The Next Starting Pitcher To Come From Japan

For what felt like quite a while, the chatter last offseason was dominated by the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. Yusei Kikuchi isn’t Shohei Ohtani. For one thing, Kikuchi is a few years older. For a second thing, Kikuchi doesn’t routinely throw his fastball in the upper 90s. And for a third thing, no one has ever referred to Kikuchi as the Japanese Babe Ruth. I don’t know much about Kikuchi as a hitter, but I can assume that he is a bad hitter, because he is a pitcher who hasn’t made waves with his hitting. Kikuchi appears to have three career hits, now that I check. One of them was a double.

Shohei Ohtani was, and is, a sensation. The Kikuchi hype couldn’t possibly get close to that level, because Kikuchi won’t be trying to do something no one else has done in a lifetime. But somewhere in the next week or two, Kikuchi will be posted by the Seibu Lions, as the 27-year-old southpaw wants to make his mark in the bigs. He’ll be free to negotiate with any and every team, and he’s been rather heavily scouted. It’s time we talk about who Kikuchi is as a pitcher. It just so happens we’ve been given two fairly reasonable comps.

Consensus seems to be that Kikuchi isn’t an ace in the making. At least, not by major-league standards. It’s easy enough to look over his numbers at Baseball Reference. Because of injuries, it took a little while for Kikuchi’s career innings to start adding up. He seemed to conquer some walk problems in 2017. In the most recent year, his strikeouts went backward. There was another flare-up of a shoulder problem, that dropped Kikuchi’s innings total by 24.

It’s more useful to me, though, to try to put those numbers in context. This is where DeltaGraphs comes in handy. I calculated a bunch of Kikuchi’s percentile ranks for the 2018 NPB season. And I’ve chosen to compare those percentile ranks to those posted by 2015 Kenta Maeda, and 2017 Miles Mikolas. Maeda came from Japan to the majors, entering his age-28 season. Mikolas came (back) from Japan to the majors, entering his age-29 season. Kikuchi is coming from Japan to the majors, entering his age-28 season. We’ve seen Maeda be successful. We’ve seen Mikolas be successful. None of these pitchers have overpowering repertoires. I’ll note, before the first plot, that the one major difference is that Maeda and Mikolas are righties. Keep that in the back of your mind.

Here are half of the percentiles I calculated:

You can see similarities here across the board. The big differentiator is that Kikuchi’s final-season walk rate wasn’t quite so impressive, but it wasn’t bad by any means, and Kikuchi looks just fine by K-BB%. By runs allowed and FIP, Kikuchi doesn’t quite measure up, but he’s right there by xFIP. All three of these pitchers leaned a little toward grounders. I do think it’s worth highlighting that, while all three strikeout rates looked good, they weren’t exceptional. They weren’t at the top of the league. They were just near to the top.

Now for the other half of the percentiles. These include some plate-discipline components:

More similarities. Let’s just go from left to right. We’re seeing above-average fastball velocities for the NPB, but Kikuchi mostly threw 90-93, averaging about 91.5. Pitchers throw harder in the majors. Kikuchi and Maeda have both loved their sliders, throwing more of them than almost anyone else. Mikolas threw a slider pretty often in Japan, but he also threw more of his curveball. All three pitchers were able to induce swings out of the zone, but none of the three pitchers were good at suppressing swings in the zone. Kikuchi appears by far the best here at getting whiffs out of the zone, presumably thanks to his quality slider. As far as whiffs in the zone go, not that much to look at. Kikuchi looks better at missing bats overall. And these are pitchers who’ve worked in and around the zone, with Kikuchi resembling Mikolas in the last stat.

Handedness aside, Kikuchi has, in general, pitched like Maeda and Mikolas, in their own final NPB seasons. Kikuchi’s repertoire is like a left-handed version of Maeda’s, and Kikuchi’s bread-and-butter seems to be generating chase swings with his slider. I wouldn’t say that Kikuchi can quite compare to Mikolas’ command, but he’s a little better at picking up whiffs, and he knows how to pitch to the zone. Mikolas just ran an FIP- of 81, and an xFIP- of 90, over 200.2 innings. Maeda, over 435.1 big-league innings, has an FIP- of 88, and an xFIP- to match.

