Early in the season, there have been some questions about whether or not the Jays are better than the 2021 version of the team.
In this article, I will be comparing the starting pitchers who left through free agency to their replacements.

Kevin Gausman compared to Robbie Ray:

The Blue Jays lost their Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, but replaced him with Kevin Gausman. We’ll start with Ray.

Robbie Ray:

Last season, Ray dominated as he posted a 2.84 ERA and 3.69 FIP in an AL leading 193.1 innings pitched.. He finished with a Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) of 3.9, and had a K/9 of 11.54. 
Prior to 2021, Ray struggled with the walks, as he never had a BB/9 below 3.45, including a BB/9 of 7.84 in 2020. In 2021, his BB/9 dropped to 2.42, even with a 6 walk game early in the season
After the Blue Jays gave him a qualifying offer, the 30-year-old lefty signed with the Seattle Mariners for a contract worth $115,000,000 over five seasons. However, his numbers have already taken a dip with the seaside team.
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In an MLB leading 19.1 innings pitched, the tight pants Ray has an ERA of 4.19 and a FIP of 5.62. A more shocking revelation is that his K/9 (he has the highest all-time, by the way) has dropped to 6.05. His BB/9 has also increased to 3.26.
It’s still incredibly early and this could easily turn around, but he just doesn’t look like the same pitcher he was in 2021. For example, his 4-seam fastball velocity has dropped from 94.8 mph in 2021 to 92.2 mph in 2022. Furthermore, his slider Velo is down 2.2 mph, while his curveball velo has dropped nearly 6 mph.
With Seattle, he has become a fastball/slider pitcher. Out of the 263 pitches he’s thrown, 162 have been fastballs (62.1%) while 93 (34.9%) have been sliders. He has only thrown his curveball 8 times (3%). Absent is his changeup, which he threw 3.6% of the time last season.
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The batting average has increased on his slider as well. Last season it stood at .173, but it has drastically increased to .286. When you’re a fastball/slider pitcher, your slider can’t be mashed, especially when your fastball velo (which Ray relies on heavily) has dropped over 2 mph.
While I’m not a fan of Baseball Savant’s percentiles without explanations, I think it is fitting to put Ray’s graph below.

Kevin Gausman:

The Blue Jays received a compensation pick for Robbie Ray, as he declined their qualifying offer. However, losing the reigning Cy Young winner for a pick isn’t a good idea to improve the team. So how did Ross Atkins and Co replace their ace?
Queue Kevin Gausman. The 31-year-old righty had similar numbers to Ray last season, however, the Jays were able to keep their second rounder. He pitched 192 innings in 2021, posting a 2.81 ERA and 3.00 FIP (both better than Ray). 
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There was a worrisome sign after the spider tack ban, as his ERA to finish the second half of the season was above 4. I noted it in an article here
At the start of his career with the Orioles, he was seen as a ground ball pitcher. However, his K/9 started to increase with the Giants, including a career high K/9 of 11.92 in 2020. Last season, this stat sat at 10.64. Furthermore, he prevented walks, as he had a BB/9 of 2.34. His fWAR sat at 4.8 last season.
Gausman has had a great start to his Blue Jays career. In his 18.2 innings pitched, he has posted an ERA of 2.89 and a FIP of 0.68. Furthermore, I use the phrase “earned run” loosely, as in the first game the defense let him down. In fact, he’s been so good this season that he already has a fWAR of 1.0. His K/9 is hovering around where it was last season at 10.61, however, he hasn’t walked a single batter this season.
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Upon looking at Gausman’s Baseball Savant page, I noticed something interesting. Slider usage. Out of his 3,002 innings pitched in 2021, 6% of pitchers were sliders (for a total of 181). Interestingly, only 55 of those 181 sliders were to right handed batters. 
In 2022, he has thrown 251 pitches. 40, or 15.9% of those have been sliders. Interestingly, he has already thrown 37 sliders to right-hand batters in just three games. Obviously, Pete Walker and the front office see something in that slider.
There were concerns about his splitter last season, but he’s been proving us wrong in 2022, as he has a whiff% of 46.9% on those splits.
A top 100 pick AND Kevin Gausman for Robbie Ray? I’d do that trade any day of the week. I didn’t really go into details about the numbers on Gausman’s Baseball Savant page, but I’ll include it anyway.
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Yusei Kikchui compared to Steven Matz:

I won’t lie, I thought Matz would receive a qualifying offer. Having him on a one year deal at $18 million wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. If he left, the Jays would hypothetically receive a compensation pick. Just a reminder that Jays traded away Josh Winckowski, who now ranks as the Red Sox’s #14 best prospects.
Let’s start with Matz’s 2021 and 2022.

Steven Matz:

Matz had a weird season in 2021. I made note in a few articles that he had an up and down season. Overall, he finished the season with a 3.82 ERA and 3.79  FIP in 150.2 innings pitched. Overall, it was a solid season for the 30-year-old lefty. This season, he has a 5.27 ERA, which sounds bad. Well, that is until you look deeper into his numbers.
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The first thing that jumps out is his fWAR of 0.4 in just 13.2 innings pitched. Why? Well despite his mediocre ERA, his FIP sits at a rather low 2.16. This could be in part due to his low BB/9 of 1.98, which is the lowest of his career. Not just that, but he’s increased his K/9 to 11.20, up from 8.60 with the Jays.
When Matz has control of his pitches, he is the perfect fifth starter.

Yusei Kikuchi:

Okay, what about our guy, what appealed to the Jays to sign him over Matz?
In 2021 he posted a 4.41 ERA and 4.61 FIP in 157 innings pitched. He had a solid K/9 of 9.34, but struggled with the walk rate, as it sat at 3.55. Furthermore, 20.6% of fly balls went out for homers, despite playing at T-Mobile Park, a notorious pitchers’ ballpark.
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Kikuchi has had an okay start to his 2022 as he has a 3.24 ERA and 5.20 FIP in his 8.1 innings pitched. Kikuchi had a not-so-great first game, as he pitched only 3.1 innings, allowing two earned runs and a ton of hard contact. The 30-year-old lefty rebounded in his second start, going 5 innings pitched with only one earned run.
Kikuchi also had numerous opportunities to field his position in his second start. He’s well on his way to winning a Gold Glove if he keeps that up. However, one worrisome stat is his K/9 and BB/9 as both stand at 5.40, which isn’t great.
Last season, he threw his cutter 34.9% of the time, while he threw his four seam fastball 35.7% of the time. This season, under the tutelage of Pete Walker, Kikchui has thrown his fastball more (44.6%), while throwing his cutter only 20.6% of the time. Furthermore, his slider usage jumped from 18.9% in 2021 to 24.6% in 2022.
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It’s tough to say whether or not the Blue Jays made the right decision, but Kikchui’s stuff is certainly worth the flier.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @Brennan_L_D. The edition focusing on the position players will be posted tomorrow before game time, so stay tuned!

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