What a difference a year can make.
Yusei Kikuchi walked the world last April, showing early signs of what would be a long, frustrating season. There’s a reason Kikuchi entered 2023 as a big, bold, red-ink question mark for the Blue Jays.
What he’s done through his first four starts, though, is mostly remarkable. Outside of an ugly day against the Angels, Kikuchi has allowed just one earned run in each of his other three outings. He owns a 3.80 ERA and has passed the eye test, including six strong innings against the Yankees this weekend where John Schneider trusted him to face the top of their dangerous lineup three times.
What Kikuchi is doing stretches miles beyond expectations.
It’s all about sustainability, though. Much like José Berríos, who is finding some solid ground of his own lately, Kikuchi teased this a dozen different times in 2022. He’d dazzle in a win one week, then struggle to escape the first inning again the next time out. It was difficult to know which Kikuchi was the real version, which means it was difficult to believe in Kikuchi at all.
These runs become more believable when there’s a reason behind them. Beyond the addition of Kikuchi’s beard, which Statcast cannot yet quantify, here’s what he has done better through his first four starts:
Avoiding the spiral
Kikuchi had a 6.86 ERA in the first inning last season and a 9.95 in the third. This meant he rarely made it through the early innings without something going wrong.
While the Angels got to him early, Kikuchi is doing a far better job of stopping the bleeding. Even Friday against the Yankees, when a handful of calls didn’t go Kikuchi’s way, all you saw was a quick smile before he went back to hammering the strike zone. He’s doing this by keeping himself mentally level instead of trying to throw at 110% to escape jams.
“I was putting a little too much strength into my pitches,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “So I just reminded myself to be relaxed every time I’m facing the hitters.”
This has all led to Kikuchi looking like a different person on the mound. There’s some swagger to him now, which we never saw in 2022. After Kikuchi struck out Aaron Judgeon Friday, he pivoted back towards second base and pumped both fists as he let out a howl. It’s all so refreshing to watch.
“He’s more comfortable and more confident,” Schneider said. “I love the fire on some close pitches. When you’re confident like that, you can show a little bit more emotion and then lock back in for the task at hand.”
No more freebies
Through four starts last season, Kikuchi had walked 13 batters over 14 2/3 innings. This season, it’s just five walks over 21 1/3 innings. His walk rate has been cut by over half, which was his single biggest challenge in 2022.
This shows up in finer ways, of course, as Kikuchi is doing a far better job of hitting the edges of the zone and attacking hitters with his fastball. Kikuchi doesn’t tower over the mound like Alek Manoah, but somehow, he throws harder than him. A 97-mph fastball from a lefty starter isn’t common, and he’s finally tapping into that weapon.
The payoff? When Kikuchi expands outside the zone, he’s getting hitters to chase. His 35.2% chase rate is a career high and well above his 27.7% from last season, leading to the ugly swings his raw stuff should have been producing all along.
Mixing it up
Kikuchi got caught in a cycle of adjustments last season, and when you’re trying to adjust on the fly against the AL East, you’re going to get rocked.
His pitch mix was a constant topic of discussion, but now he’s found a much more comfortable spread. The short version is that he’s throwing his breaking ball just as much, but he’s replaced about 10% of his fastballs with changeups. Again, this allows for his fastball to creep into the upper-90s and blow by hitters who now have to respect the changeup.
Before, facing Kikuchi was a lot like facing a reliever who had a fastball, slider and very little control. Now, he’s the one driving the bus as a true starter who controls at-bats.