Blue Jays pitching coach, Pete Walker- Creidt: DaveMe Images

Starter Depth: The Importance of Yusei Kikuchi for the Toronto Blue Jays

As Spring Training 2022 begins, the Toronto Blue Jays have a top-tier starting rotation. The signing of Yusei Kikuchi brings added depth to the Jays starter corps. Good-quality pitching depth has always been important to ball clubs. Why is depth especially significant this season?


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The Toronto Blue Jays signed Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year, USD 36 million contract on March 14, 2022. Although Kikuchi was not my first choice, he does add experience and quality depth to Toronto’s starting rotation. He joins Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah and Hyun Jin Ryu. On paper, the Jays have one of the best starter complements in the American League.

 

Why is quality starting depth important to the playoff-contending Blue Jays? There are five reasons to consider.

  • Competitive advantage
  • It’s a long season
  • The early-season schedule
  • Injuries
  • Roster limitations

Competitive Advantage

How rare is it for an American League team to have five starters that meet the following criteria?

  • Produce an ERA that is better than the median for MLB starters
  • Pitch at least 100 innings in each season
  • Were on the roster of the team for the entire season

 

Table 1 shows the number of teams that met the criteria outlined above for the last five 162 game seasons (2016-2019 and 2021). The data illustrates that it is atypical for a team to have five starters who pitched a minimum of 100 innings and generated an ERA lower than the median ERA. It occurred two times, and it was in 2021 (Oakland and Houston).  Seven teams had four starters who met the criteria above.

  • Three in 2016 (Guardians, Mariners and White Sox)
  • In 2017, there were three (Astros, Guardians and Rays)
  • The White Sox in 2021

 

To determine how the Blue Jays’ starters measure up, I used ZiPS DC to establish the 2022 MLB median ERA for starters. I set the minimum number of starts at 15, which produced 194 starters, and the lowest number of innings turned out to be 58. The median ERA from this sample is 4.31.

 

According to 2022 ZiPS DC, the Blue Jays will have five starters who will pitch at least 100 innings and produce a better-than-median ERA. The 2022 estimates can be seen in Table 2.

 

Among Toronto’s American League East rivals, the ZiPS DC projected count for having starters with a minimum of 100 innings and a better-than-median ERA are as follows: Baltimore – 0; Boston – 2; New York – 4; and Tampa – 3.

 

Therefore, given the rarity of having five starters with 100 plus innings on the blotter and a better-than-median ERA, the Blue Jays should have a competitive advantage over their American League East foes. The Blue Jays Kikuchi signing added to Toronto’s deep starter quality.

It’s a Long Season

I have news if you think you can get by with five starters.

How many different starting pitchers does a team typically use in a 162-game regular season? To answer that question, I used the following data screens:

  • Incorporate the five most recent full-schedule campaigns (2016-2019 and 2021).
  • Include any pitcher who started a game. A pitcher’s most frequent role may be as a starter or a reliever, including pitching in the Opener role.
  • Exclude starters who are called up in September for a look-see. Accordingly, the data reflects outings from the start of the season to August 31.
  • Starters whose average innings pitched per start were more than 2.9. I used this screen to limit the impact of the Opener upon the results.

 

Table 3 shows the data produced from the noted screen.

  • For the 2016-2021 period, not including the 60-game 2020 season, a team (on average) will use 9.4 pitchers in a starter role during a season. This mean is for pitchers with an average outing of more than 2.9 innings per start, accounting for 99.4% of starter innings.
  • During the same period, for starters who exceed 3.9 innings per start, ball clubs used an average of 8.7 starters per campaign. This group contributed 98.0% of starter innings.

 

Based on the data presented, the Blue Jays will likely use eight to nine different pitchers as a starter in 2022. The addition of Kikuchi means that the Blue Jays pool of possible starters is deeper because those previously slated to be the fifth starter, for example, Ross Stripling or Nate Pearson, are now one row lower on the starter call up sheet. According to FanGraphs roster resource page, Toronto’s candidates to make starts in 2022 include Stripling, Pearson, Thomas Hatch, Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay and Bowden Francis. Except for Stripling, the noted candidates have options remaining.

The Early-Season Schedule

Toronto is scheduled to play their first 30 games in just 31 days. The Blue Jays begin the season by playing ten days in a row, with a one-day break, then take the field on the next 20 days. That will stress the entire pitching staff, both starters and relievers. In 2021, among the 150 American League starters with the most innings pitched as a starter, Kikuchi’s average Innings Per Game Start ranked in the 76th percentile; the other 2022 Jays’ starters were even better in 2021. Therefore, a starter’s ability to pitch longer into a game will reduce the innings pitched by the relievers. The quality and depth of Toronto’s starters should prove beneficial during the heavy workload of the first 30 games of the 2022 campaign. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Mr. Kikuchi.

 

Injuries

According to Spotrac, the average number of American League starters placed on the Injured list by teams in 2018, 2019 and 2021 was 3.7 (median, 3), 3.9 (median. 4) and 5.0 (median, 5), respectively.  Of course, not all starters would be on the Injured List simultaneously. Furthermore, a starter may miss a start due to reasons not requiring a stay on the Injured List (short-term physical ailments, paternity leave, etc.). Nevertheless, quality starter depth is essential to a team’s success during the regular season, considering the inevitability of injuries.

 

Another aspect to consider is the timing of injuries suffered by starters. Table 4 shows that almost 50% of the beginning of a stay on the Injured List occurs before June 1. This finding is consistent with the Injured List stints for position players. Therefore, having more quality starting depth rather than less from Game 1 onwards should enable Toronto to better cope with starter injuries.

Roster Limitations

In 2022, the roster size will be 26, but the maximum number of pitchers is 13. The rosters will expand to 28 in September, with the pitcher maximum set at 14. Accordingly, if a team’s starters can produce quality outings and more innings per start, less strain will be placed upon the eight-man bullpen than a ball club lacking quality depth. The addition of Kikuchi should alleviate the stress upon Toronto’s reliever corp.

 

There are other benefits the Blue Jays may enjoy with the Kikuchi signing. The 35-year old Ryu may perform better throughout the season if he occasionally gets an extra day or two days of rest; perhaps Ryu could miss a start during the 2022 campaign. With Stripling remaining in the bullpen, he would be a likely candidate to spot start for Ryu. For that matter, Kikuchi may need extra rest, and Stripling or others can fill Kikuchi’s starter shoes from time to time.

 

Also, Kikuchi is a southpaw. Accordingly, he offers a different look regarding handedness than Gausman, Manoah and Berrios. Furthermore, Kikuchi is unlike his lefthanded teammate (Ryu) because the velocity on Kikuchi’s four-seam fastball is above average; Ryu’s four-seamer’s rate of speed is below the MLB average.

The Last Word

When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Kikuchi to a three-year deal, they added quality depth to their rotation. That quality and depth project a competitive advantage among American League teams. Also, the history of the volume and timing of starter injuries, not to mention the compressed 2022 schedule, indicates that the Blue Jays will be able to cope better with the challenges of a long season with Kikuchi in the fold. Kikuchi was an important signing for the Toronto Blue Jays.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Bob Ritchie

Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.