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Yusei Kikuchi Lets Go and Throws the Best Game of His Career

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Yusei Kikuchi.

Couldn’t have said it better myself

Good afternoon! It’s a Sunday and the weather here is beautiful and I did not want to watch this baseball game played by a bad team with a bunch of utility players led by a starting pitcher who is by far the most disappointing story line of this season.

Pizza Beard judgement

It’s late August—the stores are emptying of school supplies and filling with fake ghosts and decorative pumpkins. The team is bad, though not historically or hilariously so, and the prospects are still a few weeks away from infusing new life onto this team. Mallex Smith was benched, J.P. Crawford was out, Yusei Kikuchi was sat down and given a taste of Disappointed Dad Scott Servais and told to change or else—the team, it seemed, was on the cusp of collapse.

So what the hell just happened.

The Mariners won 7-0 and what am I doing Kikuchi threw a Maddux today (complete game shutout in under 100 pitches) and that should have been my first sentence. Forgive me, I’m not used to recapping wins. Or dominance. Or competence. Or fun.

The actual lede: Kikuchi threw a complete game shutout with 8 strikeouts, 1 walk, 2 hits, on only 96 pitches. It was only the 14th Maddux in Mariner history. It was the best game of his MLB career, the most dominant start of the season (Mike Leake I’m sorry but I don’t care about you anymore), and a reminder that for one day, no matter how the world appears on the surface, everything can click perfectly into place.

This recap is going to be a Yusei tribute so go ahead and tune out if you don’t care about good things that happened today. Plenty of terrible things happened today, I’m sure.

Many Acta can explain it better than I can:

Many Acta reacts appropriately to this baseball game

Here is a fact:

Yusei Kikuchi has been the least valuable starter in all of MLB this year. He had a -.01 WAR and a FIP that was .01 points away from being 6. Let that sink in for a moment so we can properly appreciate what happened today. Every Orioles starter has been better than Kikuchi. Jason Vargas? Better than Kikuchi. Mike Leake? Better. Kikuchi has pitched worse than 2012 Blake Beavan and his 3.96 K/9. He’s been so bad he made me google Blake Beavan.

Continuing because I hate myself: He ranks as the worst in HR/9, FIP, WAR, WPA, GF (General Fun), OAIAS (Other Acronyms I Am Sure). He’s been so bad and you know he has been bad because people are constantly asking: why is he so bad? Which they do not do when people are not bad.

In all of MARINERS HISTORY his FIP ranks him right about here:

2005 Ryan Franklin performed better than 2019 Yusei Kikuchi. I don’t know how to feel.
Fangraphs

That’s worst! That’s #1 in a bad way! Look at those names!

So how did Kikuchi, the worst starting pitcher in all of major league baseball, the worst starter in, arguably, all of Mariner history, throw a complete game shutout in under 100 pitches?

It starts and ends with deception and learning to let go.

Not to continue to bring this up but Kikuchi has the messiest mechanics in baseball according to available tunneling and release point data. In several pieces by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times this year, Kikuchi has discussed being asked to change his mechanics. Notably, the hitch he has at the front of his delivery and the lengthy arm path that he uses to deceive hitters.

It looked like this:

Double-Pump for Luck
MLB/Statcast

Today, his delivery looked like this:

And step and throw and Kick! and turn.

The goal of those early mechanics were to hide the ball and throw off timing. Kikuchi has been reluctant to throw those away as he did this baseball.

You want this? Huh? You want to hit the ball? Go get it, loser

Today, he was set to implement those changes. The stakes were as high as they can be during this terrible season, as Scott and Co. looked on for signs that Kikuchi was reneging on his agreement to change.

No pressure, kid

But change is hard for a 28 year old who has been dominant all his life by pitching one particular way. It takes a lot fo faith and a lot fo courage to change yourself. Kikuchi was courageous today.

You’ll notice, in the gifs above, the lack of a leg pump and the more direct path to the plate. He looked different, streamlined, efficient, aggressive on the mound. It took ~4 seconds for Kikuchi to deliver the ball from his windup to home before this game. Only ~3 seconds today. The increased speed and stripped down approach means there is less going on, less moving parts to make a mistake with and a more repeatable delivery.

His release point last week:

A Glob!
Statcast

Today:

Different Glob
Statcast

The difference is subtle but the most important thing that his slider and fastball are not in two distinct zones—they are coming out near the same point. Overlapping colors is good! Good tunneling and consistent command are sign posts of repeatable mechanics.

Murphy commented on the change he saw today as well.

That increase in perceived velocity because of command at the top of the zone is exactly what he’s been missing. He gathered 12 swinging strikes today and more than a few check swings and half swings. He was fooling hitters, getting them to chase and keeping the ball out of the heart of the plate.

Fastballs up and Sliders down, just as it should be

He pitched with confidence and tempo, he dotted the edges of the zone and worked ahead of 90% of hitters. He was in control from the first pitch to the last.

All year he’s been trying to hold on to the mechanics that got him here, to stay within himself and use his delivery as deception. In a twist of Baseball Irony, it was letting those things go, shedding the things that has made him a star in Japan, that has allowed him to succeed.

Today, Kikuchi didn’t hesitate. Today, Kikuchi finally achieved greatness in the United States.

Watch him take a moment, just after he turns, to look up at the sky.

His father passed away recently, as has mine. I bring this up because when someone close to you passes you start to collect a million small moments that they are missing. You store them in you, as if waiting to tell them when you see them again. Only they sit with you, and you start to realize that you cannot share them. That you won’t see the pride on their faces, the joy at what you’ve done or watch them marvel at the things you’ve seen. A million things you want to say that you store bottled up inside you, waiting for a moment.

When Kikuchi looks into the sky and bites his lip, he is momentarily alone. A second before the teammates rush him, before the dugout erupts, before the catcher will hug him, before he will be wrapped up with others, sharing glory completely present, he looks up and out of the stadium, into nothing, into somewhere else. For a moment he is not here, he’s in a place where he can share a moment with someone he cannot see. If it were me? My dad would have been so proud I can’t even imagine. I bet, wherever he is, Yusei’s is too.

(Notes!)

Quickly, and to obliterate the mood, Kikuchi wasn’t the only one who played great baseball today as the Mariners played good defense and hit a home run or 4 or 5. When discussing great performances, Kyle Seager and his absolutely bonkers road trip continues as he hit another dinger.

Seager retains the knowledge of all those that have come before

How big does the baseball look to Kyle right now?

“My head is this big. Why do you ask?”

Kyle is also someone who has had to let go of changes he’s made to his swing, to do less in order to succeed. We’ll have more on him tomorrow, but he’s lifted his line to near 2017 levels and the world should rejoice.

Austin Nola.

The pitcher appears to be measuring how badly he missed his spot
“I done it again!”

Keon Broxton his a home run and everyone was very excited about that as well.

Let’s see, how did Domingo’s day go?

If I didn’t watch this I would swear that this catcher just played out Domingo

Huh.

Dee played great at short, Mallex got back into right, and far too much stuff happened to really capture here.

It was a game between two bad teams in late-August. It was hot in Toronto, early on a Sunday. This game should have sucked. They should have mailed this one in. And yet, this was one likely one of the best, most complete games of the season. It reminded me that this game and this team are still trying to build something. Still taking pride in their play, still trying to be great.

Kikuchi may not be destined for stardom as some (me) might have thought, but for one afternoon during a get-away day in a lost season, he was extraordinary.

What do we think of that?

Scott Approved
When you’re so happy it’s painful

I guess this means I have to continue watching baseball.