Yusei Kikuchi took the mound for the Blue Jays Spring Training debut on Saturday with new facial hair, a new pitching tempo, and a new focus.
Kikuchi’s first task against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton was to convince manager John Schneider he can be the club’s reliable fifth starter. It was a role he failed to take firm control of in 2022, his first in a Blue Jays uniform, when he had a 5.25 ERA over 20 starts and was relegated to the bullpen for the final six weeks of the season. He was also the first Blue Jays pitcher to have to contend with the league’s new pace-of-play rules, which include the introduction of a pitch clock. In just two innings of work, he passed both tests convincingly.
Kikuchi faced seven Pirates hitters on this sunny afternoon in central Florida. He struck out five of them, all swinging, and allowed only a soft infield single for his lone baserunner. The left-hander attacked the Pirates’ righties with his slider, throwing the pitch 17 times over his 33 total pitches. He generated seven swinging strikes, a whiff rate of more than 41 percent. Last year, he only threw his slider 30 percent and got a swing-and-miss 33 percent of the time.
He struck out Rodolfo Castro on a slider for the second out of the first inning. He got Austin Hedges to chase one for the first out of the second. Kikuchi was so confident in the pitch that he threw one to Jack Suwinski on a 3-1 count; Suwinski swung and missed, then whiffed at another to end the inning. Kikuchi struck out the side in the second. He pitched more than 100 innings over his 32 outings last season and never struck out all three batters he faced in an inning.
Then there was the clock. It was hard to miss, it’s numbers counting down behind the plate in full view of the pitcher. Under the new rules, a pitcher is allowed just 15 seconds from the time he receives the ball back from the catcher to throw his next pitch; with runners on, the timer increases to 20 seconds. It’s something that Kikuchi has never had to deal with. And it didn’t bother him one bit.
Kikuchi averaged just over 10 seconds per pitch delivery with nobody on. In 2022, he threw a pitch around every 20 seconds, 284th out of 399 qualified pitches. Only once did the clock go down to one second. He threw the ball as quickly as eight seconds.
Kikuchi admitted after the game that the pitch clock helped him. He didn’t have time to overthink his mechanics; he just got the ball and threw it, relying on his stuff. “Time is limited so it just helps me with my tempo,” Kikuchi said, according to Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun. “I don’t have to think too much about mechanics.”
More than four months after the Blue Jays last played a competitive game, there were plenty of familiar reminders that spring was finally here and a new season was about to begin. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. launched a 430-foot homer to centre. A new hot prospect, Addison Barger, followed him out of the park.
Then there was what’s different. The Blue Jays’ 9-7 win took only two hours, 47 minutes to complete. There were 87 games last season in which a team scored at least nine runs and gave up at least seven. Just two took less than three hours. Seventeen lasted more than four hours. The pitch clock worked as intended.
There was also a brand-new Kikuchi, with a fresh beard and a fresh approach on the mound, trying to prove that 2022 was just an aberration and that he deserves a spot in the Blue Jays rotation.