Height: 6'0" Weight: 220
Bats/Throws: Left / Left
Born: 06/17/1991 in Morioka, Iwate, Japan
Offseason home: Tokyo, Japan
Family: Wife Rumi
Acquired: Signed as a free agent (01/02/2019)
MLB Debut: 03/21/2019
Free Agent after: 2025 season
What to make of Yusei's rookie campaign in the bigs? Thanks largely to poor support, he didn't win his first game until a month into the season, and lately he's shown an unevenness that's confused his longtime fans. Since the first of May, Kikuchi has thrown quality starts against some very good teams—Cleveland, the Yankees, and Minnesota, plus the mediocre A's—and been beaten up by the likes of Oakland, the Angels, and the Royals. His overall 5.00+ ERA is not exactly what the M's had in mind when they signed the NPB superstar, but as manager Scott Servais put it, "We knew this was going to be a process, bringing him over here."
When he's on his game, the Japanese southpaw has a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curve and slider. When he isn't, the fastball sits at 90ish and the break on the breaking pitches is a bit more meatball than crisp dive. The discrepancies may be due to his adjustment to the every-five-days schedule, but the Mariners have been giving him extra rest by the occasional scheduled short start and even skipping his turn once. Still, when on 6+ days rest, opponents have hit him at 50 points less than otherwise and his WHIP is .3 below his WHIP at a normal 4 days.
In eight NPB seasons, Kikuchi racked up a 2.77 ERA, so you know he's capable of more than we've seen so far. Hopefully it's just a matter of acclimation and finding a routine in the new rotation schedule.
Kikuchi began his Major League career on familiar ground when he toed the rubber for the Mariners in Game 2 of this season in the Tokyo Dome. The former NPB star plied his trade for seven years about 22 miles west in Tokorozawa, home of the Seibu Lions, for whom he was a three-time Pacific League All-Star. He was a dominating force in NPB in 2017, leading the Pacific League in ERA (1.97) and wins (16), which NPB observers say is a truer representation of his skills than are last year's still-quite-good 14-4, 3.08 numbers. How those metrics will translate to the Major Leagues is, of course, uncertain; the standard of play in NPB is often thought to be at "Quadruple-A" level, but several NPB transplants have been more than up to the task of performing here, as Seattleites well know from the Mariners' long history with Japanese players. His debut was impressive—one ER, 4 hits, a walk, and 3 strikeouts, the first of which was of Matt Chapman—though thanks in part to a moving strike zone he didn't get through five innings.
The M's beat out a number of other Major League teams vying for Kikuchi's services, thanks in part to a creatively structured contract and a plan to ease him in to the greater workload of an every-fifth-day, 162-game Major League campaign (despite a much more rigorous training regimen, NPB starting pitchers generally pitch every seventh day through a 143-game season). The contract binds Kikuchi to the Mariners for three years, after which he can exercise an option for a fourth year or the team can exercise an option for a four-year extension. The transition plan calls for Kikuchi to take the mound every fifth game, but every third or fourth turn pitch for just an inning or two; the thinking is to get him acclimated to the schedule while saving the stress of the cumulative innings on his arm, paving the way for more typical seasons in 2020 and beyond. Several pitchers to switch from NPB to the Majors have suffered injury and fatigue after a year or three (e.g. Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka), and it's hoped that this "bridge year" will help Kikuchi's career longevity.
A shoulder ailment hampered him in 2018 (he pitched through it for a while, then spent some time on the shelf), but it's been suggested that may have been a blessing in disguise as it prompted him to add pitches to his repertoire. Said fellow Pacific League pitcher Frank Herrmann, “[Kikuchi] will now flip in a curveball early in the count and use his changeup to guys that [are] on his fastball. [Before], there was never a need for him to get away from the [fastball/slider] combo.... The slightly diminished stuff in ’18 could be a positive once the shoulder gets back to full strength, because I think he’s gained confidence in his other secondary offerings out of necessity.”
Kikuchi essentially replaces Hisashi Iwakuma, who though injured for all of last season, was still a Mariner (albeit on a minor-league contract) through 2018. He even assumed Kuma's jersey number 18, which is coveted among pitchers in Japan and generally reserved there for the ace of the staff; the tradition dates back at least to the time of NPB Hall of Famer Tsuneo Horiuchi, who first donned the number in 1967 for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Meanwhile, Kuma has joined those same Yomiuri Giants this year, though he was forced to change numbers—18 in Tokyo belongs to their ace, Tomoyuki Sugano.