Blue Jays: Yusei Kikuchi struggles early and the rotation question ahead

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 08: Yusei Kikuchi #16 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the third inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 8, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 08: Yusei Kikuchi #16 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the third inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 8, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /
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The starting rotation for the Toronto Blue Jays has been all over the place depending on who is taking the mound.

On one side, the team has Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman, both of whom have earned Cy Young consideration throughout the season and have been pitching well for the Jays. Then there is Ross Stripling, as the right-hander earned rotation duties after Hyun Jin Ryu went on the IL, and he has risen to the occasion when needed, posting a 2.49 ERA since June 6th as a starter.

On the other end of the equation, there is Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi. Berrios has been inconsistent all season, posting a quality start or going deep a few games in a row and setting a career single-game strikeout record and then getting touched up for 5+ runs and seeing his ERA rise back above the 5.00+ mark.

Kikuchi on the other hand has struggled for the majority of the season barring a five-game stretch in May where he went 26.2 innings and allowed only seven earned runs to the tune of a 2.36 ERA.

This year, the left-hander has not had great command of his fastball, pitching to a 5.2 BB/9 and has allowed three or more walks in nine of his starts this season. Last night, for example, he allowed three home runs that were absolute no-doubters, a consistent trend for Kikuchi all season long where opposing batters are barrelling his pitches. He generated six whiffs on 84 pitches last night while throwing 52 strikes (62%) and numerous Orioles players had an exit velocity hitting triple digits.

Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi struggled with his command in Baltimore, bringing up the potential rotation question with 53 games left in 2022.

Since the former Mariners starter joined the squad, the Blue Jays are 6-13 when he pitches, with Kikuchi owning a 4-6 record on the season. He has struggled to make it past the fifth inning this year due to the command/walk issues, doing so in only nine of his 19 starts. He does get some swing and miss to his game, evident by the 10.0 K/9, but batters are able to put the ball in play and see his pitches when he doesn’t locate them, sporting a 5.86 FIP and 1.494 WHIP to show for it. The statcast metrics don’t get any prettier, as Kikuchi sits below the 20th percentile in Hard Hit%, BB%, xSLG, and Chase Rate (amongst others).

While Kikuchi’s role in the rotation is likely safe for another start with Stripling on the IL for the next week or so, one has to wonder if the club can afford to keep putting him out on the mound every five days. The Jays don’t have the best record with him on the mound and if he gets knocked around or can’t find his fastball and leaves before the fifth inning, it really taxes the bullpen and can have consequences over the next few days, especially since Max Castillo is no longer in the relief core.

The club does have the option of moving Kikuchi to the bullpen once Stripling is healthy, as the Jays did acquire Mitch White at the deadline who can float between the rotation and bullpen. Manager John Schneider could also move to a six-man rotation down the stretch but that might not be a simple fix for Kikuchi or the rest of the squad, especially if Kikuchi or Berrios struggle to go deep into their respective starts and continue taxing the bullpen. Even if the Jays move Kikuchi to the pen, there is no guarantee he finds the command for his fastball in the shorter stints as he works the long-man/middle relief role. The Jays have 53 games left on the year and he could very well make another 8-10 starts before the season is over.

Next. Jays: Importance of the Next Sixteen Game Stretch. dark

Overall, the Jays are caught in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to what to do with Kikuchi for the remainder of the season, and I imagine a DFA is not in the cards for the Blue Jays front office, even though fans may want that option.

The best thing he can do is have a solid start later this week similar to what he did against Detroit when he returned from the IL in late July and prove he belongs in the rotation, otherwise, his spot might be going to White down the stretch once Stripling is healthy.

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