The Toronto Blue Jays lost two starters this past offseason in Robbie Ray and Steven Matz, with the former Cy Young winner signing a five-year (player option after the third season) deal with the Mariners while Matz took a four-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, spurning the Jays and their multi-year contract offer in the process.
The Jays would go out and make moves of their own, signing right-hander Kevin Gausman to a long-term deal, a pitcher they have had their eyes on for a few seasons now. The club also signed southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, inking the former Mariner to a three-year deal worth $36 million to shore up the back end of the rotation.
While Gausman has been one of the Jays’ top arms in the rotation alongside Alek Manoah, Kikuchi has fallen on difficult times since joining the Blue Jays, with starts marred with inconsistency and flashes of brilliance when everything is working on any given outing.
The Iwate, Japan product has struggled to pitch deep into ball games and has surrendered his fair share of walks this season to the tune of a 5.7 BB/9, ranking in the 3rd percentile for BB% through the 2022 campaign. The former All-Star has struggled with his fastball command while also getting barrelled by opposing batters, who own an average 92.8 MPH exit velocity on the Jays starter with a .857 OPS to boot.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi returns from the IL tonight in what could be a do-or-die game for the left-handed starter.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been a flop all season long, as he did pitch well in May, pitching to a 2.36 ERA through five starts while allowing 17 hits and striking out 31 batters. He still struggled with command, issuing 11 free passes, but limited the damage to just seven earned runs through 26.2 innings pitched.
This success was short-lived, as Kikuchi has not found the same rhythm that fans saw two months ago, and recently went on the IL with a “neck strain” after his July 5th start and has missed most of the month.
During that time, he has reportedly worked on his throwing program and changed the grip on his slider, which will be tested later tonight against the Detroit Tigers. He last pitched in a rehab game in AAA on July 22nd and went five innings, allowing just two hits while striking out four with zero earned runs on 77 pitches. He issued three walks in the contest, all within the first two innings before settling down, but not getting hit around is a step in the right direction while the free passes will still need to be reeled in.
Ultimately, this game tonight is pretty big for both the Blue Jays and Kikuchi. If he has issues with his command and isn’t able to pitch deep against a struggling Tigers squad tonight, does the front office consider trading for a starter a higher priority compared to other areas needing attention? Does Kikuchi move to the bullpen for the rest of the season?
A lot rides on how Kikuchi pitches tonight and how he returns from his injury absence, especially after working on his pitches and throwing program.