Yusei Kikuchi experienced the full gamut of emotions last year. He followed in the footsteps of Prince Akeem and came to America, where he had to learn a new language, culture, and game. His father passed away from cancer, while becoming a father for the first time himself. On the mound, he experienced glory by pitching a complete-game, two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts against the Toronto Blue Jays and struck out 10 Indians in seven innings back in May. On the flip side, he allowed 5 earned runs in a game three times, 6 earned runs four times, and 7 earned runs once. He did start 32 games, so there’s that, but the final line was 161.2 innings pitched, 5.46 ERA, 16.1% strikeout rate, and 6.9% walk rate. On average, he’s being drafted as the 434th overall player and 178th pitcher being selected in NFBC drafts from 2/1 to 3/11. Am I writing up Kikuchi as a peace offering to Donkey Teeth (noted Kikuchi lover) after hating on his other love, Luis Robert? Kind of, but for full disclosure, I’ve drafted Kikuchi everywhere. Here’s why:
For those who have read me in the past, you know I have a need for speed, especially when it comes to velocity on pitches. I do really blame Maverick and Goose. Last season, Kikuchi averaged 92.9 mph on his fastball. So far this spring, it’s been clocked at 95 mph and above. Yusei what now? To be fair, he did throw 44 out of 2,721 fastballs last season at 95 mph or higher, but the consistency at which he maintains the speed could be heightened this year because he simplified his mechanics over the summer.
Last season, Kikuchi tinkered with his arm slot and release point all year, as the command and velocity weren’t up to his standards. As a result, he’d throw 89 to 90 mph one game and 95 mph another. After the conclusion of the season, he went to Driveline Baseball, where the things that the Mariners told him were reiterated: “It was my hand placement when my front leg hit the ground. It was just too low, too late. That was probably the reason behind the velo going down.” To correct it, he was told to throw like a catcher, “nice and short, straight to the ear.”
With a compact, repeatable delivery, the velocity on the fastball should be consistent, but more importantly, it should help him mentally. He won’t be constantly trying to tinker with his mechanics to find a solution to his control and velocity issues.
An increase in velocity for a fastball does wonders by itself. From 2015-2017, on pitches near 90 mph hour, the batting average was close to .300. At 95 mph, it was near .250. At 100 mph, it was under .200. The slope is a gradual one to the downside for each mile per hour added to velocity. The increase in velocity hasn’t been exhibited just for the fastball, though. The slider has been in the 90 mph range during the spring, after clocking in at 88 mph last year.
Last season, Kikuchi threw a fastball 49%, a slider 27.9%, a curveball 15.7%, and a changeup 7.6%. In his most recent spring outing, which was a sim game, he made it a focus to develop and throw the changeup more. Keeping hitters off balance is a key for pitchers, so if Kikuchi can successfully throw the changeup more with the increased velocity on his fastball (don’t forget about the slider and curveball), then he could be a problem.
The new delivery could also harness his control. Last season, the WHIP was 1.515. In 8 NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) seasons, Kikuchi had a 1.179 WHIP. So, control has rarely been an issue for him.
For younger pitchers, I focus on stuff and natural development. When it comes to veteran players, I search for extraneous reasons for improvement, like a new delivery, increased velocity, etc. Kikuchi checks a lot of the boxes for me. What makes it even better is that he’s basically free in drafts, so if he has a mental meltdown of sorts, you can cut him and replace him with another arm. With that said, I don’t think that happens and there’s a ton of upside with Kikuchi this season. TREASURE
(Editorial note from the Donkey: Welcome home my wayward Son)