Kikuchi's fastball MIA again in loss to Angels

July 18th, 2021

ANAHEIM -- held fellow countryman and American League MVP favorite Shohei Ohtani hitless on Saturday with a pair of punchouts.

Those sequences were about the only positives for Seattle’s left-hander, who surrendered nine hits and seven runs, both season highs, and continued his prolonged struggles against the division-rival Angels, whom he now has a 10.92 ERA against in seven career starts. Kikuchi put the Mariners in a deep hole early, and their bats couldn’t muster much against Alex Cobb in a 9-4 loss at Angel Stadium.

Rust from Kikuchi was to be expected, given that the fully-vaccinated lefty was under the weather last weekend with non-COVID symptoms, and then opted not to pitch in Tuesday’s All-Star Game since he’d been thrown off his rhythm and routine. But there were a few noticeable issues on Saturday that had carryover from his final start -- or, rather, hiccup -- before the break.

It was the second straight outing Kikuchi didn’t have his fastball, and as such, had to pitch away from contact, which, considering his results in an outing against the Yankees on July 7 in which he gave up five runs, steered away from his approach that made him a first-time All-Star.

Kikuchi’s four-seam fastball averages, 2021
First 15 starts: 95.7 mph | 2,292 RPM
July 7 vs. NYY: 94.0 mph | 2,114 RPM
Saturday vs. LAA: 94.8 mph | 2,146 RPM

Kikuchi nibbled around the strike zone and threw his slider more than he had all season -- 41% usage, up from his 18.4% season average -- a sign that he didn’t want to give the Halos anything to do damage with.

“My fastball and cutter just weren’t there today, and so yes, the slider became an [important] pitch tonight,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “There were quite a few swings and misses that I got when I did execute them, and so I feel like that is actually a plus moving forward."

Yet that approach gave the Angels more consistent looks at the breaking ball, and overall they tagged him for five doubles and two homers while registering an exit velocity of 95 mph -- the threshold Statcast classifies as hard-hit -- on 10 of their 17 balls in play. This came on the heels of a very similar showing against the Yanks, who had 11 hard-hit balls on 18 in play, and limited Kikuchi to just five innings, just as the Angels did on Saturday. It didn’t help that he surrendered five of his seven runs with two outs, either.

“Every year, the Angels' lineup, they come out aggressive,” Kikuchi said. “They come out swinging early in the count, and so I was expecting that. But today, I just feel like I wasn't as sharp overall.”

Kikuchi, who has been a beacon of length for Seattle’s beleaguered rotation, hadn’t gone five innings or fewer in consecutive starts since Aug. 20 and 27 last year, when he was still learning how to attack big league hitters. Saturday was also just the fourth time in 2021 that he’s failed to go deeper than five innings, and one of those outings was due to a knee contusion on a comebacker on this very mound at The Big A.

“It's not what we're used to seeing out of Yusei,” Mariners manager Scott Servais asid. “He's been so good in the first half. He'll get back there. No problem with that. I feel very confident in that. But tonight, he struggled. They were on him. They hit the ball hard. It wasn't like he was walking guys. He wasn't really behind in the count. They were very aggressive on fastballs down in the zone, and they didn't miss them.”

The velocity on Kikuchi’s fastball, which has averaged one of the highest readings among left-handed starters, was once again down, though not as dramatically as against the Yankees. And the spin rates on all of his pitches were noticeably reduced, too, each by more than 130 RPM. There was decent swing-and-miss, which led to seven strikeouts against 25 batters, including six on his slider. His cutter also lacked its trademark movement.

But the fastball is what steers everything, so recovering that pitch will be vital moving into the second half.

“The main thing is that my fastball velocity was just not there in both these games, so I think that's the only problem, honestly,” Kikuchi said. “And so I'm just looking forward to making the proper adjustments to get that velocity back.”