Yusei Kikuchi Picks Rebuilding Mariners

Nothing spurs interest and action quite like a deadline. It’s why we love Game Sevens. It’s why we love July 31. It’s why we’re almost always let down by the winter meetings — the end doesn’t actually mean a single thing. When good players are available on the offseason market, some sort of deadline does exist, because teams and players generally want to be settled in time for opening day. But we don’t know when Bryce Harper is going to sign. We don’t know when Manny Machado is going to sign. We did know when Yusei Kikuchi was going to sign. Yusei Kikuchi had a deadline.

Kikuchi was posted in early December, and by the rules of the new MLB/NPB agreement, he had a 30-day window to make a decision. The end of the window was going to be…today, January 2, so we’ve known for a while Kikuchi would pick a team around the turn of the calendar. (Deadlines also allow humans to procrastinate.) Word first started spreading late on the east coast’s New Year’s Eve. Kikuchi is going to pitch for the Mariners. The Japanese lefty hopes to be a fit for the Mariners’ aggressive and optimistic rebuilding timeline.

I wrote about Kikuchi a month and a half ago, and I won’t use this article to repeat that analysis at length. If you want to know more about Kikuchi’s recent numbers in context, click on that link and read. A consensus has formed that Kikuchi profiles as a mid-rotation starter, and I don’t see a good reason to disagree. He’s not altogether too different from Kenta Maeda and Miles Mikolas, who’ve succeeded after transitioning from Japan. Unlike Maeda and Mikolas, Kikuchi is a southpaw, and he’ll turn 28 in the middle of June. With his low-90s fastball, reliable slider, and slow curve, he pitches in a style similar to Patrick Corbin.

Given Kikuchi’s profile, it might seem somewhat surprising that he elected to sign with a team taking a deliberate step back from contention. But not only do the Mariners swear they’re eyeing 2020 and 2021 — they’ve had at least one Japanese player on the roster every year since 1998, and they offer an appealing blend of money, need, and market. Beyond that, Kikuchi right now might be thinking less about joining a winner, and more about proving his own ability against the highest level of competition. He’ll get the chance to do that in Seattle, and besides, the Mariners might’ve dangled the largest contract. We should talk about the structure of the contract, because it’s pretty interesting.

Kikuchi is getting four years guaranteed, worth a total of $56 million. But the fourth year is a player option, worth $13 million. You can think of it as an opt-out clause. Kikuchi could elect to hit free agency after three years and $43 million. Yet there’s another twist — the Mariners could elect to extend Kikuchi for an extra four years and $66 million, wiping out the player option. So in the end, Kikuchi might’ve been signed for three years and $43 million, for four years and $56 million, or for seven years and $109 million.

It’s reminiscent of the contract Jake Arrieta signed last year with the Phillies. Arrieta effectively has a 2020 player option worth $20 million, but the Phillies can void it by agreeing to extend Arrieta for an additional two years and $40 million. So in the end, Arrieta might’ve been signed for two years, for three years, or for five years. Opt-outs or player options have gotten pretty familiar, but the twist offers some team protection.

Opt-out clauses are appealing and valuable for players because they allow the players to hit free agency if they think they can earn more than they already had left. But take a case like Kikuchi’s. After 2021, there will be decisions to make. If he’s ineffective or injured, the Mariners won’t pick up the extension, and Kikuchi will stick around for another year and $13 million. But if Kikuchi is very effective and healthy, the Mariners will pick up the extension, and the player option won’t mean anything. The player option would be used if Kikuchi projected to make more than $13 million, but less than $66 million (this is a simplification, ignoring all the other factors). The protection for the Mariners comes in the event that Kikuchi is outstanding. If he’s more like a No. 1 or a No. 2, the Mariners won’t lose him if they don’t want.

