turned out to be one that could provide tons of value next season with Alek Manoah being a massive question mark. The Jays do not have a ton of starting pitching depth in my opinion that could step in, so they will need to rely on him again next year there is no doubt of that. As for Kikuchi, after two years in Toronto, it looks like he has finally found his role and that’s a great sign!
On another note, this postseason was awful and it leaves us all with multiple disgusting tastes in our mouths, but as fans, we should not lose sight of the great stories that did transpire this year, one of those being the comeback player of the year, Yusei Kikuchi.
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