Yusei Kikuchi was awful in his first season with the Seattle Mariners, but there is hope that he will bounce back in 2020.
What do hangovers, vacuum cleaners, and Yusei Kikuchi have in common?
Kikuchi – the Japanese-born lefty – struggled mightily during his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. Opponents smacked him around like a punching bag, as he posted a cringe-worthy 5.46 ERA, and lost nearly twice as many games as he won, ending with a 6-11 record. Kikuchi served up pitches on a platter, surrendering 28 home runs in his final 21 starts, allowing batters a .295 average against him.
Think about what a .295 average means. It’s not just high, it’s a monstrously high. A .300 average is on par with hall-of-fame standards.
With those facts, it’s hard to imagine anyone could be optimistic about Kikuchi, but I am and for good reason. Before we get to those reasons, it’s important to further understand Kikuchi’s 2019 demise, what went wrong and why.
The Mariners signed Kikuchi to a four-year, $56 million deal prior to last season. He arrived in Seattle with high expectations after a stellar eight-year career in Japan. But Kikuchi endured the worst debut season of any Japanese pitcher since Kei Igawa, who posted a 6.25 ERA with the Yankees in 2007.
Kikuchi struggled for a number of reasons. Life threw him two major off-the-field stressors: his father died and his wife gave birth to his first son. While Kikuchi tried to assimilate to life in America and the challenge of facing big-league batters, he was grieving and raising an infant.
Kikuchi’s mound work suffered great inconsistency: wild fluctuations in velocity, sitting anywhere from the high 80s to the mid 90s, loss of command, throwing more balls than strikes and falling behind in the count.
Falling behind in the count puts a pitcher at a colossal disadvantage. In order to avoid walking batters, a pitcher must throw fastballs over the plate, which are easier to hit than off-speed pitches. This is precisely what happened with Yusei Kikuchi. Because Kikuchi was constantly behind in the count, he couldn’t utilize his best pitches. Batters rarely saw his knee-buckling curveball and hard-biting slider. Because he was constantly behind in the count, he labored through innings, threw tons of pitches, and threw fastballs right down-the-middle, which hitters clobbered.
Aside from emotional distractions, Kikuchi’s complex pitching mechanics went awry. His throwing motion involves a lot of moving parts. He hesitates at the top of his leg kick, drops the ball behind his back leg as he drives off the mound, and alters his leg kick if runners are on base.
These complexities made it difficult for Kikuchi to repeat his mechanics the same way, every pitch. He continuously tinkered with his delivery and never found a comfortable, repeatable motion. His inconsistent mechanics delivered inconsistent command and velocity.
But that was then and this is now.
Committed, diligent pitchers find ways to rebound. Immediately following the 2019 season, Kikuchi and Mariners management devised a plan. Kikuchi and the Mariners agreed his delivery was his biggest issue. If Kikuchi could iron out kinks in his delivery, he could improve his control and velocity.
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So Kikuchi reinvented his mechanics at Driveline Baseball.
The Driveline coaches told Kikuchi that his hand was too low when his front foot hit the ground, and that caused him to lose velocity.
“What I was told from Driveline and what I was told from the Mariners organization were the same thing — 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,” Kikuchi told Lauren Smith of the Tacoma News Tribune.
Driveline instructed Kikuchi to throw like a catcher, with the idea of shortening his arm path. Catchers have a snappy throwing motion, with little wasted energy, and that’s what Kikuchi hoped to incorporate into his delivery.
“Nice and short, straight to the ear,” Kikuchi told Smith. “That’s what I really worked on as soon as the offseason started. Those mechanics felt comfortable as I got into December.”
Kikuchi’s revamped mechanics showed promise his spring. He eliminated the pause in his delivery, and his mechanics look simpler and smoother. His velocity rose, sitting in the 93-95 mph range and routinely hitting 96.
In a small sample size – just 6.2 innings – Kikuchi struck out 10 batters. He looked like a different man. The ball jumped out his hand. And confidence oozed from his pores.
On March 5th – just before COVID stalled the season – Kikuchi tossed 3 innings and struck out five. After the outing he said this to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times:
“My mechanics were solid today. They were exactly how I wanted them, exactly how I practiced this offseason. I was able to just go after hitters instead of worrying about my mechanics on the mound in the game. It’s a relief to see the velocity up and back to where it was so early in the spring. Velocity-wise it was good today. It’s absolutely mechanics. That’s what I worked on this offseason.”
Kikuchi said it himself. It’s absolutely mechanics. If he has good mechanics, he’ll throw harder and he’ll throw strikes.
And, most importantly, he’ll get batters out.
The fact of that matter is Yusei Kikuchi has a track record of dominance. He’s been a top-end starter, albeit in Japan. He’s been an ace. He’s owns a career 2.77 ERA in the NPB – Japan’s pro baseball league. And that included a masterful 2017 season when he struck out 217 batters in 187.2 innings with a 1.97 ERA.
He’s got the experience. He’s got the stuff.
If he’s got the mechanics, he’ll dominate the MLB just like he dominated the NPB.