As I write this, it’s the eve before Mariners pitchers and catchers report in Arizona. It’s a silly and nonsensical day to celebrate, yet as we trudge through the back half of winter in the Northwest, many of us can’t help but celebrate it all the same. Of all the pitchers who will be doing lunges across the outfield and other performative stretches, the one who simultaneously fills me with the most excitement and the most trepidation is Yusei Kikuchi.
It’s been well-documented around these parts that Yusei Kikuchi was among the very worst starting pitchers in all of baseball in 2019. He also had the second worst debut MLB season of any Japanese pitcher so far. We knew the adjustment to MLB would be rough, but it was downright nightmare-ish at times last season for Kikuchi. I happened to be in Anaheim last season at the game where he surrendered back-to-back-to-back home runs to, in order of appearance, Tommy La Stella, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani. Felt bad, man! Real bad.
As has also been well-documented, Kikuchi went through a lot in 2019. His father died shortly after the season started. Several months later, he and his wife had their first child. Adjusting to MLB-level batting is a tough enough task for any experienced NPB pitcher, but to do so while part of your mind is grieving and another part of your mind is yearning to bond with your infant son seems like a nearly impossible task.
While grief is a continuum and not a finite task, Kikuchi and his wife are at the very least through the tough early months of infant-raising and will be soon celebrating their child’s first birthday (whose middle name, per the Wheelhouse podcast, is Daniel...as in Vogelbach, who became one of Yusei’s very best friends on the team over the course of last season). So that’s one chaotic part of his life that is most likely a bit calmer now. Also, I hope he’s had the time and space to mourn his father and work through the intense early stages of grief in a way that was healthy and healing for him, as much as it can be.
Here is Kikuchi’s pitch mix from 2019, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
As most NPB pitchers are prone (and taught) to do, Kikuchi absolutely pounded the strike zone. The problem? Most of those pitches in the zone were extremely hit-able. Look at all those sliders and curve balls that landed in the zone! I mean, on one hand, having that kind of control of your pitch location is really good, but, uh maybe he can control some more of those pitches to land in places that don’t typically end up resulting in 400-foot-plus home runs? This concludes my lecture on results-based analysis. I will not be taking questions at this time.
Given that Kikuchi now has a season’s worth of data and game film to reflect on and put to use, what do we want to see from Kikuchi in 2020? Well, how about 10 or so starts that rival or match his best outing from 2019, a masterful complete game “Maddux” in Toronto on August 18? The Mythical Nicholas Stillman broke down that game in a way I never could in his ridiculously good recap, which included this delightful, non-sequitur .gif that I can’t stop watching.
Take a look at this unique angle of the final out of that start:
I feel like many of us fans have just kinda memory-wiped a lot of the 2019 season. But, this moment right after he got the final out, securing the best outing of his MLB career to date, is worth remembering. Many of us fight and scrape and work our asses off just to sometimes get a moment like that where everything came together and things broke your way for once. These moments are the things that keep us going and remind us of why we even bother to get up in the morning. You hold onto those moments with a vice-like grip. If there is any hope for Yusei to turn the pain of 2019 into a minor footnote of a glorious MLB career, it exists in that very moment in Toronto where it all came together for a brief, spectacular moment.