Blue Jays' Rogers Centre- Credit: DaveMe Images

Blue Jays & The Elite Potential of Yusei Kikuchi

The Toronto Blue Jays may have found a diamond in the rough in Kikuchi, but they’ll have to rely on their ability to “fix” pitchers


Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase


 


 

The exponential growth of analytics usage over the past few Major League Baseball seasons has caused a very large division between fans and front offices alike. Some people live and die by the game’s math and analytics, and others still believe that the eye test tells you everything you need to know. The reality is the balance between the two is still a necessity in this game. Whenever the Toronto Blue Jays acquire a new player, especially pitchers, I do find myself immediately diving into that player’s analytics and supporting visual heat maps looking for the “unlockable” skills that the Jays front office may be salivating over.

 

In some cases, these skills are easy to see through analytics, in some others, it’s about adjustments to delivery and arm slot, but I genuinely believe that for nearly all players there is a solvable puzzle that will lead to increased success. The Toronto Blue Jays front office seems to agree in the case of the enigmatic and recently acquired Yusei Kikuchi.

 

For me, the most curious thing about the Seattle Mariners and Yusei Kikuchi was the very clear pitch selection issue that neither Kikuchi nor the Mariners seemed interested in fixing. Kikuchi is armed with a high-velocity, high spin rate fastball that has been a near dominant pitch over the past 2 seasons, averaging over 95 MPH and allowing only a .209 average and a .733 OPS last season. Beyond the fastball, Kikuchi also has a unique split-change that has been one of the best pitches in baseball over the years, the problem is that he has only used it around 10% of the time. This weapon has yielded a nearly 40% whiff rate and a -3 Launch angle, making it the clear elite weapon in his arsenal. Instead of relying on an ace quality Fastball/Split-Change mix (Which would also increase overall fastball efficacy as well), Kikuchi has rolled with his overwhelmingly hittable hybrid slider/cutter for nearly 54% of his pitches last season which is a decision that can only be viewed as confusing to all who watch the games or read the available data.

 

Now, so far this season, what we have seen, especially in his last start, has been an exodus from this slider/cutter overuse and Kikuchi welcoming the idea of going fastball heavy up in the zone and using the split-change as an out pitch, ala Kevin Gausman. This combination of 2 primary pitches with a select situational platoon-split usage of a third offering has been a central focus of the Jays’ “Let your elite tools play” mentality.

 

We have seen Alek Manoah, Jose Berrios and the aforementioned Kevin Gausman all hold true to this method.  For arms like Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Ross Stripling the approach needs to be more varied because they lack truly elite offerings, so they are forced to mix pitches, with a primary focus on location and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance. The next large step for Kikuchi is understanding that his stuff belongs in the first group not the second.

 

Signings like Kikuchi, much like the acquisitions of Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Steven Matz, Julian Merryweather, and Trevor Richards all come with their share of risk but the visible tools and the confidence that the Blue Jays have in their scouting and coaching staffs to develop and adjust game plans to unlock potential many may have looked past is clear.

 

Whether you believe in Kikuchi’s ability to thrive in Toronto or not, one thing is inarguable, very few left-handed pitchers in the game have the pure arm talent of Yusei Kikuchi. For him to be able to consistently harness that ability and become a trustworthy cog in this rotation going forward his focus needs to be on doing his best imitation of a left-handed Kevin Gausman. Attack the strike zone early and often, and look to put guys away with one of the nastiest split-changes in the game. If Yusei Kikuchi follows the path carved out by Gausman that 3 year 36 million dollar contract could end up looking like yet another stroke of genius reclamation project acquired by this Front Office.

 

 

 

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

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