Here is a clip of Kikuchi’s fastball, which is his primary pitch:

That particular fastball was clocked at 95.7 miles per hour. It’s from 2017, when Kikuchi didn’t have any shoulder issues, but it’s still clear that Kikuchi can sometimes brush against the upper 90s. Now, here’s a clip of the slider, which is his secondary pitch. You might recognize old friend Carlos Peguero!

And here’s a clip of Kikuchi’s occasional curveball:

To round out the arsenal, Kikuchi has infrequently thrown a changeup. He’s thrown it enough, though, to qualify as a four-pitch pitcher, and he’s a fastball-slider specialist. It’s not an accident he’s drawn comparisons to free-agent lefty starter Patrick Corbin. Corbin, unlike Kikuchi, is coming off a 2018 that was better than his 2017, but the pitchers have similar plans of attack. Corbin this year was better at getting whiffs, but that was a new level for him, and Kikuchi picked up more strikeouts the season before. Also, while Kikuchi has had some shoulder issues, Corbin has had major elbow surgery.

The shoulder problems are certainly a cause for concern. On the plus side, Kikuchi was durable a season ago, and he came back from injury in 2018 looking effective. On the minus side, it’s not as if Kikuchi has only had one or two flare-ups. But, see, this is just another good comparison between Kikuchi and Maeda, because after Maeda agreed to terms with the Dodgers, it was reported that his medicals were dreadful. The structure of his contract reflects the organization’s concern, as they built in substantial protection. Kikuchi’s physical probably won’t go quite as badly, but I’m not a doctor. Even if I were, I wouldn’t be Kikuchi’s doctor.

There’s no point in me trying to predict where Kikuchi is going to sign. There are too many teams presently interested, and just about every team needs pitching. Just about every team can afford Yusei Kikuchi. Once Kikuchi is officially posted, I’m sure we’ll start to get some clarity, and we’ll identify some number of favorites. By rule, it’ll all have to resolve itself within 30 days. And Kikuchi does seem to be a promising No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher. So much is going to depend on his shoulder, and for that reason, the shoulder will be examined awful closely. But, in 2019, Yusei Kikuchi will pitch in the majors. Expect him to get a lot of guys out.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

If the Segura-Leake for Myers rumor is true, then maybe the Mariners are trying to clear up money to go for Kikuchi?

5 years ago
Reply to  phealy48

I don’t get that one. I wouldn’t trade Segura alone for Myers. Would the Mariners?

5 years ago
Reply to  jtrichey

There would be more to it, perhaps Hedges and a young arm heading to Seattle.

Seager and Leake to San Diego for Myers and Hedges would make more sense for both teams, in my opinion, though Seattle would then need a third baseman.

If they aren’t worried about contending in 2019, they could probably nab Josh Fuentes and see if he can cut it.

Kit Davidson
5 years ago
Reply to  phealy48

This is kind of what I was thinking too. Segura + Leake to SD for Myers + Salary Room, M’s can translate that money into Kikuchi and replace what they lost with Leake, only better, for similar price, and get rid of Segura and add a useful piece in Myers at the same time.

5 years ago
Reply to  Kit Davidson

Why would they want to “get rid of” Segura?

Westside guymember
5 years ago
Reply to  Stovokor

Because he hits better than Myers and fields better while playing a more difficult position? (smilie implied)

kick me in the GO NATSmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Westside guy

Myers is 4 years younger and projected to hit much better than Seager next season. Leake is decent innings eater. But replacing Healy with Myers strikes me as a very good idea. Maybe Cano or Gordon can play 3b? Cano more likely. But personally I’d give Vogelbach a shot for a season at first. He walks a ton. If he can get his BABIP up a bunch from .246 then I think a 2-3 WAR season at first is very reachable. His UZR/150 looks promising so far so he may not need not be a super bat to be useful.

5 years ago
Reply to  phealy48

They already have the money for Kikuchi. They already have room as well.