Height: 6'0" Weight: 220
Bats/Throws: Left / Left
Born: 06/17/1991 in Morioka, Iwate, Japan
Offseason home: Tokyo, Japan
Family: Wife Rumi, son Leo Daniel
Acquired: Signed as a free agent (01/02/2019)
MLB Debut: 03/21/2019
Free Agent after: 2025 season
You might look at Yusei's stat line and conclude his 2021 season is more of the same old same old from 2019 and ’20. You might do that, but you'd be wrong—the lefty from Tohoku has actually been delivering solid-to-brilliant performances, excepting one start at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, one of the top offenses in the Majors. The consistency isn't quite there yet—Kikuchi's starts tend to have one inning in them wherein he fumbles a little, but his biggest issue so far is when his manager relieves him and with whom. In his third start of the season, against Houston, Kikuchi entered the 7th inning down 3-2; tiring, he allowed singles to the first two Astro batters of the frame and a walk to the fourth before manager Scott Servais got anyone up in the bullpen; had Servais had a little more foresight and preparation, perhaps Yusei comes out of that game with two fewer runs charged to him. May 11th at Los Angeles, Yusei was ahead 4-1 in the 7th when the Dodgers put two aboard with one out; this time, Servais does go to the ’pen as called for, but he brings in the wrong guy, another lefty to face three lefty-mashers, and you can guess how that turned out. Factor out those four earned runs (with one fewer inning) and you get a 3.56 ERA instead of 4.30 (and possibly another win). If you also discount the Red Sox game, the ERA drops to 2.82. Every pitcher is going to have a bad game here and there, you can't not count them, and even the smartest managers are going to have a move blow up on them now and then; but that 2.82 mark is more illustrative of Yusei's overall game in these first weeks of the ’21 campaign than the official 4.30 is. He's finally showing us the stuff that made him a star for the Seibu Lions in Japan.
It's time for Yusei Kikuchi to show us the real deal. His rookie season was a disappointment, but given his life at the time—new team, new country, new league, new culture, new language, plus dying parent and newborn child—you can forgive him for being a little distracted. And last year was just weird for everybody. But this is year three in the big leagues for the Japanese southpaw, and thanks to the unique structure of his contract, this is the season that will determine his future in the Majors.
When the Mariners signed him, they got three years guaranteed, then there are some variables: Following this season, they can (a) exercise a four-year option and retain Kikuchi's services through 2025 at $16.5M for each of those seasons; or they can decline the option, which triggers a one-year $13M player option that Kikuchi could exercise for himself, then face free agency for 2023. Or both parties could decline their respective options and Yusei would be on the market immediately. With the price of front-line pitching getting higher every year, the M's would love to see the 29-year-old lefty turn in a season reminiscent of his NPB years with the Seibu Lions (2.77 NPB career ERA) and make their decision an easy one. On the other hand, if Yusei continues to put up mediocre numbers in another inconsistent season...
There is reason to be optimistic, though. In last year's mini-season, Kikuchi showed a lot of improvement despite similar W-L and ERA totals. Opposing batters hit him like a piñata in ’19 (.295/.348/.539) but not so in ’20, when they managed a mere .238/.314/.366, struck out at a much higher rate (one K per inning in 2020), and homered at a much lower one (0.57 HR per 9 IP, down from 2 per 9 IP in 2019). He altered his repertoire to include a cut-fastball and lessen the reliability on the curveball, and reports from spring camp have him throwing with greater velocity than he has in either of the past two seasons. Certainly General Manager Jerry Dipoto thinks we're going to see better things based on last year. "I don’t know that we had a single pitcher that was more unlucky than Yusei last year," Dipoto said. "Some of it was due to a bullpen that didn’t do him a ton of favors with the runners he left on, and some was just luck." That comment about the bullpen holds up when you look at Kikuchi's FIP (fielding-independent pitching) mark, which was almost two full runs lower than his ERA at 3.30. One element of his game that didn't much improve last year was high pitch counts; Kikuchi has had a tendency to throw a lot of pitches early, which makes for quicker exits, innings-wise. He didn't get past the sixth inning in any of his ten 2020 starts and did so just five times in his rookie year (32 starts). "It seemed like there was that one inning or that one stretch of the game where he would lose fastball command," said manager Scott Servais. "You get behind in the count, and now you’re constantly trying to chase it, trying to catch up and get back even in the count and get ahead. Fastball command really dictates how it’s all going to go. We’ve talked about it a lot in the offseason with him." Hopefully command comes more easily for Kikuchi this year.