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Breaking Down Yusei Kikuchi’s First Start

In which I collect pitch data by hand.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Thursday morning in Tokyo was a time for endings and beginnings. For one Japanese superstar, it was the end of long, mythical career. But for Yusei Kikuchi, his storied career began a new chapter yesterday morning, as he made his major league start in his own native land, becoming the first international player to debut in his home country. It’s unfortunate that Kikuchi’s start was overshadowed by Ichiro’s retirement (Ichiro Forever), but he was quite impressive in the five innings he pitched.

Since the Tokyo Dome isn’t equipped with TrackMan or PITCHf/x cameras, these two games were played in a data vacuum. We had no pitch tracking or velocity readings, and certainly none of the advanced data we’ve grown accustomed to with Statcast. I was curious about Kikuchi’s performance beyond the simple box score stats. So like any good analyst, I collected the data myself. I sat down last night with the feed and hand charted each of Kikuchi’s pitches—marking the pitch type and pitch result. Luckily MLB Gameday had the pitch location so I could use that instead of guessing the zones by eye. Here’s a photo of the end result:

To the data!

Yusei Kikuchi Pitch Data

Pitch Type Frequency Zone% Whiff% GB% LD% FB% PU%
Pitch Type Frequency Zone% Whiff% GB% LD% FB% PU%
Fastball 47.3% 67.4% 30.0% 20.0% 40.0% 40.0% 0.0%
Slider 27.5% 68.0% 16.7% 38.0% 25.0% 0.0% 38.0%
Curveball 25.3% 39.1% 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Kikuchi threw 91 pitches on the night, almost half of them were fastballs, and he mixed in his curveball and slider equally. He didn’t have any clear tendencies when ahead or behind. He would often use his breaking balls early in the count to attempt to steal a first-pitch strike, but his fastball was just as effective in establishing control of an at-bat.

Almost two-thirds of his pitches went for strikes. Maybe the most surprising thing above was seeing the zone rate for his slider. It didn’t seem like he had great control of the pitch, leaving a few too many up in the zone. The A’s never really made solid contact off it however, so it ended up being a pretty effective pitch for him. He did throw an excellent slider to earn his first major league strikeout:

That’s a perfect slider, thrown in a perfect location, and Matt Chapman could only flail at it. He tried to replicate this pitch a few times later in the game but just couldn’t bury it towards the back foot. On his second strikeout, he got lucky when Chad Pinder swung through a badly hung slider.

He was able to locate his fastball on both sides of the plate, helping him command the strike zone against a right-handed heavy lineup. His strikeout of Jurickson Profar was a great example of an inside fastball tying up a batter:

On that pitch, Kikuchi really rears back with maximum effort and a big leg kick in his follow through, something I noted in his scouting report earlier this year. Our international correspondent Connor Donovan reported that Kikuchi’s fastball was sitting around 150 kph (93 mph) all night long. That’s definitely encouraging as his dipping velocity was a concern before he signed.

His curveball was just alright. He did snap off a few sharp benders, like this one to Ramón Laureano:

His command of the curveball was spotty all night long. He would frequently try to back door the pitch, locating it on the outside corner of the strike zone against righties. This worked a few times, but he dug himself a hole against a few batters when he couldn’t get the pitch to land in the zone. He didn’t get any whiffs with the pitch but he was able to induce two weak ground balls off the pitch. Connor says this pitch was sitting around 115 kph (71 mph).

There were certainly a lot of nerves in a game like this, so it’s even more impressive that he appeared so calm and collected on the mound. When he got into trouble in the fifth inning, he really started to labor through each at-bat. His pitch count was getting rather high and he certainly wasn’t as sharp. As he settles into his new team and new home, I’d expect to see a little more polish.

Overall, it was a really encouraging start for Kikuchi. He mixed all three of his pitches well, earned a few whiffs, and handcuffed Oakland batters for four innings. The slider was great even if his command of it was a little off and the usage of the curveball showed promise. I’m excited to dive deeper into the data once he makes a few starts in front of the Statcast cameras.