We haven’t seen many of these contracts, so we don’t know how they’ll play out. Chances are, Arrieta’s contract with the Phillies will end up at three years and $75 million, and Kikuchi’s contract with the Mariners will end up at four years and $56 million. Remember that, on top of that, the Mariners are also responsible for paying a posting fee, just north of $10 million. So, in order to land Yusei Kikuchi, the Mariners have guaranteed about $66 million. Last offseason, in order to land Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals guaranteed $15.5 million, which is less than a quarter of Kikuchi’s amount. Here’s a table comparing Mikolas and Kikuchi’s final seasons in Japan:

Pitcher Comparison
Pitcher Year Age IP K% BB% GB% RA- FIP- xFIP-
Miles Mikolas 2017 28 188 25% 3% 58% 63 64 69
Yusei Kikuchi 2018 27 163.2 23% 7% 53% 77 83 80

Here’s a table comparing Mikolas and Kikuchi’s final three seasons in Japan:

Pitcher Comparison
Pitcher Years Ages IP K% BB% GB% RA- FIP- xFIP-
Miles Mikolas 2015-2017 26-28 424.2 23% 4% 57% 66 75 77
Yusei Kikuchi 2016-2018 25-27 494.1 25% 8% 51% 71 81 81

Kikuchi’s coming over younger by a year and ten months, and that matters. But while Mikolas had a shoulder problem in 2016, Kikuchi had his own shoulder problem in 2018, and he’d had other shoulder issues before. Mikolas was coming off a stronger most recent season. I’d guess there are two main factors at play here. One, in part because of Mikolas, teams might now trust pitching success in Japan a little bit more. And two, Kikuchi is coming to pitch in the majors for the first time, while Mikolas had previously pitched in the majors and been unsuccessful. I’d guess there was a bias there, where Mikolas was penalized for pitching poorly before making real improvements in another league. The Cardinals wound up with a great deal. For the Mariners, this deal has less upside, but it does have more years of control, and besides, you can’t hold everything to the Mikolas contract standard. Teams are still figuring out how much to make of players who excel overseas.

I’m sure it also doesn’t hurt that Kikuchi is open-minded and curious about modern analytical techniques. Unlike the majority of players active in Japan, Kikuchi would study himself, using information from TrackMan and other sources. He’s tried to refine the movement on his pitches, and he’s dived into the numbers and video to make sure his mechanics are around where he’s wanted them to be. Kikuchi has anticipated this move for a number of years, and he’s prepared himself for more than just the language. He should fit with how a ballclub works in 2019, and perhaps he and the Mariners will study Corbin to see if there might be certain lessons to apply to Kikuchi’s repertoire in an effort to make him even better.

At the end of the day, Kikuchi’s pitching fate might well be determined by the fate of his shoulder. This might turn out to be less about how well he pitches, and more about how often he pitches. It’s not a good thing that Kikuchi fought shoulder discomfort in 2018; it is a good thing that he came back from that discomfort to pitch pretty well. Almost by definition, the Mariners probably offered the biggest contract. And so almost by definition, the Mariners have priced in the lowest risk. Other teams might’ve been scared off to a greater degree. The Mariners see a pitcher who can help them today and tomorrow. It’s not the normal kind of move for a club stepping back from the playoff race, but then, there’s a difference between reloading and tanking. The 2019 Mariners probably won’t be very good, but it should at least be possible to envision a brighter future. It’s been a long time since the Mariners could say that.

We hoped you liked reading Yusei Kikuchi Picks Rebuilding Mariners by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Kevbot034
Member
Kevbot034

I’m still not entirely sure I understand why the Mariners signed him, looking to 20/21 or not. Unless they just loved him and thought he was the missing ingredient to contending again very quickly, but that seems silly to me.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I was thinking about this the other day. Kikuchi was expected to get a contract of 4 years for somewhere between $10M-$14M per year. I was thinking: What teams would be interested in a 28 year old pitcher who looks like a #2/#3 starter at those prices?

I ran through teams one-by-one, but I quickly realized that almost everyone should be interested at that price. He upgrades everyone’s rotation except Cleveland, at a price that nearly every team can afford. He probably got too rich for Oakland and Milwaukee at the top end of the range, but at the lower end of the range he seems like he would have been a good fit.

