Kikuchi adjusts mechanics after 2019 struggles

February 16th, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- joined the Mariners’ organization last winter with considerable pomp and circumstance. A standout southpaw during his time with the Seibu Lions in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League, Kikuchi’s first season state-side ebbed and flowed through stretches of effectiveness and inconsistency.

Now entering the spring, he’s doing something about it.

At the conclusion of 2019, Kikuchi was already working toward making sure he wouldn't have a repeat performance in '20 and reported to Driveline Baseball headquarters in Kent, Wash.

“It helped me a lot,” Kikuchi said through a translator of his time spent at Driveline. “I had 4-5 months of the offseason to work on all of the things that I needed to work on.”

His work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as manager Scott Servais bounded with optimism Sunday morning ahead of Kikuchi’s first bullpen session.

“Yusei has put in a ton of work since the season ended,” Servais said.

Many of those mechanical adjustments were right in line with where the Mariners were expecting change, including specifics such as his hand placement and when his front foot hit the ground.

A new voice in those discussions this spring is new pitching coach Pete Woodworth, who at age 31, was promoted to the team’s pitching coach role during the offseason. Woodworth was on hand Sunday as Kikuchi threw his first bullpen with catcher Tom Murphy, with the three meeting afterward to extensively discuss the intricacies of the southpaw’s delivery.

“I was told, ‘Throw the ball like a catcher.’ Nice and short,” Kikuchi said.

The hope is that these adjustments will lead to increased velocity on his four-seam fastball, which was crushed by the opposition to the tune of a .326 batting average and .622 slugging percentage last year. But there may have been some rookie year bad luck, as the expected numbers of each mark sat at .299 (xBA) and .531 (xSLG), respectively.

Kikuchi, who threw his fastball 49 percent of the time in 2019, averaged 92.5 mph with the pitch. He has traditionally eschewed a high propensity for strikeouts as a professional, but after accumulating 10.4 K/9 IP with Seibu in 2017 and then 8.4 K/9 IP in ’18, the dip to 6.5 K/9 IP in ’19 was sure to raise a flag of caution.

“I think some teams come in with a definite plan of how they’re going to attack him. He starts to get a track record, and especially in our division,” Servais said. “You have to have Plan B or different weapons to go to, and sometimes he didn’t have those different weapons to go to.”

But ultimately, count Servais in as an interested party in seeing what the tinkered mechanics can mean for his left-hander and his four-pitch mix in 2020.

“It’s up to the player. What feels right? What doesn’t feel right? I think he’s in a good spot right now. He’s tightened things up mechanically, he’s made a few adjustments. I’m curious to see how it plays out once the games start,” Servais said.

Kikuchi reeled off a 3.43 ERA through his first 11 starts in a Mariners uniform. Then things went south -- and fast. Despite that, Servais cemented his confidence in the left-hander Sunday and spoke of how he will have a role in the rotation, no matter where prognosticators want to project his abilities in his second big league season. Both skipper and southpaw are on the same page about the intensity that is being brought out of the gate:

“I’m ready to compete,” Kikuchi said.