Seattle Mariner fans are no strangers to Japanese ballplayers, we have had the pleasure of watching several who have made a huge impact on our team over the last 20 years. Ever since Kazuhiro Sasaki came to save a then blundering bullpen in 2000, the M’s have always had at least one Japanese player on the Major League roster. The newest in this line is a player who has been very impressive on and off the field since signing with the team on January 2nd, 2019.
Introduced to Seattle by his agent Scott Boras as YK, Yusei Kikuchi chose to speak to the media in English. In fact, he planned it that way since he envisioned the moment as a high schooler in Morioka, that took tremendous courage. When addressing the US media the norm for Japanese players is to speak through an interpreter and understandably so. That isn’t the way that YK does things, he is a man who goes the extra mile, whether on the baseball diamond or when being interviewed by strangers. That is a first impression that I for one will not forget.
When you are looking for a pitcher, you want to see the player face some adversity. While you can easily measure velocity, spin rate, arm slot, athleticism, repeatability, pitch selection and so forth. It is not as easy to measure a player’s competitive drive and desire to win. The only way to get an idea of one’s makeup is to study their actions under pressure. Of all the impressive things YK has shown us this far, to me, his makeup has been his finest trait.
In his first start as a Mariner, he was pitching in a pressure cooker. He was making his ML debut in front of 46,451 in his county’s iconic Tokyo Dome. He was not the story, yet without his stellar performance, the final chapter of his hero’s career would not have ended with a win. In his interviews after the game, we learned that he was feeling ill. He tearfully explained that it was very important to him that he not only that he played in that game but to perform well for Ichiro, Japanese baseball, the Mariners and for himself. A lot of weight was placed on the 27-year old’s shoulders and he handled it all with a high level of professionalism and class.
On Saturday, March 30th his father Yuji Kikuchi passed away following a battle with cancer. He released a statement in which he expressed his desire to honor his father’s wishes and stay with the Mariners. He has dedicated the 2019 season to his memory.
His next start was in Chicago on April 5th he didn’t come out with his best stuff and his defense was charged with three errors in the first inning. Down 6-1 after 2 innings he could have packed it in for the day and nobody would have blamed him or judged him harshly for it. That’s not who YK is, he continued to compete and gave his team a chance to win despite their early struggles. When he was pulled after the 5th inning, the score was now 8-6 Mariners and he was in line for his first win of the season. A remarkable comeback and a credit to his character.
This is the type of play we will come to appreciate from Yusei as time goes on. He will raise his game when the pressure is on. In baseball, things don’t always go your way. We have seen that on his worst day, YK has a will to win that is going to inspire him to do what he must in order to keep his Mariners in ball games. His makeup looks like something special at this point.
The Kikuchi repertoire
One thing we did know about YK before he arrived in Seattle was what he throws. While most of us were not able to watch him take the field for the Lions in the NPB. We had enough video and statistical data to know he had an MLB caliber fastball with serious life on it. Most have it graded as a plus or above average pitch. The velocity is somewhere in the 92-96 mph range, with a spin rate of around 2,200. Both of which are around the average for a big-league fastball. The nice thing about signing a 27-year old Japanese prospect is as far as wear and tear on an arm, it is like having a 23-year old prospect from this side of the world. Kikuchi’s arm has only seen a little over 1,000 innings of professional ball. By comparison at 27, Felix Hernandez was approaching 2,000 innings thrown.
He also throws a nice power slider as a change of pace that breaks down and in on right-handed hitters and then down and away from lefties. This pitch appears to be his most effective when he can place it exactly where he intends to. Scouts have referenced it as his out pitch and when he gets into ahead in the count this pitch can be deadly. It is considered a well above average slider with room to improve working with Major League coaching.
He also throws a curveball/changeup, that unlike many curves it is not a pitch he needs a hitter to chase. YK throws his for a strike, sometimes he will throw it on the first pitch to get ahead. Other times he uses it when he gets behind, and he needs a strike to even the count. It is a perfect contrast to the power pitches. Lastly, he throws a splitfinger that tends to make guys chase out of the zone. This pitch appears to be his fastball until the very last minute when it drops and becomes very difficult for a hitter to make solid contact on. This pitch also has a high ceiling that hasn’t been reached yet.
Like many pitchers who have played in the NPB, he has a deceptive quality to his delivery. If you have watched any of his starts or highlights you have noticed he has a purposeful tick once he raises the ball into his glove. This is used to throw off the hitters timing ever so slightly. It also creates a natural shield to the hitter’s vision and makes it more difficult to pick up what pitch is being thrown.
Where does he fit in for the long haul?
It was clear once the details of the contract were released that both sides see this as a possible long-term marriage. The Mariners will pay YK $14 million in 2019 & 2020, then it increases to $15 million in 2021 After that Kikuchi has a player option for $13 million on the 2022 season. If he chooses to take that deal, a series three-year series of $16.5 million team options kicks in. That contract says two things to me. One is that Yusei is open to spending his entire prime as a Mariner. Second, the Mariners were not low balling, they are willing to pay him ace type money. They see his potential to develop further and if he becomes the ace of this ballclub they will do everything they can to keep him here.
While professional scouts’ projections have YK anywhere from a back-end starter to a dominant ace. I tend to lean in the direction of him having a good amount of success here. For one the Mariners have a solid plan to ease him into the extra innings demanded of an MLB starter year in and year out. Once a month this season, he will prepare as though he will be pitching his normal workload. He will only pitch one inning and then turn it over to the bullpen. In Japan starters take the ball once a week, that has been his routine for the last 6 seasons. This plan will help him establish the new MLB standard routine of 5 starts per month while allowing him to gradually build up the innings. Nobody can say for sure if this will work but I can say it is a more intelligent approach than has ever been used to attack this issue.
Kikuchi has already been an ace and an all-star in Japan. He has the drive to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that his career continues to trend in that direction. I believe he will become a fixture of this era of Mariners baseball. He will put in the work on and off the field to not only help his team back to the playoffs but to become a fan favorite. What is there not to like about this guy? He is fun to watch on the field and he is a stand-up guy off it. He is the type of person I wouldn’t mind my youngster looking up to. Cherish this special player Mariner fans, they don’t make them like YK often.