And because of his age, he’s likely to give you similar value in 2020/2021 as 2019, and nearly every team in MLB could contend at some point between 2019-2021 except Baltimore, Miami, KC, and Texas (and some of those teams seem to think they will anyway).

The Mariners almost certainly were the high bidders here, so there’s definitely a winner’s curse problem (exacerbated by the shoulder issue). And they’ve made some weird moves this offseason, so I think they probably aren’t going to be real contenders until 2021 at the earliest. But I think if they want to win in 2020 and 2021 he’s a totally reasonable get by free agent standards.

Uncle Spike
Member
Uncle Spike

I wonder if Seattle was the high bidder. As you stated, just about every team in baseball could use him so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bidding war for his services and there were other clubs willing to offer more. I think Seattle’s popularity in Japan may be being undersold here. There’s probably a good chance they were Kikuchi’s favorite team growing up and players like Ichiro were his idol. It’s pretty rare in baseball that a player has the option to essentially pick his destination. Not only that, he’s never played in the MLB or even minor league system yet so he has nothing to cloud his vision or allegiances to other organizations. If you’re in that spot and your favorite team offers you $56M guaranteed to play for them, do you take that deal over another team offering you say $60-65M? I would think there’s a good chance you do. Of course, I’m merely speculating here but I think there’s a good chance that came into play.

Stevil
Member
Stevil

I had the same thought, but it could be both. They could have offered the same dough as the Padres, for example, but won him over with the history, reputation, location, and preference.

Jay Dee
Member
Jay Dee

Why do we always assume bottoming out is the answer? This is a market that needs to be held up so when they actually become better somebody gives a rip, that’s without even taking into account that Mlb is already losing its market share to other major sports in the first place-
Sea has money, they have a greater proportion market share of the Asian market already than most teams, baseball is heading more overseas as it is (especially Asia), as trombone says in another post this helps further recruitment – I always saw Kikuchi as a perfect fit for Sea, kudos to Jerry

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

I’m somewhat reminded of the Pittsburgh moves of 2017-18 and Cleveland’s ongoing moves; on the fly rebuilds designed to remain competitive longer without risking losing the fans. Seattle has the advantage of deeper pockets so their “rebuild” can be assisted by throwing money at some of the holes.
I’m also reminded that some folks are skeptical of Paxton’s future so it’ll be interesting to see how Kikuchi + Sheffield compare to Paxton in both bulk innings and total WAR.
If nothing else, Seattle is providing food for thought.

Jerry1983
Member
Jerry1983

It’s an open secret in MLB circles, Kevbot034.

Kikuchi was signed for that price and that contract because he was Japanese.

I can appreciate Sullivan willing to look into the Kikuchi’s contemporary, Mikolas; he won’t point to the elephant in the room, but he indicates that something is in the room, at least. Most media types sweep this stuff under the rug, and have for decades.

From a statistical perspective, the Kikuchi and Mikolas contracts are completely inconsistent when juxtaposed with each other: 4 years $56 million guaranteed + $10 million posted + invested in Kikuchi, a total of $119 million for 7 years being set aside in his favor, not to mention God knows how much they spent on his marketing and perks. The actual sum total is probably closer to $150 million potential invested dollars over 7 years, and that kind of financial planning tells you what kind of effort is going into Kikuchi. For Mikolas? 2 years, $16 million and a tiny fraction of the long-term investment and effort into Kikuchi’s recruitment and marketing (did they at least pay his air fare?)

But it makes perfect sense from a racial and marketing perspective.

The Mariners need Kikuchi for reasons beyond his professional merits – his Race makes him marketable – not just in Japan, but also in the US.

Something to add to Sullivan’s statistical context is that it is well known that the Japanese skew their sports officiating to favor Japanese players – from contractual negotiations, to calling balls and strikes. Many statisticians have researched and noted that there are glaring “inconsistencies” in how the game is called for Japanese on the one hand, and “non-Japanese” players (of all other races) on the other. No corporate media journalists will touch, let alone further investigate them – in part because everyone has long known the answers to the “question”.

The NPB hitters know this too. Whether you are a Japanese hitter facing a Non-Japanese pitcher, or a Non-Japanese hitter facing a Non-Japanese pitcher, etc, matters a great deal, ESPECIALLY in “high-leverage” situations.

