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40 in 40: Yusei Kikuchi

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The 2021 season will be the most important of Kikuchi’s career — for both him and the Mariners

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been written on Lookout Landing about Mariners starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, and for good reason. The six-foot southpaw is one of the hardest pitchers for anyone to figure out. Sometimes it’s the hitters that have a tough time figuring him out. Most often it’s us.

Kikuchi’s MLB career has been marred by inconsistency. After the Mariners signed him pre-2019 from the Saitama Seibu Lions of Japan’s NPB, Kikuchi’s first season stateside saw him put up just 0.3 fWAR, weighed down by an FIP of 5.71. Kikuchi could be forgiven for his rocky start: as has been discussed ad nauseum, that season saw him deal with a completely new country, the birth of his son, and the death of his father.

2020 promised an opportunity to see a well-adjusted and improved Kikuchi amidst circumstances that would hopefully be more representative of future seasons in the MLB. Then, you know, COVID happened. Despite the bizarre nature of last season, Kikuchi still improved. In fact, as our own Michael Ajeto described, he completely re-invented himself.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A three-point tick in his fastball velocity would have been cause enough for celebration. Beyond that, his shiny new cutter and highly improved slider (which rated above-average after being an utterly miserable pitch in 2019) more-or-less turned Kikuchi into a brand new pitcher. Had 2020 been prorated to a full season, Kikuchi would have been a four-win pitcher.

Of course, he wasn’t perfect last year. His walk rate ballooned to 10.3%. As our own John Trupin described, he led the league in 3-0 counts. He didn’t pitch into the 7th inning in a single start.

And as we turn the page to 2021, Kikuchi and the Mariners find themselves at a true crossroads. It feels like I’ve previewed almost every Mariner over the past few years as coming up on a “make-or-break” season. For Kikuchi, it’s really the case, if only because of his bizarre contract situation.

Kikuchi makes $15 million this year. After the season ends, the Mariners will have the choice of picking up a four-year option for a total of $66 million, or about $16 million per year. If the Mariners decline, Kikuchi has his own player option for 2022 at $13 million.

For the Mariners to compete in 2022 and beyond, as they’ve claimed is the plan, they’ll need Kikuchi to be good. They’ll need him to at least be worth picking up the option years. So how good would he need to be for that?

Craig Edwards at Fangraphs found that, last season, a player was worth about $9.1 million per WAR. Assuming that the rapidly shifting landscape of MLB (and the United States, and the world) doesn’t drastically change this, Kikuchi would have to put up 1.8 WAR to be worth his contract. Far more than what he was worth in 2019. Far less than what he would have done last year over a full season.

It just so happens that in the above article I linked that we published earlier this month (here it is again), we set Kikuchi’s over/under at 1.9 WAR.

He could probably take the path he took last season: drag out at-bats, racking up strikeouts (and walks) along the way while rarely (if ever) pitching deep into a game. That’s right. I’m saying he could be Érik Bédard (sorry). As we’ve seen, it’s a volatile path. Do the Mariners pick up his option in this case? It probably depends on what the rest of the team does. If they show any indication of being remotely competitive, one would hope the Mariners would still lock in Kikuchi through 2025.

He could also regress a bit: lose some of the gains he made in velocity last season without regaining any of his command in the process. He’d be a somewhat improved version of his 2019 self, but not a pitcher that figures to be a meaningful part of a playoff team. Especially not at $16 million per year. It would leave the Mariners with just one more hole to plug in a rowboat sometimes seems more hole than wood.

Of course, if he maintains last year’s gains in both velocity in stuff while improving on his command, his option would become a no-brainer. He was already on pace for four wins last year. A Kikuchi touching his ceiling could be a five-win pitcher. His option years would become a steal, and he’d suddenly find himself toward the top of a rotation of a young team with a core piece locked in.

I honestly have no idea what 2021 hold for Kikuchi. Any normal year is hard enough to predict. We don’t even know yet how many games the team will play in 2021. I also have no idea whether the Mariners have what it takes to be good in 2022 and beyond. But Yusei Kikuchi being good would make things a hell of a lot easier.