Yusei Kikuchi is suddenly a run prevention machine, and we are here for it

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As the Toronto Blue Jays scratch and claw for their playoff lives, any speculation about the postseason might automatically invoke Jim Mora’s legendary rant – "Playoffs!? I just hope we can win a game!"

And yet, sometimes a situation emerges which is so entirely unexpected that it cannot resist speculation.

Last week, Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez was speaking to Jays Talk about Yusei Kikuchi and his place in a potential playoff rotation, when he shockingly asserted,

“You could argue, if you’re going to open up a series, depending on the opponent, he would be the guy that you’d send out there the way he’s throwing right now.”

Perhaps Buck was just being dramatic. Surely Kevin Gausman is still the Blue Jays’ first choice to open a playoff series. However, his comment does raise an interesting question – if the postseason started today, and the Jays were in it, would Yusei Kikuchi be a lock for one of the three rotation spots in a short Wild Card series?

My, my, how far we have come …

Last year, Kikuchi was one of the worst starters in Major League Baseball, pitching to a 5.19 ERA over 20 starts before being mercifully hooked from the rotation in mid-August. This year, well, it’s not even fair to say he has bounced back, since he is pitching better than he ever has in his career.

His ERA currently sits at 3.44 – 11th in the American League among qualified pitchers, and nearly a full run below his previous career low. Meanwhile, where the Jays were 6-14 in his starts in 2022, this year, they are 16-8, a 108-win pace over 162 games.

In fact, the turnaround has been so remarkable, that a few days ago, Fangraphs felt it necessary to conduct a deep dive into Kikuchi’s 2023 success. Within this masterpiece, two things immediately jumped out:

Not only has Kikuchi cut his walk rate more than in half – from by far the worst in the Majors in 2022 to something in the 75th percentile this year – but the quality of contact he is giving up on fly balls has plummeted dramatically. Astonishingly, nearly a quarter of the fly balls he allowed last year left the ballpark. This year, the number is hovering around a respectable 15%.

In other words, 2023 Kikuchi is attacking the strike zone more, and when batters do put the bat on the ball, they are making lower quality contact and doing less damage.

There’s more though. As the season has worn on, Kikuchi’s improvements have only accelerated. Indeed, over the past month, Kikuchi has not only been the best starting pitcher on the Jays, but no less than the best starter in all of baseball.

Through five starts, he has allowed only four earned runs in 30 innings (1.19 ERA), walking 8 and striking out 32, while letting up zero home runs. And it’s not as if he’s been doing it against bottom feeders – the starts have come at Seattle, at the LA Dodgers, home to Baltimore, at Cleveland, and home to Philadelphia.

Maybe Buck wasn’t being dramatic. Maybe Yusei Kikuchi really could be the first choice to open a series if the playoffs started today.

Of course, that a Blue Jays pitcher might go from being effectively unusable one year to among the best in the league the next is not entirely without precedent. One need only look back as far as 2021 Robbie Ray, who cut his 2020 walk rate and ERA more than in half, putting up career lows in each on his way to winning the American League Cy Young.

Come to think of it, aside from the tight pants, Robbie Ray and Yusei Kikuchi are actually strikingly similar.

Both came to the Jays as high-velocity lefties who could never throw the ball over the plate enough to have sustained success; both flamed out in their first year with the team, before miraculously finding their command in year two.

Watch a Kikuchi start this year, and you will see shades of 2021 Ray – bullying hitters with fastballs and burying sharp sliders, stomping around the mound, full beard shining, fist pumping in big moments.

If the Blue Jays had made the playoffs in 2021, Ray would almost certainly have been first out of the gate … so why not Kikuchi in 2023?

Admittedly, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There is still a long way to go before the postseason begins, and Kikuchi could easily regress. Moreover, the Jays might very well miss the playoffs altogether, rendering the discussion moot.

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that from the depths of despair, Yusei Kikuchi has suddenly become a run prevention machine, and we are all here for it.

So, where do you see Kikuchi in a playoff rotation? And more importantly, will the Jays even make the playoffs? Let me know on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.