Every non-Japanese player from Randy Bass to Tuffy Rhodes to Randy Messenger has experienced this NPB “culture”.

Mikolas – and Kikuchi – are different only in that they experienced opposite ends of this divide.

It’s one of the adjustments players (of both sides) have to make when transitioning into the NPB from overseas. Agents and teams have become quite frank about what non-Japanese players have to expect if they want to collect their paydays. It’s a necessary “initiation” to prevent disruption (“loss of face”) in the NPB.

As unsavory as it may seem to alot of Americans, if you’ve dealt with the Japanese before, “it’s business”. That both they and their handlers (the media, talent agencies, advertisers, etc) don’t want to lose face (ie don’t want to be exposed) is par for the course.

But it also proves once again that “statistics” and supposed moralism are not as sacred to these people as they pretend to be, from the Agency functionaries to the BBWA to the Ownership suites, all of whom have full knowledge of Japan’s baseball shenanigans but are keen to keep their audience in the dark while shining their spotlight on Japanese players, whiting out the context.

But by the same token, NPB players (of both sides) have to adjust when they make the transition to the MLB. Obviously, this is more of an easier transition for Non-Japanese players (of any race) than it is for the Japanese players.

Goob
Member
Goob

What is this drivel?

Defenestrater
Member
Defenestrater

By the way, Mikolas was offered more than two years by the Cardinals, but refused. This is part of the reason for the vast difference in their contracts. I will not speculate as to the reasons for the rest of the difference

Jerry1983
Member
Jerry1983

That PR bit is – at best – a half truth put out by the parties to save face, ie a big fat lie.

MLB teams offered him packages that they knew he wouldn’t take; it happens all the time, and trying to latch onto that doesn’t speak well for you.

3 years of 20 million? An incentive-laden contract of 4 years? Team options and buyouts? Whatever it was, Mikolas’ tax lawyers and family knew it wasn’t worth his value.

Bottom line, they didn’t offer Mikolas anything better than 2 years and $16 million.

They certainly didn’t offer anything CLOSE to the $100+ million package they set aside for Kikuchi – and that’s indefensible no matter how many red herrings you throw up.

Seriously, do you HONESTLY think that if Mikloas and Kikuchi traded places in their careers, that the Mariners OR ANYONE in the MLB would offer Miukloas a $100+ million package?

If Kikuchi had Mikolas’ [on-field] NPB career and Cardinal contract…

….and Mikolas had Kikuchi’s NPB career, and became a free agent right now….

Would the Mariners – or ANY MLB team – offer Mikolas that 100+ million, fanfare, perks and all?

Who do you think you’re kidding?

(Oh BTW, the Mariners weren’t the ONLY team to offer Kikuchi that kind of money)

I only need to look at how Mikolas was handled in the 2017-2018 off-season to know what DID happen.

No free agent in his position would take what Mikolas was offered – at least as far as a merit-based evaluation of his NPB record attested to compared to his contemporary competition. And that, unfortunately, is part of Mikolas’ problem in terms of negotiating leverage – his leverage has nothing to do with his racial marketability.

And that’s why Mikolas had NO CHOICE but to accept the contract he got.

It was the best he could get.

Quite frankly, every professional and agent in the business was surprised he even got THAT much, not that anybody in the media would tell you that. Personally, I was stunned and happy for him.

By the same token, I was also surprised Kikuchi didn’t get more than 4 years guaranteed, even though everybody knows that contract is favorable to him given the opt out and the leverage that creates while still in his prime.

But that tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?

Mikolas should feel “lucky” he got 2 years and anything more than $10 million.

Kikuchi got “low-balled” with $56 million, 4 years, and hefty leverage to parlay that into 7 years and $109 million with adoring media coverage, and an organization that is giving him the Ichiro treatment.

(Ichiro is our MVP, Boone is just his “suketto”)

What a crock.

thebearproofsuit
Member
thebearproofsuit

It’s kinda amazing that this all makes sense in your head.