This past offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays solidified the back end of the rotation by signing southpaw Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year deal worth $36 million. This made the Jays’ rotation one of the strongest in the American League, backed by Jose Berrios, Alek Manoah, Hyun Jin Ryu and the newly signed Kevin Gausman, with potential injury replacements in Ross Stripling, Thomas Hatch, and Nate Pearson waiting in the wings if necessary.
The Kikuchi deal was met with both fanfare and some concern, as he didn’t put up the strongest stats since joining the Seattle Mariners back in the 2018/2019 offseason. As a Mariner, the Morioka, Japan product posted a 4.97 ERA through 70 starts, earning a 15-24 record in that timeframe. He earned one All-Star appearance last year with Seattle and the club decided to not pick up his option this past offseason, which led him to sign with the Blue Jays.
Through his first four starts with the Jays, Kikuchi was struggling to find consistency on the mound. He repeatedly put himself into tough counts and struggled to find the strike zone, allowing 2+ walks in each of his April starts. By the end of the month, he was sporting a 5.52 ERA with nine earned runs through 14.2 innings with 13 walks and 13 strikeouts.
Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi has put forward some strong outings this past month after struggling through the month of April.
This rough start led to Kikuchi and pitching coach Pete Walker making some adjustments on the mound, “He told me to throw this harder slider, almost like a bigger cutter… that really stuck with me. We were playing around with a couple different grips, and still working things out, still trying to get that feel for that pitch, but it’s been feeling better and better each day.”
Through five games, Kikuchi posted a 2.36 ERA while allowing only seven earned runs through 26.2 innings of work. The Japanese product is also seeing an improvement with his command, allowing just 11 free passes through the month while striking out more batters at 31 with an additional start compared to his April stats. Kikuchi was also doing this against some tough competition in the New York Yankees (twice) and just recently the Los Angeles Angels last night. Through the month of May, Kikuchi did not allow more than two runs in a single outing while striking out at least four batters, hitting the seven strikeout threshold on three separate occasions.
While he has been able to keep the runs off the board, it is interesting to note that he is still giving up hard contact and opposing batters are still squaring up his offerings, just not benefiting from the spoils.
He ranks in the 13th percentile when it comes to hard-hitting % and the seventh percentile at average exit velocity with opponents owning a 91.8 MPH on the year. Kikuchi also ranks below the 20 percentile mark on xwOBA, xERA, and barrel %, so while his earned runs are low and he is keeping the Jays in ballgames through the month, opponents do still see his pitches well but have not been able to capitalize.
No matter the adjustments or what the metrics are saying, Kikuchi is definitely performing better than what fans were seeing through the first month of the season, so whatever the starting pitcher and Pete Walker discussed and worked on at the start of May is certainly for the better.
The question will be whether he can continue this trend heading into June and beyond as the season wears on.