Monday comes around, and what do you want to read about on your favorite fantasy sports blog? Of course! It’s a pitcher who finished in the 140s on the Razzball Player Rater last year. This player won a solid 2 games in 9 starts while sporting a 5.17 ERA and is projected for a 2021 season FIP around 4.30 by every major system. Whew! Is it just me that’s getting sweaty in here, or is it the side-effect of my genetically-modified coffee? Who’s ready to get hyped about the second starter on the Seattle Mariners, Yusei Kikuchi? You are!
Yusei Kikuchi — Deal or No Deal?
Before I get the shinkansen bullet train mag-lev-ing its way at 300 km/hr on Kikuchi, let’s explain why this hype piece matters with a bit of cross-community comparison. Myself? I like loud music. One of the seminal tracks in modern metal music is “Bleed” by Meshuggah (basically every content warning applies to that link). One cannot operate in the communities of loud music without having at least a passing knowledge of Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic songs. But, my best guess is that 99% of you readers out there have never heard of this Swedish metal band or their song that has defined the landscape of the metal music scene. But! If you do know Meshuggah, you’re a step ahead of everybody who thinks metal music ended when Pantera split up.
Now, let’s translate that sentiment to our favorite game: fantasy baseball. 99% of fantasy managers won’t care about Kikuchi this year, but this is finally your chance to be in the 1%! Yusei Kikuchi is a pitcher that even the experts are overlooking in 2021; his current NFBC draft position is SP 118, or the 10th pitcher for your wildly deep 12-team league. Even in a 15-team league, he’s like the 7th or 8th starter on your team. Yeesh, might as well be playing in the minors, right? Yet if you look at the 2021 Razzball Steamer Projections, Kikuchi is projected to be the SP 61, or the fifth starter on your average 12-team fantasy roster. But you — yes, you, you budding metal-head! You are finding the seminal tracks — I mean players! — that will separate your team from the rest of the pack. Because you know players like Kikuchi will be available at the end of the draft, you’re not over-drafting pitchers early. So let’s take a look at the deal or no deal aspects of Kikuchi for 2021 fantasy baseball.
Let’s start with this discrepancy: Yusei Kikuchi finished 2020 with the 85th worst ERA and the 25th best FIP. Although Kikuchi’s 5.17 ERA terrified fantasy managers, his expected ERA was 3.57 in 2020. Noticing that kind of discrepancy is what made Moneyball the new narrative in baseball, and I’m riding on those coattails. Brad Pitt money, here I come!
With best ball formats taking over the tournament world and many of the major DFS providers, it’s important to see those pitchers who were great — or at least pretty good — with the exception of one or two starts. And in 2020, it’s more than forgivable for pitchers to lose their bearings for a game or two. So, let’s throw out Kikuchi’s first start of the 2020 season, and his last two starts against the San Diego Padres and the Oakland Athletics (some of the top-hitting teams in the league that were vying for playoff positioning). Accounting for those 66% of his starts, Kikuchi had a 2.50 FIP, a 9.45 K/9 and a 1.89 BB/9. For you traditionalists that want just the numbers, during that period, Kikuchi had a 35:7 K/BB rate, with a 52% ground ball rate. Then the San Diego Dads came to town (no, not you Grey!) on September 19 and clubbed Kikuchi for 5 earned runs in 4 innings. Kikuchi tried pitching around the hitters but ended up with 6 walks, nearly matching the number of walks he had given up in the previous 33 innings combined. And let’s be fair — if you were playing Kikuchi head-to-head, you probably wouldn’t have been starting him against the Padres anyway. Starting your streamers against tough competition is the folly that loses you fantasy championships (but wins you DFS tournaments). Then facing off against the Athletics in the last game of the year, Kikuchi was merely good, with 5Ks, 3BB, and 0 ER over 6IP. To summarize (which I just learned is not about getting your summer wardrobe together…), Kikuchi was pretty good for about 80% of his starts. There was just a bad start in his first appearance of the year (after the Covid delay), and the Padres game. You’d be worried about pitching to the Dads, too.
There’s a lot to be intrigued about with Kikuchi. He spent the off-season in 2020 working on increasing his velocity, and came into the big leagues in 2020 with nearly 3MPH extra velocity on his fastball (averaging at 95MPH). He also added a cutter, which ended up being his most used pitch of 2020 and had the best runs saved value in his arsenal. Batters struggled to do anything productive against Kikuchi’s cutter, finishing the year with a collective .120 ISO and .313 wOBA. If you’re not fluent in advanced metrics, all you need to know is that batters struggled to create runs of their own accord against his pitches. With a total 3.9% barrel rate against his repertoire in 2020, Kikuchi saw the majority of the hits against his pitches directed at the ground or in short line drives. Unfortunately, the middling Seattle defense provided him little help, resulting in more of those ground balls and line drives putting runners on base. With a .306 BABIP against, it seemed like a lot of those middling-drives and grounders were resolving into hits instead of outs. That’s more luck-driven than anything.
That huge discrepancy between Kikuchi’s 2020 ERA and his FIP and xERA demonstrates the relevance of the 8 other players on the baseball field to Kikuchi’s success. And the 2021 Seattle Mariners aren’t going to be a team that is steady by any means. As Razzball’s The Prospect Itch noted in his Top 10 Seattle Mariners Prospects, we might see Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic spend time in the majors in 2021, which could result in lineup and defensive shifts that are more oriented to giving playing time than defensive prowess. But, the flip side of that is that offensive production will be volatile, and we could see a huge jump in run support. With increased run support, Kikuchi could go deeper into games and garner more wins. These are all capital-I If’s, though. Volatile means just that — a brand of interior tile made by the Vol company. I kid! But don’t get too excited for too much upside from the Mariners or Kikuchi.
The Mariners’ bullpen was a target for many DFS players last year. While the Mariners starters were largely competent given their situation facing against vastly superior AL West batting orders, the bullpen was downright ugly. Going into 2021, Rafael Montero (4.08 ERA in 2020) and Anthony Misiewicz (4.05 ERA in 2020) are the best relief arms, with a ton of question marks coming after them. With the Mariners having basically no chance at a World Series run in 2021 and an uphill battle to make the playoffs in the loaded AL West, wins will likely be in short supply. This limits Kikuchi’s upside in most fantasy baseball formats. Kikuchi has more value in points leagues that don’t count wins or losses, but for most players, there’s a strong ceiling on Kikuchi’s fantasy value.
Kikuchi will be more available at the end of your draft than you are after trying that ghost pepper garlic hot sauce on your garlic fries. His ratios will likely be of plus value to most fantasy managers, but his upside is capped by his team. However, with plenty of roster volatility expected on the Mariners, there are scenarios where Kikuchi’s outcomes could far exceed his draft value. Because his draft cost is so low, there’s a great advantage in taking him as your fifth pitcher, and I wouldn’t be opposed to reaching for him as your fourth SP in a 12-team standard format. For best ball players, I think he becomes a regular feature for your roster, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having him on 60-70% of your best ball teams.
What are your thoughts on Yusei Kikuchi? Leave them in the comments below, and have a great week!