Free Agent Folder #2: Yusei Kikuchi

This edition of baseball offseason has been a dandy so far: the impending, and current, lockout, yet another round of CBA battles between owners and players, made so that a lot of mega-deals, long term and high AAV blockbusters, were signed in the span of a week, a billion $ in guaranteed contracts that shed a light on the plausible introduction of a deadline on signings to resemble the NBA free agency, shorter and full of Woj bombs at a rapid pace.

That came to a steep price though: as baseball locks out so do ML transactions, whether they are related to FA, trades or international signings, so wait for a bit Seiya while they sort things out! Minor league deals and invites can still be signed, shout out to Milwaukee penning Houston legends Tyler White and Jon Singleton to MiLB contracts, and the work behind the scenes never stops, such is that it may not be that strange to see deals overflowing as the opposing sides reach a compromise on the new agreement, hopefully.

In the meanwhile, let’s open another page of my Free Agent Folder, where I keep stored all my secrets regarding free agents I’d want my team to sign at a bargain.

I love a reliable arm to round out my rotation: Tyler Anderson as a #5 is just what the doctor ordered, a steady presence, constantly producing 5+ innings of quality eating, giving up 3 ER with rare booms and busts and handle the pen and the lineup a fair chance at winning the game. Workhorses, known quantities such as Anderson usually are signed for shorter, 2 year, deals in the $10M AAV zone or less, and they wind up to be good bets more often than not.

Now, scratch all that because I’m going to analyze one of the most frustrating starters in MLB, an enigma that came from Japan with hopes, red flags galore and did nothing but add intrigue and insecurity to his resume.

What are thou, Yusei Kikuchi?

Why buying?

- He has elite stuff for a starter

When your closer comparable hurler in terms of pitch velocity and movement is none other than 2021 Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, you have something good to work with, and Kikuchi sure does:

With a fastball routinely over 95 mph, up to 99, and a 92–95 mph cutter he introduced in 2020 that is now his preferred secondary, if not primary pitch, Kikuchi’s life comes at you fast, a rare LH starter relying more one pure heat than deception along with the likes of Ray, McClanahan and Snell.

To note, his secondaries are also viable: a slider with above average spin and a changeup with good results, more on that later, make him a 4-pitch pitcher, hinting to the possibility of better deploying his weapons to contrast the 3x lineup penalty, if he ever gets to see 1–9 all those times that is.

A mechanical change, with a simplified delivery from his Saitama Seibu Lions days when he was stopping his kick mid-air to then come forward, avalanche style, resulted in a gain of 2+ mph on all pitches and an extension that is now elite at 6.8 ft, making his fastball ride even more than its good rpms allow it to maintain its course.

Kikuchi’s stuff is 70 grade, and him being a LHP only helps as he’s been able to nullify the LHB matchup, posting sub 1 WHIPs and low ERAs all throughout his short MLB career.

- His pitches have amazing shapes and mirror potential

Notably, Kikuchi works more up-down than east-west and that’s by design, due to his offerings lacking in hmov with his fastball the only one on the red, a strategy that allows him to exploit his crossfire delivery and above average vmov on his entire arsenal to flummox hitters and catch them guessing wrong:

Yusei’s pitch shapes return two interesting couples to pair up and use aplenty: his fastball/changeup combination seems nasty, both having identical horizontal movement but the cambio dropping almost three times as much with a solid 9–10 mph differential resulting in a pitch that he ought to use more than 10%, his best in terms of xStats, Whiff and Chase.

The other one-two punch is his cutter/slider combo, both breaking strangely few sideways but the latter dropping 20" more, the same speed/drop differential of his FB-CH set and a good bet to master up a sequence and fool batters north to south:

The FB-CH combo shines thanks to apparent SSW, Seam Shifted Wake, on his changeup: as they come out of Yusei’s hand, both pitches look the same to then deviate a good 1.5 hours left for his CH, dropping well under RHB’s barrels, Kikuchi’s best chance at winning the unfavorable matchup.

There’s a ton of smoke and mirrors to accompany pristine, top shelf stuff, and that bodes well for Kikuchi’s case at being more than just a viable MLB rotation option.

- He’s making batters whiff and chase much more

On paper Yusei is doing all things right: he’s throwing more strikes, getting ahead more often thanks to a 63% 1st pitch strike that is way above ML average and his Chase rate is going up, resulting in less (atrocious) contact and more Whiffs, a 27–29% rate in the last two years, not bad for someone who is 70% fastball/cutter.

I can’t stress enough how Kikuchi’s changeup may actually be his best offering: a 40+ Chase and Whiff on a CH is in the Luis Castillo elite company, and even when batters get to it they can’t do much, as a .191 xwOBA attests to.

Above average drop, amazing FB tunneling, speed differential and location are more than enough reasons for Kikuchi to think about spiking up his CH usage in 1/2 strike counts and as a finisher against RHB, there’s a lot of success to be made out of an underappreciated 4th pitch.

Why not buying?

-His additional strikes are getting clobbered

Remember wnen I said Kikuchi threw more strikes than ever? That’s good, right?! Not really, if those pitches are getting destroyed.

