Despite an unsatisfying final appearance in relief this season, Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi turned his fortunes around 180 degrees in 2023, which couldn’t have come at a better time given the struggles of Alek Manoah, and the fact that Hyun Jin Ryu spent most of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Kikuchi set North American career-highs in wins, ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts, and tied his MLB career high with 32 starts. Statistically, he had his best season since 2017, when he’d pitched for the Seibu Lions in the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
He earned his 100th career win between MLB and NPB, and also recorded his 500th MLB career strikeout in a 7-2 win over Milwaukee on May 30th, allowing only two runs on three hits over five innings. Not bad considering he wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in the rotation in Spring Training.
But after a strong spring in which he posted a 0.87 ERA over 20.2 innings with 31 strikeouts and only nine hits allowed, the 27-year-old lefty went 11-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 32 starts over 167.2 innings in the regular season, with 181 strikeouts against only 48 walks. That improved control (only 2.6 walks/9 innings) helped drive his WHIP down to an MLB career low 1.27, and led to an fWAR of +2.6 and ERA+ of 110, i.e. 10% below league average.
He would've had more than nine quality starts had he been allowed to go deeper in more games; he was pulled from nine more starts that could have been quality starts if he’d pitched six innings. And in one of the best games of the season, Kikuchi took on Phillies ace Zack Wheeler in a 2-1 win at home on August 15th, allowing only one run in six innings of four-hit ball, with no walks and seven Ks. That consistency helped the Blue Jays go a combined 21-11 (.656) in his starts.
It all added up to an incredible turnaround from a tough 2022 season, where the native of Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, had posted a poor 5.19 ERA in 32 appearances (including 20 starts) over 100.2 innings. That would have been the second highest ERA amongst qualified starters last year if he’d pitched at least 162 innings, only better than José Berríos’ 5.23.
While some say it was a newly bearded Kikuchi, the turnaround appears to have been driven by a reworked 83mph curveball, which he threw 19.3% of the time in 2023 vs only 0.3% in 2022. The velocity on that pitch was down from just over 85mph in 2022 on a small sample, but that difference in velocity seemed to play well off of his 95mph four-seam fastball which he used 45% of the time, and a slightly harder slider at 88.7mph, up from 86.6mph in 2022.
And while his overall strikeout rate of 25.9% and whiff rate of 28% weren’t much improved from MLB-career averages of 23.1% and 26.5%, respectively, it was that improved control on a career best 6.9% walk rate that drove his comeback year.
If he can keep pitching like this in 2024, the three-year, $36M ($12M AAV) contract Kikuchi signed ahead of the 2022 season will be well worth it; and, with Ryu a pending free agent, that would still leave the Blue Jays with a rotation of Kevin Gausman, Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Kikuchi, that could potentially also include a rebound from 2022 AL Cy Young finalist Manoah, as well as the MLB debut of top prospect Ricky Tiedemann.
Kikuchi also apparently helps to keep the Jays starters loose between games, and is a practical joker to boot. According to a Canadian Press article in early June, the Jays rotation “make a point of going out for meals together as often as they can… Gausman and Kikuchi both consider themselves foodies, but Bassitt and Gausman agree that Kikuchi is the most adventurous of the group.”
"Yeah, I always like to try new things," said Kikuchi through translator Yusuke Oshima. "I'm just trying to learn more about the Canadian culture and American culture. They told me to try frogs, so I even tried frogs. I'm pretty adventurous. You can say that."
He also pranked the Jays beat reporters pretty well after leaving his start on September 19th with cramps, saying it was because he only got 11 hours of sleep the night before instead of his usual 13 or 14 hours!
So while he may become the answer to a sports trivia question someday about who replaced Berríos in Game 2 of the 2023 AL Wild Card series, allowing three hits and a walk in 1.2 innings of two-run relief, let’s hope Yusei Kikuchi can keep up the consistent and solid starting pitching next year as the Blue Jays current competitive window starts to close. They’re going to need the same bearded version of Kikuchi again! 菊池選手頑張ってください！
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