At the end of his comfort zone, Kikuchi finds success

Lefty's adjustments pay off as he allows 1 hit in 6 innings vs. his former club

May 17th, 2022

TORONTO -- Following a series of software updates and bug fixes,  2.0 officially launched on Monday in Toronto.

This wasn’t a quick fix. For much of April, Kikuchi looked like a pitcher trying to find himself. Making adjustments on the fly against big league hitters is next to impossible, so the lefty battled through control issues and some ugly outings with a long-term vision in mind. 

In the past, Kikuchi has been uncomfortable making changes in-season. Even when he signed with the Blue Jays, that hesitation was alive and well. Pitching coach Pete Walker said one thing, though, that opened Kikuchi to these new ideas.

"We’re not looking for immediate results.”

When Kikuchi thinks back to that, there was a mental shift that took place. With Walker’s confidence firmly behind him, knowing it wouldn’t be “a night-and-day change”, Kikuchi knew that this didn’t need to result in sudden brilliance. It didn’t, either, but that was the part of the plan that the Blue Jays were willing to accept for an eventual payoff.

“That really meant a lot to me and I feel like that’s a big reason why I was able to buy in immediately,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “[Walker] also mentioned that it’s a long season and that I would play a big part in this team making the postseason. Just having those conversations and hearing it from Pete was a big deal for me.”

Monday’s 6-2 win over the Mariners, Kikuchi’s old club, is the payoff. He chewed through Seattle’s lineup, throwing six innings of one-hit ball while pitching with a confidence we hadn’t seen yet. Since the day Kikuchi signed with the Blue Jays, the comparisons to Robbie Ray have felt forced, but that’s starting to change.

This isn’t meant to compare talents. Ray, who didn’t travel to Canada with his new club for this series, won a Cy Young Award in Toronto. This is a parallel of development styles and strategies, though, as Kikuchi stripped down his repertoire and went all-in on a new approach. His cutter lived a long, healthy life, but all good things must come to an end.

In place of the cutter, Kikuchi has pivoted fully to a harder slider, which averaged 87.8 mph on Monday. That’s up from 82.5 mph in 2021, so we’re talking about a significant increase in velocity here.

“Pete mentioned that after my very first outing,” Kikuchi explained. “Really early in the year, he recommended [that I] get that pitch up to the upper-80s. It was a little tough to do at first, but he mentioned trying to throw it more like a heavier cutter, almost. That really felt great. I feel more comfortable each outing with that pitch.”

Much like Ray, who leaned into his fastball and slider with extreme confidence in ‘21, Kikuchi’s approach has been condensed to focus on strengths.

Instead of being decent at four things or good at three things, try to be great at two.

With that hard slider coming along, Walker’s next suggestion came.

“About three weeks ago was when Pete and I first had some deeper conversations and he really pushed the usage of my fastball, really recommended that,” Kikuchi said. “To be honest with you, at times, I didn’t have the most confidence in that pitch.”

Kikuchi’s fastball was one of the main draws for the Blue Jays when they signed him, though. A right-hander who averages 95 mph and reaches up to 97 doesn’t raise as many eyebrows, but a starter doing that from the left side certainly does. Kikuchi’s average four-seam fastball velocity ranks him sixth among left-handed MLB starters (min. 25 pitches), and as he continues to see the results, it’s becoming a pitch he wants to throw more and more.

This is how effective coaching works. Every MLB club has advanced data and a lab of fancy computers to measure everything imaginable. That information is useless, though, unless it is communicated in a way that makes sense to the player. In-season changes and fastball usage weren’t in Kikuchi’s comfort zone, but since those suggestions came to him in a way that made him feel supported and confident, it worked.

Now, Kikuchi just needs to do it again, again and again.

Prior to the game, manager Charlie Montoyo said that it was Ray’s consistency that impressed him most in the Cy Young run of ‘21. Plenty of pitchers can throw 95 and breeze through six scoreless innings, but few can do it every five days as opposing hitters adjust to them.

This isn’t the same old Kikuchi, though, and with a little help from some tailored coaching, he’s set himself up for a second act that looks much different than his time in Seattle.