Can Yusei Kikuchi find consistency with the Blue Jays?

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 03: Yusei Kikuchi #18 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at T-Mobile Park on October 03, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 03: Yusei Kikuchi #18 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Angels at T-Mobile Park on October 03, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /
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The Toronto Blue Jays got in on the flurry of free agent moves sure to continue over the next few weeks.

On Saturday, the team agreed to terms with left-handed starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi on a three-year, $36 million contract, first reported by Jon Heyman.

The move all but solidifies Toronto’s rotation, but also comes with a few questions. Kikuchi has enjoyed flashes of brilliance but has struggled with consistency over the course of an entire season.

Blue Jays Kikuchi: The Missing Piece?

There has already been some reaction to the signing as some question the term of the deal and others are unsure about the financial terms. Whatever you may think of the signing, Kikuchi’s arrival gives the Blue Jays a starting five many teams would be envious of.

Even if Kikuchi puts up similar numbers to what he’s done over his three-year career, he should help the club, especially considering he’ll likely be the fifth starter. He has been on a continuous path of improvement since making his debut in 2019 and I expect that will be sustained.

Inside the Numbers

In his first season in the majors, Kikuchi finished with an ERA of 5.46. That number went down to 5.17 during the truncated 2020 campaign. It again dipped last season, down to 4.41 in a year that Yusei made the All-Star team for the first time. So, his earned run average has gone down 0.29 and then down another 0.76 since being in the bigs.

Yusei Kikuchi, Blue Jays
KANSAS CITY, MO – SEPTEMBER 18: Yusei Kikuchi #18 of the Seattle Mariners throws in the second inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on September 18, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Can he make a similar improvement this season? It’s reasonable to think he can, and if he does that’ll bring his ERA down to below four, a very respectable number for any pitcher, especially one at the back-end of the rotation.

Can he put it all together?

Kikuchi’s aforementioned 2021 All-Star game appearance overshadowed the fact that he completely fell off in the second half last season. He was a legit midseason classic participant after posting a 6-4 record with a 3.48 ERA prior to the All-Star break.  However, in the second he went 1-5 with an ERA of 5.98.

In 2019. Kikuchi experienced a similar decline. In the first half of that season, he was 4-6 with a 4.94 ERA. Second half? 2-5 and a 6.25 ERA. The challenge seems clear. Find a way to stabilize Kikuchi and keep him and his performance steady throughout the season.

It seems like a perfect task for Jays’ pitching coach Pete Walker. He’s done a great job getting the most out of guys who have struggled before arriving in Toronto. His recent work with Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, and Robbie Ray are perfect examples.

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Kikuchi has the ability to be a really good pitcher, he just needs to find the right approach. Pete Walker seems like the perfect coach to fine-tune that. Adding another left-handed starter seems like a no-brainer too. If you look at Kikuchi’s baseball savant page, there’s a section titled, Similar Pitchers to Yusei Kikuchi Based on Velocity and Movement. The first pitcher mentioned? 2021 Robbie Ray.