Kikuchi, still below average in the walk department even with his newfound love for the strike zone, is more blue than the Pacific Ocean on most contact related Savant rankings: 1st, yep 1st, percentile in avgEV and HardHit%, 4th percentile in Barrel%, varying shades of deep blue in xAVG, xSLG and xwOBA.

Who’s the culprit of this annihilation? The hard stuff, mostly. Kikuchi has become the unique TTO pitcher, whereas that stands for Two True Outcomes: Whiff or Damage. Even with a GB close to 50% Kikuchi is allowing a humongous >10% Barrel on cutters and fastballs, with his heater getting demolished for almost .500 xSLG and his cutter over that mark.

These are not bad pitches though! Shapes are good, velocity is top of the food chain, Whiffs and Chases are up and heck, they work amazingly with their respective breaking balls! What gives?

-He has no command of his stuff

Let’s get back to Robbie Ray: we all knew his issue, the guy couldn’t throw a strike, a lack of control that belittled his A+ stuff. Then he went to Toronto and found the zone, the rest is history.

But wait…is it that simple? Did he just start to throw his heater down the middle and pray? Nope: if you look at his pitch locations you’ll see how he commanded the top of the zone with his plus velo/spin fastball and racked up Ks with a deluge of sliders in the Shadow zone.

Kikuchi is throwing more pitches in the zone though! Why isn’t it working?

Here we have one of the most underrated differences in baseball: control IS NOT command! While Kikuchi’s control, the ability to throw strikes, is up and that leads to less walks, he has no command, the mastery of picking spots and placing pitches on the corners and/or right where the catcher calls them.

Yusei is doing what everyone thought Ray had to do to become great: straight gas down the pipe, and sliders too while we’re at it. Clearly that’s not working: his fastball doesn’t play well down the zone where its spin and ride become uneffective; his cutter lacks cut and is a glorified sinker if anything; his slider…you tell me what’s going on with it, a mistery pitch he either hangs middle-high or spots on the knees, he seems unable to bury it.

And that is the real problem of Kikuchi: in an effort to throw strikes, he’s throwing too many and too egregious of them. While his Chase rates are up he should ride the wave and start exploring more dirt with his breaking balls, or place his cutter in, searching for the weak contact that’s eluding him. Instead he’s letting it eat down the middle and batters are feasting on his meatball course.

The only pitch he places effectively, away and sometimes down, is his changeup. There’s obviously something going on mechanically and it may be the new delivery: while it’s less elaborate and more mph-conductive, the extra extension is eating some of his pitches’ movement, leaving them up and over, the Jake Odorizzi special.

- He lacks long term stamina

Finally, Kikuchi, only a few years separated from the NPB environment, still seems to be affected by the burden of a 5-man rotation, less rest, more starts and innings to cover: while his first half was arguably ASG worthy his second was not, with his stuff dipping due to fatigue and the substances ban looming on his pitches’ spin rates.

Never a model of consistency rather a peaks-and-valleys hurler with prodigious stuff even in his Japanese heyday, Yusei might be more fit in a team ready to employ a wider rotation or to use him as a 2-turns-and-out starter, similarly to what Tampa Bay did with Snell before shipping him to SD.

Prediction time! Where is Kikuchi going to end up?

The situation is tricky: he refused a consistent, $13M player option that seemed like a no brainer and the current lockout may even push him to think about a return to Japan, where he’d be handsomely paid and probably more successful.

Yet I think he’ll stay: Yusei has shown a knack for the analytics and a willingness to try and experiment, adding the cutter and changing his delivery in the span of a year. Where would he fit though?

Which team perpetually needs pitching?

Which team already rosters a Japanese pitcher?

Which team is willing to take a flyer on a high risk arm?

This is one of the easiest calls I’ve ever made: Yusei Kikuchi is going to sign with the LA Angels of Anaheim, partnering with Shohei Ohtani, his former Hanamaki Higashi HS teammate although they never played together, a rotation that would have been a nightmare for poor Japanese high schoolers.

At what cost? That’s everyone’s call: I expect the length to be short, a 2 year deal plus option at best, and the AAV in the $12–14M range, less than the Syndergaard paycheck for a similar projections of 2 WAR, per FanGraphs, and around what he’d have made by staying in Seattle.

With him, Thor, Shohei and young guns in Detmers, Canning and Sandoval the Angels rotation is the definition of a glass cannon: if everything goes well, they are a playoff threat to say the least; if one or two guys catch the injury bug, it’s another 70–75 win season and more angst for those waiting for more Trout postseason ABs.

He might not be the quintessential #5 starter, and as far away as the consistent innings eater you’d like to pencil a spot for, but Yusei Kikuchi has the stuff of an ace with an excruciating amount of variance attached to it.

Can he stabilize on a positive, frontline starter-like production? I wouldn’t be shocked if he did, even at 30 he’s a ball of clay that is ready to be reshaped if need be, and if that means less gas, more changeups and maybe a return to his old, beautiful and fluid avalanche delivery, I’m all for it.

All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.