In a candid moment, Yusei Kikuchi would probably admit last year was an unmitigated disaster. Pretty much everything which could go wrong did, during his debut season with the Blue Jays.
Kikuchi struggled so badly in the rotation, he was eventually moved to the bullpen. However, whether it be as a starter or reliever, his numbers didn't make for pretty reading.
As noted by Jays Journal's Henry Wright, Kikuchi's 5.19 ERA was fourth-worst among all AL pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. In addition, his -1.1 rWAR was the worst among AL pitchers with at least 70 innings.
One of the few saving graces for Kikuchi was his career-high 11.1 strikeouts per-nine-innings, which was fifth-best in the AL among pitchers with at least 100 innings. However, even this was compromised by a career-worst 5.2 walks per-nine-innings.
Low expectations heading into 2023
With two seasons remaining on his three-year, $36 million contract, Kikuchi wasn't going anywhere - at least not yet. However, it was fair to say expectations weren't exactly high for him heading into 2023.
Then things got interesting, as the 31-year-old enjoyed an outstanding Spring Training for the Blue Jays. In fact, ridiculously outstanding, as his 0.87 ERA and 31 strikeouts both led all major league pitchers with enough innings to qualify.
The return of the good Kikuchi
As much as fans battled with not getting their hopes up, at least there was a chance Kikuchi could contribute positively as the fifth starter in the rotation. And he proceeded to do just that.
Kikuchi had just the one poor outing through his first five starts of the 2023 season, as he recorded a 3.00 ERA and had 28 strikeouts versus just six walks. He went 4-0, with the Blue Jays winning all five games he started in April.
The only anomaly was opposing batters hitting six home runs against the southpaw. That was pretty much it though, as evidenced by batters also going 0-for-11 versus him with runners in scoring position.
Not so fast.......
Then, as the calendar flipped to May, Kikuchi's fortunes also turned, with just one good start in his next five outings. He still had issues with home runs -- giving up eight in his next five starts -- but now everything else started to go wrong for him as well.
Kikuchi began giving up runs as if they were going out of fashion, as his ERA more than doubled to 6.29. Three of his five starts didn't reach 5.0 innings, he averaged just under seven hits per outing and recorded his first two losses of the season. (The Blue Jays went 2-3 in the five contests.)
So what does all this mean? Were Blue Jays fans wrong to believe the Japan native was back to his All-Star form?
Like night and day
In some respects, part of the answer can be found in that All-Star season of Kikuchi's in 2021, when he was with the Mariners. More specifically, consider what he did both before and after the All-Star break.
Kikuchi went at least six innings in 12 of 16 starts prior to the Midsummer Classic, and at least five in all but one. He recorded a 3.48 ERA, a 2.88-1.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 1.09 WHIP and went 6-4.
Now contrast this with a 1-5 record in 13 starts post-Midsummer Classic, while allowing a 5.98 ERA. Kikuchi saw a slight decrease in his strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.32-1.00, while also recording a much worse 1.70 WHIP.
In other words, the highs show the three-time NPB All-Star has the talent, but he's just too inconsistent. He has an excellent fastball and good slider, along with a decent changeup and curveball, but struggles more than you want with his control.
As unpredictable as ever
As if to highlight the exasperation that comes from how up-and-down Kikuchi is, consider his two most recent starts versus the Brewers and Mets. On the positive side, he allowed just two earned runs in both outings, each of which lasted five innings.
On the negative side, home runs continue to be an issue, with three allowed in the two games combined. In terms of how erratic Kikuchi can be from game to game, he allowed a season-high five walks versus Milwaukee, compared to just one against New York.
In addition, a pitcher renowned for his strikeouts managed just four against the Brewers, but doubled this total versus the Mets. While Kikuchi's performances were ultimately enough to contribute towards two wins for the Blue Jays, you get the idea of just how unpredictable he can be.
Overall, maybe it just has to be accepted the Blue Jays have a pitcher equally capable of throwing like an All-Star and the worst pitcher in the Majors. As such Kikuchi will likely spend plenty of time being cast as both the hero and villain, by fans who wish they had a better idea of what to expect from him start-to-start.