Whenever a baseball player changes teams there tends to be excitement. A new team and new scenery could benefit a player in multiple ways including on-field performance. Yusei Kikuchi recently signed a three-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for $36 million dollars.
Since the move, there have been a lot of Kikuchi lovers coming to the surface. Trust me, I get it. I was someone touting him coming into the 2021 season with his velocity increase. As someone who had several shares, I was able to pay attention to Kikuchi closely and I’m afraid to get back in for a few reasons.
A New Division
Let’s start with his new home in Toronto. According to Statcast Park Factors Kikuchi is moving from the second-best park for pitchers to the fifth-best. It isn’t a crazy shift in terms of ballpark factors but I will say this, the sample size of Toronto’s stadium is very small from last season.
They mainly played in Buffalo last season so the numbers for that stadium could be skewed. They did install humidors and that will certainly help but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rogers Centre move closer towards league average. In 2019 it was the 13th best ballpark for hitters, and while a humidor will help, I can’t imagine a drastic shift towards becoming a pitchers park.
Next, we have to think about the division change. Kikuchi leaves behind a division that included the Angels, Astros, Athletics, and Rangers. Putting aside the lack of offense these teams had last season (besides the Astros) this means Kikuchi mainly pitched in three parks that are all top ten parks for pitchers.
Kikuchi is moving to the AL East, a division that not only has more hitter ballparks but also much stiffer competition.
He now shifts to a division that includes the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles, and the Tampa Bay Rays. This means he is facing four offenses who were top 10 in wRC+ last season. In addition to increased offense competition, two of these ballparks are top five-hitter parks.
We can’t discuss Yusei Kikuchi without discussing velocity. Kikuchi made a huge change from 2019 to 2020 by increasing his fastball velocity from 92.5 MPH to 95.0 MPH. A massive change that excited most of us. The big question was, could he keep that velocity change in 2021?
It certainly looked like it would stick to start the season, but games remaining on the schedule decreased so did his velocity.
April: 94.8 MPH
May: 96.1 MPH
June: 96.0 MPH
July: 95.3 MPH
August: 94.6 MPH
September: 94.2 MPH
Not exactly what you want to see. Velocity is tricky and even just half of a tick down could change things. Sometimes pitchers do get fatigued but what’s key is how do they perform when that happens?
|First Half||95.6 MPH||0.315||7.2%||14.2%||3.48||4.36||16.3%|
|Second Half||94.7 MPH||0.462||13.1%||12.6%||5.98||5.03||13.5%|
For Kikuchi it makes a big difference in terms of performance. He shifts from a league-average pitcher to one who is barely rosterable. This seems like clear fatigue to me which in itself is a bit worrisome since he only pitched 157.0 innings last season.
A side note: out of curiosity, I decided to check his Japan stats to see how many innings he typically pitched in a season overseas. Besides one season where he threw 187.2 innings, he averaged about 150 innings.
In an article from Spokesman.com written by Ryan Divish back in February of 2020, he discusses what Kikuchi was trying to achieve going into the 2020 season. His main focus was velocity because in his rookie season he averaged anywhere from 89 MPH to 94 MPH. In this article, Kikuchi himself admits he gets fatigued from the long MLB season.
“The first thing I felt is that the season is very long,” Kikuchi said through new interpreter Kevin Ando. “I needed to put up good numbers for the season and that was hard for me. Pitching every five days was different. It took a toll on my body and I felt tired. Obviously, my velocity wasn’t as good as it was when I was in Japan.”
In Japan, they didn’t pitch every five days and this is why the Mariners started to use a six-man rotation. The length of the MLB season and pitching every five days threw off Kikuchi’s mechanics resulting in erratic velocity.
We saw this again in 2021 and I’m not sure the Blue Jays roll out a six-man rotation. They do have pitchers to do it and maybe down the road they will but even if so it didn’t help Kikuchi last season so why would it now?
Yusei Kikuchi certainly has some potential, he has shown flashes of elite-level pitching. His slider and changeup have a lot of whiff potential and he uses his four-seam well.
The question we have to ask is, what are the possible outcomes for Kikuchi? Can he break out by keeping his velocity up and using his breaking balls more? Sure. Can he also continue on the same track and post a league-average ERA with only 150 innings pitched making him nothing but a streamer? Sure again.
Which is more likely? A starting pitcher who has been nothing but average with velocity issues is moving to a tougher division kind of answers the question itself. Until Kikuchi can show sustainability with velocity and mechanics it’s too hard to buy into him.