No one wants to see Yusei Kikuchi bounce back this season more than the 31-year-old himself, and the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander is definitely off to a promising start this spring.
After a miserable inaugural campaign north of the border, which included a 5.19 ERA across 100.2 innings and 32 appearances, Kikuchi entered the offseason determined to improve his craft and return with better results in Year 2 with the franchise. And that should be attainable, considering how poorly his first season went.
While the 6-foot lefty still has to wait three-plus weeks for Opening Day, the early returns on his spring training performance have been very encouraging thus far. He has thrown seven shutout innings, allowing just one hit and three walks while striking out nine hitters over three starts.
3 NO-HIT INNINGS 😤
Yusei’s thrown SEVEN shutout innings this spring! pic.twitter.com/weDeBPFNPe
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) March 7, 2023
It is tough to gather much information from such a minuscule sample size, let alone determine if Kikuchi will provide any additional value to the Blue Jays in 2023. Add in that he’s faced the Pittsburgh Pirates twice and the Baltimore Orioles once, and the situation becomes even tricker to evaluate.
Therein lies the dilemma for Blue Jays skipper John Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker, with the pair closely observing Kikuchi’s progress over the past several weeks. So too has pitching strategist David Howell, who suggested the veteran lefty alter his slider’s angle.
That conversation transpired two weeks ago. And yet, Kikuchi has already bought in and has reaped the rewards of that adjustment all spring. What’s better is that all it took was a minor tweak involving his release point.
The success was immediate for Kikuchi, who threw his slider 13 times against the Pirates on Feb. 25 — his 2023 spring training debut — generating six whiffs on eight swings. In doing so, it was responsible for three of his five strikeouts on the afternoon.
Toronto’s hard-throwing lefty has continued leaning heavily on his breaking ball since, featuring it as his primary strikeout weapon. It has also helped set up his fastball and split-changeup, allowing him to attack different quadrants of the strike zone.
Kikuchi has also made a ton of progress making in-game adjustments, which plagued him throughout last season, and proved as much versus Pittsburgh on Tuesday. After featuring a heavy dose of sliders in the first matchup, he opted for more fastballs in the rematch, with his mid-90s heater inducing both of his strikeouts and four whiffs on seven swings.
Though six of Kikuchi’s 15 four-seamers finished outside the strike zone, two probably should’ve been called strikes, and only a pair missed widely arm side — a major step forward from last season’s inconsistent fastball command.
Navigating mental challenges is another area where Kikuchi has thrived early on. Whenever he walked a batter in 2022, it derailed his entire outing. Now if he issues a free pass, he focuses on getting a first-pitch strike rather than stressing about the runner on first base.
Dealing with issues on the fly used to signal disaster for the Japanese hurler. It did last season and during the second half of 2021. But not this spring, and part of that is because he doesn’t have time to worry about his struggles or what to throw next with the new pitch clock in play.
Instead, if something goes wrong, the continuous countdown helps maintain his rhythm and prevents any misfortune from disrupting his tempo. With only 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with bases empty, 20 with a runner on, he has had to place more trust in his catchers on the mound, which has proven extremely successful.
Baseball isn’t just a physical game. It also requires strong mental fortitude, although that can often get lost throughout the sport. For Kikuchi, overthinking played a massive role in his 2022 performance, which led to the worst showing of his career.
The Blue Jays have to be pleased with what they’ve seen from Kikuchi up to this point. While Schneider isn’t ready to label him the club’s No. 5 starter just yet, barring an unforeseen decline or injury scare, the job is currently his to lose.
With Mitch White’s offseason throwing program delayed by a right shoulder impingement, the young right-hander still has yet to face live hitters this spring and appears likely to begin the regular season on the 15-day injured list. That would leave Zach Thompson as the club’s immediate starting rotation reserve — a less-than-ideal option for a playoff contender.
So, Toronto desperately needs Kikuchi to round out its starting rotation once Opening Day rolls around in just over three weeks. They need him to act as a stopgap until others arrive — like top prospects Ricky Tiedemann and Yosver Zulueta, and Hyun Jin Ryu, who’ll attempt to make a mid-season return from Tommy John surgery.
The former Mariner doesn’t have to be an All-Star, as he was in the first half of 2021, though that’d be a bonus for a rotation already loaded with front-line talents like Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt. Add a redemption season from José Berríos, a two-time All-Star, and Toronto would feature one of the top rotations in baseball.
In reality, though, all the Blue Jays need from Kikuchi this season is above-replacement-level results. And that is certainly within his grasp. After all, he was worth 1.1 fWAR in two of his three seasons (2020, 2021) with the Seattle Mariners.
If a similar version still exists, someone who, at the very least, could work as a twice-through-the-order pitcher, Kikuchi may be well on his way to turning last season’s shortcomings into a building block.