Why the Blue Jays made the right choice hanging onto Yusei Kikuchi

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two
Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two / David Berding/GettyImages

After a very disappointing 2022, Yusei Kikuchi recaptured the hearts of Blue Jays fans with a very strong bounce-back season in 2023. Considering the Jays have an already strong pitching rotation, some entertained the idea of selling high on Kikuchi to acquire more offensive depth. With spring training games underway, it doesn't seem like he is going anywhere, which ultimately works out nicely for the Jays.

Pitching coach Pete Walker took on an interesting project when the Jays signed the Japanese lefty. Kikuchi joined the Jays in 2022 and brought with him a zipping fastball and high-strikeout potential. But like many high-K% pitchers, Kikuchi struggled with command, allowing nearly 2.1 HR/9 with an egregious 5.2 BB/9. Kikuchi only made 20 starts until he was ultimately demoted to the bullpen, finishing the year with a 5.19 ERA complete with a 1.50 WHIP.

Knowing he had an important role on the team, Kikuchi made immense progress in the offseason that would culminate in a very strong 2023 season. He was able to cut his walk rate to half while also reducing the number of HRs allowed. He was able to do this in a few ways, but mainly by eliminating his cutter and incorporating a curveball. Kikuchi's cutter, although thrown less than 100 times, suffered from a poor -5 RV and 66.7% Hard Hit rate. Eliminating the cutter ultimately helped Kikuchi focus on what he does best: generating whiffs that led to strikeouts.

While it may seem plausible to sell high on Kikuchi after an impressive year, the Jays made the right decision holding onto the Japan native. Let's break it down. The current Blue Jays rotation as it stands, consists of ace Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt, Alek Manoah and Kikuchi. The front three of the rotation are incredibly strong, as both Bassitt and Gausman received AL Cy Young votes in 2023. With the Blue Jays lineup suffering from offensive woes last year, it was vital for each starter to make competitive stars each time they were on the bump. While Kikuchi wasn't Cy Young caliber, he did exactly that, making all 32 of his starts and keeping his ERA under 4.

A quality like this is extremely valuable, especially from a back-end starter. While it is not expected from Kikuchi to put up ace numbers, starts from the back-end should not be "throwaways". A game pitched by Gausman holds the same weight as a game thrown by Kikuchi.

The Blue Jays have other starting pitching depth in players such as Bowden Francis and Mitch White but starting these players carries its fair share of risk. White has underperformed with the Jays since arrival and while Francis put up promising numbers out of the bullpen in 2023, he is still a rookie in need of development. Considering the Jays are in their playoff window, rushing to put Francis in the rotation is an unnecessary risk the Blue Jays don't have to take. With Alek Manoah coming off a weak 2023 season and no significant offensive offseason signings this offseason, the Blue Jays made the right decision to keep their rotation rock-solid. Kikuchi's new developments will only help him and the Blue Jays progress further moving into 2024.